Example Fashion Essay
Changing image of Asian women - why these changes have occurred and investigate the effect Westernfashion imagery has on Asian women.
A recent andrapidly-developing trend among an alarming number of Asian women has become amajor focus of attention: the lengths to which they will go in pursuit of beautyorrather, the Western version of it. Growing numbers of Asian women are relyingon artificial procedures to altersometimes temporarily, sometimespermanentlytheir appearances to fit an unrealistic Western ideal.
At one end of thespectrum are quick cosmetic applications which may or may not have lasting sideeffects. At the other end are surgical procedures, ranging from minor to major,all of which pose varying degrees of risk. Whatever the procedurefromapplications of skin-lightening chemicals to permanent changes in tissue andbone structure, one message is very clear: white features continue to be theprevailing ideal, and for many Asian women, achieving this ideal is a goal tobe attained at any cost.
All of theseprocessesfrom the temporary, relatively benign ones to the riskier, sometimeslife-threatening proceduresare actively promoted by the fashion industry. Ubiquitousadvertisements link professional and personal success to women with Western, orCaucasian, features, along with a not-so-subtle message that to succeed, onemust follow this Western paradigm.
Furthermore, theseprocedures are tacitly condoned by a society which allows them to proliferateasociety which allows its members to fall victim to these pressures to conformto an ideal of beauty that is unrealistic, unattainable, and of questionableworth.
In their attemptsto achieve this goal, Asian women risk physical health, mental well-being, andfinancial securityoften to the detriment of the lives of the friends andfamily who surround them. This dangerous trend must be put to an end, and thatwill not happen while the fashion industry continues to promote the value ofCaucasian features to non-Caucasian individuals, particularly women.
This paper willexplore the factors that cause Asian women to feel pressured to conform to theWestern ideal of beauty, as well as the cosmetic and surgical procedures theyresort to in this pursuit. Finally, it will explore the complex issues raisedby these societal pressures, and suggest that the key to change lies within thepsyche of the Asian woman.
Body Modification:A Historical Perspective
Modification ofthe female body is nothing new; women have willed themselves to meet the prevailingmodes to satisfy societal standards for years. Body modification has beenpracticed in a number of ways and for a variety of reasons since ancient times;it has existed on many levels for thousands of years.Historical evidence suggests that, as many as 20,000 years ago, red dyeextracted from hematite was used to paint and decorate the body.
Afterthat, archeological evidence proves that as many as 10,000 years ago, parts ofanimal bones, animal teeth, and colorful stones were used as adornments. Thefirst hair grooming objects appear to have been combs, the earliest of whichdate back to nearly 5,000 years ago. As for mirrors, ancient people observedtheir image as it was reflected in pools of water. This, however, changed whenthe first mirror is believed to have been invented, approximately 4,500 yearsago (Yaghmaie, 49-52).
Society hasprogressed since those early days. One need only turn on the television or leafthrough a magazine to be bombarded with all kinds of advertisements for bodymodification. Chemical treatments can straighten hair and change skin tone andtexture. Surgical procedures can decrease or (more often) augment breast size.Unwanted fat can be removed in any number ways, ranging from dietary changes toliposuction. Some signs of ageing can be temporarily reversed with injectionsof Botox; others can be permanently altered, again through surgery.
Body Modification Across Cultures
Today in the Westernworld, body modification is widely practiced in all classes of society, oftenas a result of societal pressure to achieve perfection. However, this is not anissue unique to Western cultures: physical appearance matters across cultures,across ages, across genders. Hence, we see that Asian cultures are just asimmune to societal pressures to conform.
Lisa TakeuchiCullen points out that in the past, Asia had lagged behind the West incatching the plastic surgery wave, held back by cultural hang-ups, arrestedmedical skills and a poorer consumer base. However, it is now clear thatcosmetic surgery is enjoying increasing poularity. According to Cullen:
In Taiwan, a million procedures wereperformed last year, double the number from fiveyears ago. In Korea, surgeons estimate that at least one in10 adults have received some form of surgical upgrade and even tots havetheir eyelids done. The government of Thailand has taken to hawking plasticsurgery tours. In Japan, noninvasive procedures dubbed 'petite surgery'have set off such a rage that top clinics are raking in $100 million ayear.
Thus, Asian women,including those living in their native countries as well as those in theWestern world, have begun to respond in increasing numbers to the pressures offashion. As a result, they may subject themselves to a range of procedures, payexorbitant fees, and suffer both mental and physical pain. As Cullen points out,Asians have always suffered for beauty:
Consider the ancient practice of footbinding in China, or the stacked, brass coils usedto distend the necks of Karen women. In fact, some of the earliestrecords of reconstructive plastic surgery come from sixth century India:the Hindu medical chronicle Susruta Samhita describes how noses wererecreated after being chopped off as punishment for adultery.
Current practicesembraced by Asian women indicate that pain continues to remain an inherentelement in their quest for physical perfection. Phoebe Eng discusses this in WarriorLessons: An Asian American Woman's Journey Into Power, explaining thatoperations like eye-lifts have become as common as root canals: They are themost frequently occurring plastic surgery procedure among Asian women inAmerica.
In fact, Engnotes, eye-lifts are so accepted among Asian women in cultural hubs like LosAngeles that it is not uncommon for women who have had them to let friends knowproudly where they got theirs done, and for how much, and by whom (119). Thesecond most common procedure is nose buildups, in which a section of earcartilage, bone or plastic is surgically inserted to enlarge the nose (Eng,1999, 118-119).
One of the majorbody issues concerning Western women is weightbut this is one issue that playsa subordinate role for Asian women. According to Eng, the more prevalentissues seem to involve the facial features that make us indelible and patently'Asian,' and therefore different. Facial features, asserts Eng, are what mostclearlyand uncomfortablyplace Asian women outside the concept of an American'norm' (121). Once outside this norm, the Asian woman is seen as foreignand exotic, and all that implies (Eng 121).
But what liesbehind this fixation on physical attributes? Eng asserts that the definitionof us as a group, whether we like it or not, bonds us more by our faces than byany particular shared set of perspectives.. She asserts that Asian women aredefined, by themselves as well as by others, by a set of common physicalfeatures, and that they are define more by physical appearance than by anysingle set of historical experiences or political agendas (122).
Thus the veryfeatures that highlight Asian women, that make them stand out as separate andunique, ultimately end up being divisive and destructive. Instead ofcelebrating the shared features that draw them together, many Asian women optto instead modify them. They do this in a number of ways, and with varyingsuccess, and often with less than satisfactory resultsbut always start outwith the same ultimate goal: to break free of the physical ties to theirheritage, and in effect to other Asians, in order to become more acceptablein Western society.
Eng also pointsout that unlike other minorities such as blacks and Latinas, Asian Americanwomen do not have a strong sense of cultural identity that might give them afirmer inner sense of their own beauty and a self-respect that goes beyondappearances (122-123). Lacking this, they are more vulnerable to theoverwhelming outside pressures of society and of their own strong desires tosucceed.
Our solution uptill now has been to obliterate the differences either through attempts atassimilation or, more extremely, by cosmetic alteration, asserts Eng. In thisway Asian women fail to develop a framework for appreciating physicaldifferences, so that the onus of change is societal rather than individual (Eng122).
Cosmetic Alteration: Skin Tone
Eng followed asurvey conducted by an Asian-based lingerie company and reported the results asfollows:
- Beijing women (already tall by Asianstandards) want to be even taller.
- Taipei women want to be curvierthey seekthe classic hourglass figure.
- Hong Kong and Singaporean women leantowards breast augmentation.
- Bangkok women want wider hips.
Despite thesedifferences, Eng informs us, there was one consistent wish by all Asiansub-groups: everyone wants to be lighter (126).
According to Engmakeup companies in Asia capitalize on deep-seated Light Skin Worship,marketing skin-bleaching products like UVWhite and Neowhite (126).Advertisements for these creams generally feature a Caucasian woman basking ina halo of light, looking upward, saintly and pure (Eng 126). UVWhite,available only in Asia, is a much sought-after product by Asian womennot onlythose in Asia (where the product is widely available) but also in the U.S. (whereit is not).
The desire forlighter skin is so deeply ingrained that it need not be advertised. The text below,from an advertisement for Neowhite, a Fairness Cream by Avon, does not sellthe concept of lightening. Rather, it focuses on the advantages of thisparticular product, assuming the desire to lighten the skin is a given:
Neowhite is formulated to whiten skinwithout the known harmful side effects of lesserbrands. . . .There are two Neowhite creamsFairness ProtectionCream formulated with effective sunscreen (SPF 15) and moisturizersto keep skin fair and soft and Moisturizing Pearl Cream whichis a combination of moisturizer and light tint that provides the skin withmoisture and a natural, even skin tone. (125).
The language ofthis advertisement is clearly designed for the upwardly mobile, appealing totheir desire to change their appearance while satisfying their concerns aboutpossible harmful effects to the skin.
Despite the price,skin care products that boast whitening properties continue to sell, andadvertisements for them are ubiquitous. Consumerswill be willing to spend on premium products as long as these products are ableto deliver the required results, and at greater convenience, notes LuannTheseira, adding that sales of super premium products remain largelyunchanged despite their prohibitive costs.
Eng also pointsout that whiteness also comes at a price, reiterating the connection betweenprivilege and complexion (127). However, it may be argued that the cost goesfar beyond the monetary amount of the product or service purchased; it isimpossible to place a price on the physical and psychological pain suffered.
Cosmetic Alteration: Focus on Eyes
Using makeup toenhance one's eyes is hardly a novel concept. As noted earlier, this practicehas been in effect since ancient times.
Skillful use ofshading can disguise perceived flaws and accentuate strong points; it cancreate, or at least enhance, the appearance of desired illusions, even if theeffects are fleeting. It is a well-established practice. However, items such asglue and tape are not normally found in the makeup bags of Western womenatleast not as eye treatments.
Makeup routinesfor Asian women who want to change the appearance of their eyes to mimicWestern eyes will probably contain at least one of these items. Glue, ortape, are often used to hike up the eyelid....the skin stays folded for mostof the day. Some Asian teens say they do this to make their eyes look biggerand prettier. Others would simply say it makes them look more Caucasian(Valhouli).
Cosmetic Alteration: Permanent
In Making theBody Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic
Surgery, Sander Gilman states that Asian-American women, whose 'blank' lookis equated in American society with 'dullness, passivity, and lack of emotion,'have 'their eyelids restructured, their nose bridges heightened, and the tipsof their noses altered' (99).
In some Asian cultures,the acceptance of any surgical procedure at all is a relatively recentdevelopment. The traditional Chinese prohibition against opening the bodylimited all forms of surgical intervention until fairly recently (Gilman 99).Modern medicine in China is in many ways Western medicine combined withtraditional methods.
In Japan, plasticsurgery was not even recognized until 1975, and then only for reconstructivepurposes. It was not until 1978 that aesthetic surgeryelective plasticsurgerywas sanctioned as an acceptable subspecialty (Gilman 100). However,procedures to correct the shape of the eye had been performed on a frequentand regular basis since the end of the nineteenth century. These procedureswere considered, significantly, to be within the bounds of official medicalpractice.
In the 1930s,Gilman explains, American surgeon Henry Junius Schireson claimed that the shapeof the Japanese eyelid actually impaired proper visiona claim that was totallyfalse. However, it is significant in that it reflects again the view of Asianfeatures as somehow inferior and in need of correction. The claim that theeyelid form has a negative impact on sight is nonsense, asserts Gilman, but heconcludes that it was clearly evident that the focus of the surgery was tocreate beautiful womenbeautiful according to Western standards (102).
After World WarII, with the American occupation of Japan, there was a renewed interest insurgical procedures which would transform Japanese eyes into Western eyes. Itwas just a matter of time before the number and range of surgical proceduresincreased throughout Asia to include other types of physical enhancements,particularly breast augmentation. Again, here, as Gilman notes, this respondedto the introduction of the Western notion of the larger breast as a sign of theerotic (103).
Dr. IchiroKamoshita, director of Japan's Hibiya Kokusai Clinic, believes that theprevalence of this type of elective surgery is a direct result of the massiveadvertising efforts of aesthetic salons. The advertising encouragesinferiority complexes in Japanese women of all agesin fact, surgicalprocedures in adolescents are rising in number. There is now a pattern ofpresenting procedures as gifts from patents to children, especially those seento be 'hindered by small eyes, a flat nose or a big face' (Gilman 104). Use ofthe word hinder is quite telling here; the notion that Japanese featureswill impede an individual's future accomplishments is practically a given.
Cullen notes thatin Asia, surgically enhanced beauty is both a way to display wealth and a toolwith which to attain it. However, advertisers continue to lure those who areless wealthy. Individuals who have strong aspirations to get ahead oftensuccumb to the promise of upward mobility that is not-so-subtly implied inthese advertisements. It is not uncommon for individuals to take out loans orempty savings accounts in order to finance these procedures. The rationale forpaying such exorbitant fees is based on their belief that this will help themget ahead. Often they believe this is the only way they will get ahead.
Sexual allure isalso part of the advertising package: just as Asian faces require uniqueprocedures, their bodies demand innovative operations to achieve the leggy,skinny, busty Western ideal that has become increasingly universal (Cullen). Asurgeon in Seoul, Dr. Suh In Seock, has struggled to find the best way to fixan affliction the Koreans call muu-dari and the Japanese call daikon-ashi:radish-shaped calves. Liposuction has proven to be ineffective in changing theappearance of the calves of Asian women the way it does for Western women,since the tissue to be removed is mostly muscle, not fat.
Rather than acceptthick calves, some Asian women will resort to the type of surgery Suh nowperforms exclusively. The procedure involves severing a nerve behind the knee;this, explains Suh, will eventually cause the muscle to atrophy, "therebyreducing its size up to 40% (Cullen).
The most drasticform of surgery, it may be argued, is a surgical procedure that actuallyincreases the patient's height. In a Time Magazine feature, it wasexplained that this procedure originally developed in Russia to help patientswith legs disfigured by accidents or birth defects, such as dwarfism (Beech2001). Though in Western hospitals the practice is limited to cases in which itis explicitly for medical conditions, in Asian countries it has become apopular and profitable procedure.
Despite theexorbitant fees, the considerable risk, the lengthy recovery time, hospitalsand clinics that provide this procedure often have waiting lists of a year ormore. The procedure is particularly popular with individuals who aspire toprofessions for which they do not meet the height requirements. In addition, itis clear that increased height is sought by those with strong drives to getahead, particularly in Western societies. Yet this may be seen as yet anotherwayand a drastic one at thatin which Asians respond to the pressure to appearmore Western.
Some who havestudied overseas felt inferior because of their lack of stature the articlepoints out. A surgeon at a Beijing hospital explains that for individuals whofeel disadvantaged because of their height, "for them, the main purpose ofthe operation is not to improve their physical health...it is to help theirpsychological growth [Beech].
However, the valueof such drastic surgery as an antidote to feelings of inferiority is fraughtwith ethical issues. The fact that many will resort to such drastic measures tohave an equal footing in society speaks volumes about the tremendous pressureplaced on women to meet unrealistic ideals. It is also a telling statementabout the power of advertising in not only shaping but reinforcing thesebeliefs. In the larger framework of society, this has ominous implications forthe future.
Social, Legal and Moral Issues of Cosmetic Alteration
Doctors BennettJohnson and Ronald Moy explain that cultural traditions and resistance oftenhave a profound psychologic influence on the nonwhite person who iscontemplating cosmetic surgery, and these changes can be far-reaching.Changing ethnic appearance (e.g., 'Westernization' of the Asian eylid orreduction cheiloplasty in blacks) can cause feelings of guilt (Johnson &Moy, 245).
The decision tochoose surgical body modification may in fact affect the entire family,particularly older family members who are less willing to understand or acceptthe need to conform to Western ideals: because elders play a dominant role inmany nonwhite societies, their acceptance or rejection of cosmetic procedureshas a psychologic influence on the ethnic patient (Johnson & Moy 245).
The fact that somany women continue to opt for elective surgery is especially frightening whenconsidering the possible complications. As Johnson and Moy assert:
Complications are not uncommon withblepharoplasty in Asians; up to 10% will requirerevision procedures. Complications that are of special concernwith blepharoplasty in Asians include eyelid asymmetry, loss of thepalpebral fold, laxity of pretarsal skin, retraction of the upper eyelid, hypertrophicscars, and excessive fat removal (257).
Eng,too, writes of the side effects, which can sometimes be quite drastic, that canresult from botched surgeries or infections. Theprocedures are more risky and complicated than beauty magazines and friends'accounts let on, asserts Eng, citing post-surgical infections and permanentscars as the most common. In some cases, operations to re-contour the jawlinecan cause the jaw to weaken to the point that it becomes difficult to evenchew. And like any invasive surgery, the months that follow can beuncomfortable and chock-full of antibiotics, as the body attempts to heal (Eng119).
The legalcomplications that result from surgeries which fail to produce the desiredresults are incredibly complex. The complexity is further deepened by the murkypsychological and social issues involved in both making the decision andfollowing through on it.
Surgeries whichnot only fail to fulfill expectations, but also result in additional pain andsuffering, are even more complicated, as well as emotionally-charged. The financiallosses individuals, and sometimes their families and friends, are burdened within the wake of these procedures, are rarely compensated. Part of the problem,notes Cullen, is that, unlike the medical malpractice suits in the West, legalrecourse in Asia is much more difficult to obtain. Most Asian lawyers avoidmalpractice cases, writes Cullen, since so few result in victory andfinancial payoff.
Cullen assertsthat it is the bargain-hunting instinct that leads patients astray, temptingthem to use unqualified cosmetic practitioners. However, bargain rates arestill exorbitant sums to individuals who pour their life savings into somethingthey view as an investment in their future, and the future of their children. Peoplewho pay high prices in the attempthowever misguidedto further their success,often disregard the risks that accompany the procedures. Driven to succeed,they are compelled to move on, fully cognizant ofand choosing to ignoretherisks.
According toCullen, elsewhere in Asia, this explosion of personal re-engineering is harderto document, because for every skilled and legitimate surgeon there seethes aswarm of shady pretenders. As an example, she cites Indonesia, which has amere 43 licensed plastic surgeons registeredyet which somehow manages toperform 400 illicit procedures each week in the capital city.
Another example isShenzhen, China, which Cullen describes as a boomtown housing thousands ofunlicensed "beauty-science centers." These centers cunningly targetthe upwardly mobileand openly vulnerableto market a new pair of eyes or anew nose as the perfect accessory to their new cars and new clothes. The easeand immediacy of access increase the probability that women will succumb to thepressure to undergo risky procedures in questionably safe environments, andthere is little recourse available to them if the procedures fail, or worse,cause additional harm.
These murky legalissues will demand to be addressed eventually. Many believe that strictgovernment regulations, faithfully and consistently enforced, will be the onlycontrols on this highly-profitable industry. However, considering the fact thatthis industry is so profitable, government regulation will probably be along way off. In the meantime, the government's inaction suggests a tacitapproval. This approval only serves to help the proliferation of unethical,unsafe surgery centers,and it further reinforces the negative messages thatwomen are already bombarded with through advertisements.
Indeed, theseissues are far-reaching; steeped in cultural taboos and mired in medical complications,the root of the problem is often obscured. The plain and glaring truth,however, is that risky procedures are continually undertaken by Asian women,often with tragic and irreversible consequences, physical and psychic damage,and considerable financial loss.
Benignly disguisedin the language of self-improvement, the fashion industry continually bombardsthem with the message that this is what they must do to fit in. Essentially,the message that is so powerfully reinforced is that in order to get ahead,they must change who they are...if you are an Asian woman who wants to succeed:this is your last resort.
Large numbers of Asianwomen continue to cling to this belief that assimilation of Western featureswill facilitate their advancement in the world; that it will make them sexier,more successful, and of course more content. The lengths to which some of themwill go to achieve this are frightening on a number of levels, as demonstratedhere. It has also been made clear that selling the concept of Westernizationis a profitable business: industries promoting it are largely unregulated bygovernment, resulting in gross abuses and often tragic results.
The key to change,then, lies within the psyche of the Asian woman. More and more Asian women arebecoming aware of the manipulative methods and subliminal messages that theyare bombarded with on a daily basis. This awareness is what will give them the powerto decide not to buy into an unrealistic and unattainable ideal, and to takecharge of their bodies and their futures.