The endemic presence of unrealistic beauty standards within the Western world is a popular topic of discussion and research, commonly associated with intense insecurity, disordered eating and other mental health issues in (primarily) women. While the general unfeasibility of these standards is commonly lamented, however, it is less commonly noted that these are all the more unreachable for those of non-Euro-Western heritage. The assumed equivalence between whiteness and beauty has been illustrated in recent years by ‘scientific’ attempts to establish ‘universal’ standards of beauty (extolling such traits as a narrow nose, smaller forehead and large eyes). It is prevalent also in the modelling industry, with models of colour often reporting that makeup artists are untrained and unequipped to work on their skin, and even international beauty icons like Beyoncé having their skin lightened in advertisements and on magazine covers.
With the rise of globalisation and modernisation, the Western image of ‘perfection’ has increasingly been broadcast all over the world, often depicted as an emblem of modernity and wealth. In many Asian countries, including India, China and Japan, paleness is viewed as a sign of distinction and superiority. Skin-bleaching in Asia has become a multi-million pound industry, with lightening creams such as ‘Fair & Lovely’ making up almost 2/3 of all dermatological products in India and the mainstream media widely promoting the association of ‘fairness’ with beauty, intelligence and success.
The past two decades have also overseen a dramatic increase in plastic surgery, both in many Asian countries and amongst Asian-Americans and other American minorities. There is an optimistic reading of these figures: that these increases are just a natural by-product of increased individual and national prosperity, and thus should actually be viewed as a positive sign. American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) president Dr. Scot Glasberg has argued that the increase in plastic surgery amongst minorities simply results from a reduction in costs and stigma, while the spread of surgeries across Asia has been positively associated with the increased liberalisation and global participation of these countries.
However, even without addressing the rights and wrongs of the broader concept of plastic surgery, in the case of Asian countries and minorities this is further complicated by the increasing popularity of ethnic plastic surgery (which strives to make features resemble those of another race) specifically. Within East Asian communities, for example, some of the most popular surgeries are are rhinoplasty and blepharoplasty: nose surgery, usually geared towards achieving the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ nose, and eye surgery to achieve double eyelids (a feature shared by the vast majority of non-Asians, but only around half of the East Asian population). Combined with (for example) the increase in rates of eating disorders and liposuction in Asia, corresponding with increased exposure to Western culture – despite traditional associations between heavy weight and wealth –, it appears self-evident that this has had a decidedly negative impact on the self-image of many Asian women.
In spite of this, numerous researchers have found that a large number – probably the majority – of women undergoing ‘ethnic’ plastic surgery or lightening treatments do not consciously intend to appear ‘Western’, with many of those interviewed emphasising the importance of retaining their ethnic identity. In the case of blepharoplasty, there is the fact that many Asians also naturally have double eyelids to take into account, while the emphasis on ‘fairness’ has separate cultural roots in (for example) the Indian caste system and population diversity. There is also the fact that several of the surgeries common amongst white women, such as buttocks and lip augmentation, similarly seek to emulate features typical of another race – and, of course, many Western women engage in ‘fake tanning’ of one kind or another, a practice at least as normalised in much of the Western world as skin lightening is in much of Asia.
With this in mind, protests against so-called ethnic surgeries could be viewed as Eurocentric in themselves, and as just another attempt to undermine the control of women (and especially women of colour) over their own bodies. What business is it of anyone else’s if somebody makes the personal, informed choice to have their skin lightened or tanned, their noses reshaped or their stomachs reduced? The problem with this discourse of equality and choice is that it fails to acknowledge the structural inequalities underlying personal choice – not to mention the not insignificant physical risks and financial costs associated with plastic surgery.
Not all pressures are equal, and so not all choices can be viewed in the same light. For women of colour, these choices occur under both racial and gendered pressures: the influences of racism and imperialism, as well as of women’s historical subordination and objectification. It is within this broader context that the increased popularity of skin lightening creams and (especially ethnic) plastic surgeries are troubling – especially as, for every woman who is able to get the treatment she desires to ‘fix’ her insecurities, there are many continuing to live in dissatisfaction and discomfort with their bodies.