Produced by Lauren Murray, Kate Nalepinski, and Angela Kim for The Global Trot
Nine-year-old Lin Miaoke adjusts her pigtails and red dress before stepping up to the microphone at the opening night of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Miaoke belts out a performance of “Ode to the Motherland,” a patriotic song for the people of China, and is rewarded a standing ovation. Her performance is then followed by a three day extravaganza: the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Chinese magazines spotlight Miaoke, nicknaming her a future star.
However, Miaoke was not the vocalist she claimed to be.
After the Olympic Games concluded, Chen Qigang, the ceremony’s chief music director, said that Miaoke was lip-syncing to a performance by seven-year-old singer Yang Peiyi because Miaoke was far cuter than Peiyi.
“We had to make that choice,” Chen said during an interview with Beijing Radio. “It was fair both for Lin Miaoke and Yang Peiyi. We combined the perfect voice and the perfect performance. The audience will understand that it’s in the national interest.”
Phuong Nguyen, Assistant Professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, said the exchange of Peiyi for Miaoke is an example of how the perception of Asian beauty is impacted by Western media.
“[Miaoke’s] facial type and facial jawline conformed to what China wanted to project to the rest of the world,” Nguyen said. “It said they conform to modern beauty standards.”
The depiction of Asian women has gradually shifted towards incorporating or following Western ideal trends due to the lack of foresight into the realities of Asian communities. Regardless of the intention of filmmakers, Western media has portrayed Asian women in a restrictive manner, retracting their Asian culture and emphasizing their similarities to the United States.
In many Asian countries, beauty trends have been readily influenced by the works of North American and European culture, including cosmetics and apparel. However, many countries still value their cultural standards of beauty.
In 1987, Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times contributor, wrote that women in Asia often associate themselves as beautiful after undergoing procedures for cosmetic surgeries. Kristof wrote, “Looking beautiful is interpreted, very frequently, as looking Western.”
Defining Western Beauty
Western beauty has magnified perfection to uncanny proportions. In the U.S., women attempt to achieve the latest trends and looks by incorporating Western beauty standards into their daily routines.
Over time, the ideal women has changed drastically. Clothing, accessories, makeup, hairstyles and body shapes have changed to morph to the newest idea of standard beauty perfection. The current standard, which is upheld by photoshop, is a tall and lean women with large assets and a contoured face.
“I used to think that if I went to Asia, or learned more about Asian culture, then I would discover a society that was less tainted by Western standards,” Nguyen said. “I thought only Asian-Americans were influenced by body image issues. That’s not the case.”
In China, surgery has become a phenomenon to obtain Western physical features. Folded eyelids, rounder eyes, a larger nose and a defined chin have presumed to be ideal in western culture. The cost of such procedures are expensive and cost months-worth of salaries.
“Plastic surgery has become a huge part of Asian culture, especially in more highly-developed countries,” Nguyen said.
According to the article “In China, Beauty is a Big Western Nose,” published by the New York Times, Chinese women who live in cities tend to show off western beauty ideals. Women from the countryside are not influenced as heavily.
Pei Zheng, Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism at Ithaca College, moved to the U.S. in 2012 from Beijing, China. She said her everyday wear changed upon her move to the U.S. as well as the style of clothing she wears.
“I think the beauty standards in China, and also maybe in East Asia in general, are more sophisticated in a way that they pay more attention to details,” she said. “And another is that they prefer to be white. Like, the whiter they look, the better.”
She said men and women in the U.S. dress more casual for everyday apparel than they do in China.
“They prefer more comfortable wearings,” Zheng said. “Also, I think here … people do not care if they look sexy in their casual looking. But in Asia, people wear more generally.”
As for cosmetics, Zheng said, women in China tend to not wear makeup while in high school or college. She said it is due to their age and significance of makeup differs.
Asian-American Amanda Ling, a junior at Ithaca College, said she has never been criticized by her peers for showing an interest in Western beauty. Rather, her grandparents and older generations are not fond of the Western style she wears.
“I think grandparents will definitely scold you if too much makeup,” she said. “You definitely want a lighter foundation. I get in trouble all the time for doing a smokey eye because my grandma says it makes me look older.”
Zheng said women in China who gravitate towards Western trends are celebrities.
“They follow the Western standard a lot because I think in recent years, many people go to movie festivals, like the actors and actresses,” she said. “They have more international exposure, and also they hire … designers from the western countries. So, I think they become more westernized that way.”
As for Asian-American women living in the U.S., Zheng said those who compete in beauty competitions often stir conversation on beauty standards back where they are from in Asia.
“It is usually an interesting discussion why they got the top three places because it usually doesn’t obey the beauty standards in Asia,” she said.
The “Model Minority” Myth
The stereotype of the model minority is one that contributes to confidence and perceptions of beauty in Western media. There are several misconceptions that are associated with the myth, all of which place people from Asian countries into the same category.
“It’s the idea that Asian-Americans naturally … tend to do better in school and then tend to do better economically,” said Christine Kitano, Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College. “It takes away from the achievements of Asian-Americans because the idea says, ‘Oh, they did well because they’re Asian.’”
Kitano said the model minority myth could easily be contributing to how Western media impacts Asian beauty standards and body, specifically in South Korea.
“Adding to a culture that’s already steeped in issues of beauty, and putting in a more globalized images of what femininity in the U.S. looks like, adds unrealistic expectations of what people are supposed to look like,” Kitano said.
Seoul, South Korea, is the plastic surgery capital of the world. According to Business Insider, the high-status neighborhood of Gangnam reportedly has 500 aesthetic surgery offices alone. In total, the country has seen 980,000 recorded operations in 2015 — that’s 20 procedures per 1,000 people.
“From personal experience, I had plenty of friends who were Korean-Americans that went back to South Korea to get plastic surgery,” Kitano said. “It seems South Koreans are trying to achieve a more Westernized-look, in terms of facial surgery — bigger eyes, higher nose bridges — but I think it’s more complicated than that.”
Nguyen explained how these Asian beauty standards have an impact on females, perpetuating the stereotypes that surround Asian women.
“I think these beauty standards impact how women are generalized in terms of people who do consume Asian culture,” Nguyen said. “It’s just an updated version of this submissive woman standard.”
Asian Cosmetic and Makeup Industry
According to the article “Asia: Where The Cosmetics and Skin Care Industry Reigns Supreme,” published by AsianScientist, Asia is the most profitable continent for producing cosmetic care and its products are the highest in demand.
The article states that the demand for skin care products in Asian countries is larger than that of Western products. “Although Asian consumers have traditionally favored Western cosmetics, Asia-led trends like the eye-raising snail cream have taken the cosmetic industry by storm and are increasingly popular in the West.”
Asian beauty trends are also making their way over to the West, contributing to alternative beauty standards.
Capitalism and Economy
Nguyen said Asian countries are thriving economically off the prices of cosmetic and plastic surgeries.
“There’s a lot of money to be made in making people feel insecure,” Nguyen said.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, cosmetic procedures experienced a 12 percent growth in 2013 alone, with patients spending $12 billion within this period. This is strictly in America.
“I think that it has to do with the impact of capitalism in some way,” Kitano said.
A woman’s vulnerability to purchase cosmetics is profitable in the industry, and with women averaging spending $15,000 in their lifetime on makeup, according to InStyle, private owners have found a penetrable industry to infiltrate.
Kitano said though there is not an exact solution. However, she said exchanging experience with others is the best solution to combat the problem of skewed female body image in Asian countries.
“Media itself is going to spread, there’s nothing you can do about that,” Kitano said. “There’s a lot going on that’s beyond just the influence of media, but media certainly is a way to reach wide audiences very quickly. Having a diversity of perspectives, a diversity of views of what we value … it just shows there’s not one way of looking at things.