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Changing image of Asian women – why these changes have occurred and investigate the effect Western fashion imagery has on Asian women.
A recent and rapidly-developing trend among an alarming number of Asian women has become a major focus of attention: the lengths to which they will go in pursuit of beauty or rather, the Western version of it. Growing numbers of Asian women are relying on artificial procedures to alter sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently their appearances to fit an unrealistic Western ideal.
At one end of the spectrum are quick cosmetic applications which may or
may not have lasting side effects. At the other end are surgical procedures, ranging from minor to major, all of which pose varying degrees of risk. Whatever the procedure from applications of skin-lightening chemicals to permanent changes in tissue and bone structure, one message is very clear: white features continue to be the prevailing ideal, and for many Asian women, achieving this ideal is a goal to be attained at any cost.
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All of these processes from the temporary, relatively benign ones to the riskier, sometimes life-threatening procedures are actively promoted by the fashion industry. Ubiquitous advertisements link professional and personal success to women with Western, or Caucasian, features, along with a not-so-subtle message that to succeed, one must follow this Western paradigm.
Furthermore, these procedures are tacitly condoned by a society which allows them to proliferate a society which allows its members to fall victim to these pressures to conform to an ideal of beauty that is unrealistic, unattainable, and of questionable worth.
In their attempts to achieve this goal, Asian women risk physical health, mental well-being, and financial security often to the detriment of the lives of the friends and family who surround them. This dangerous trend must be put to an end, and that will not happen while the fashion industry continues to promote the value of Caucasian features to non-Caucasian individuals, particularly women.
This paper will explore the factors that cause Asian women to feel pressured to conform to the Western ideal of beauty, as well as the cosmetic and surgical procedures they resort to in this pursuit. Finally, it will explore the complex issues raised by these societal pressures, and suggest that the key to change lies within the psyche of the Asian woman.
Body Modification: A Historical Perspective
Modification of the female body is nothing new; women have willed themselves to meet the prevailing modes to satisfy societal standards for years. Body modification has been practiced 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 dye extracted from hematite was used to paint and decorate the body.
After that, archaeological evidence proves that as many as 10,000 years ago, parts of animal bones, animal teeth, and colourful stones were used as adornments. The first hair grooming objects appear to have been combs, the earliest of which date back to nearly 5,000 years ago. As for mirrors, ancient people observed their image as it was reflected in pools of water. This, however, changed when the first mirror is believed to have been invented, approximately 4,500 years ago (Yaghmaie, 49-52).
Society has progressed since those early days. One need only turn on the television or leaf through a magazine to be bombarded with all kinds of advertisements for body modification. Chemical treatments can straighten hair and change skin tone and texture. Surgical procedures can decrease or (more often) augment breast size. Unwanted fat can be removed in any number ways, ranging from dietary changes to liposuction. Some signs of ageing can be temporarily reversed with injections of Botox; others can be permanently altered, again through surgery.
Body Modification Across Cultures
Today in the Western world, body modification is widely practiced in all classes of society, often as a result of societal pressure to achieve perfection. However, this is not an issue unique to Western cultures: physical appearance matters across cultures, across ages, across genders. Hence, we see that Asian cultures are just as immune to societal pressures to conform.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen points out that in the past, Asia had lagged behind the West in catching the plastic surgery wave, held back by cultural hang-ups, arrested medical skills and a poorer consumer base. However, it is now clear that cosmetic surgery is enjoying increasing popularity. According to Cullen:
In Taiwan, a million procedures were performed last year, double the number from five years ago. In Korea, surgeons estimate that at least one in10 adults have received some form of surgical upgrade and even tots have their eyelids done. The government of Thailand has taken to hawking plastic surgery tours. In Japan, non invasive procedures dubbed ‘petite surgery’ have set off such a rage that top clinics are raking in $100 million a year.
Thus, Asian women, including those living in their native countries as well as those in the Western world, have begun to respond in increasing numbers to the pressures of fashion. As a result, they may subject themselves to a range of procedures, pay exorbitant fees, and suffer both mental and physical pain. As Cullen points out, Asians have always suffered for beauty:
Consider the ancient practice of foot binding in China, or the stacked, brass coils used to distend the necks of Karen women. In fact, some of the earliest records of reconstructive plastic surgery come from sixth century India: the Hindu medical chronicle Susruta Samhita describes how noses were recreated after being chopped off as punishment for adultery.
Current practices embraced by Asian women indicate that pain continues to remain an inherent element in their quest for physical perfection. Phoebe Eng discusses this in Warrior Lessons: An Asian American Woman’s Journey Into Power, explaining that operations like eye-lifts have become as common as root canals: They are the most frequently occurring plastic surgery procedure among Asian women in America.
In fact, Eng notes, eye-lifts are so accepted among Asian women in cultural hubs like Los Angeles that it is not uncommon for women who have had them to let friends know proudly where they got theirs done, and for how much, and by whom (119). The second most common procedure is nose build ups, in which a section of ear cartilage, bone or plastic is surgically inserted to enlarge the nose (Eng,1999, 118-119).
One of the major body issues concerning Western women is weight but this is one issue that plays a subordinate role for Asian women. According to Eng, the more prevalent issues seem to involve the facial features that make us indelible and patently ‘Asian,’ and therefore different. Facial features, asserts Eng, are what most clearly and uncomfortably place Asian women outside the concept of an American ‘norm’ (121). Once outside this norm, the Asian woman is seen as foreign and exotic, and all that implies (Eng 121).
But what lies behind this fixation on physical attributes? Eng asserts that the definition of us as a group, whether we like it or not, bonds us more by our faces than by any particular shared set of perspectives.. She asserts that Asian women are defined, by themselves as well as by others, by a set of common physical features, and that they are define more by physical appearance than by any single set of historical experiences or political agendas (122).
Thus the very features that highlight Asian women, that make them stand out as separate and unique, ultimately end up being divisive and destructive. Instead of celebrating the shared features that draw them together, many Asian women opt to instead modify them. They do this in a number of ways, and with varying success, and often with less than satisfactory results but always start out with the same ultimate goal: to break free of the physical ties to their heritage, and in effect to other Asians, in order to become more acceptable in Western society.
Eng also points out that unlike other minorities such as blacks and Latinas, Asian American women do not have a strong sense of cultural identity that might give them a firmer inner sense of their own beauty and a self-respect that goes beyond appearances (122-123). Lacking this, they are more vulnerable to the over whelming outside pressures of society and of their own strong desires to succeed.
Our solution up till now has been to obliterate the differences either through attempts at assimilation or, more extremely, by cosmetic alteration, asserts Eng. In this way Asian women fail to develop a framework for appreciating physical differences, so that the onus of change is societal rather than individual (Eng122).
Cosmetic Alteration: Skin Tone
Eng followed a survey conducted by an Asian-based lingerie company and reported the results as follows:
Beijing women (already tall by Asian standards) want to be even taller.
Taipei women want to be curvier they seek the classic hourglass figure.
Hong Kong and Singaporean women lean towards breast augmentation.
Bangkok women want wider hips.
Despite these differences, Eng informs us, there was one consistent wish by all Asian sub-groups: everyone wants to be lighter (126).
According to Eng makeup companies in Asia capitalize on deep-seated Light Skin Worship, marketing skin-bleaching products like UV White and Neo white (126).Advertisements for these creams generally feature a Caucasian woman basking in a halo of light, looking upward, saintly and pure (Eng 126). UV White, available only in Asia, is a much sought-after product by Asian women not only those in Asia (where the product is widely available) but also in the U.S. (where it is not).
The desire for lighter 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 sell the concept of lightening. Rather, it focuses on the advantages of this particular product, assuming the desire to lighten the skin is a given:
Neo white is formulated to whiten skin without the known harmful side effects of lesser brands. . . .There are two Neo white creams Fairness Protection Cream formulated with effective sunscreen (SPF 15) and moisturizers to keep skin fair and soft and Moisturizing Pearl Cream which his a combination of moisturizer and light tint that provides the skin with moisture and a natural, even skin tone. (125).
The language of this advertisement is clearly designed for the upwardly mobile, appealing to their desire to change their appearance while satisfying their concerns about possible harmful effects to the skin.
Despite the price, skin care products that boast whitening properties continue to sell, and advertisements for them are ubiquitous. Consumers will be willing to spend on premium products as long as these products are able to deliver the required results, and at greater convenience, notes Luann Theseira, adding that sales of super premium products remain largely unchanged despite their prohibitive costs.
Eng also points out that whiteness also comes at a price, reiterating the connection between privilege and complexion (127). However, it may be argued that the cost goes far beyond the monetary amount of the product or service purchased; it is impossible to place a price on the physical and psychological pain suffered.
Cosmetic Alteration: Focus on Eyes
Using makeup to enhance one’s eyes is hardly a novel concept. As noted earlier, this practice has been in effect since ancient times.
Skilful use of shading can disguise perceived flaws and accentuate strong points; it can create, or at least enhance, the appearance of desired illusions, even if the effects are fleeting. It is a well-established practice. However, items such as glue and tape are not normally found in the makeup bags of Western women at least not as eye treatments.
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Makeup routines for Asian women who want to change the appearance of their eyes to mimic Western eyes will probably contain at least one of these items. Glue, or tape, are often used to hike up the eyelid….the skin stays folded for most of the day. Some Asian teens say they do this to make their eyes look bigger and prettier. Others would simply say it makes them look more Caucasian (Valhouli).
Cosmetic Alteration: Permanent
In Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic
Surgery, Sander Gilman states that Asian-American women, whose ‘blank’ look is equated in American society with ‘dullness, passivity, and lack of emotion, ‘have ‘their eyelids restructured, their nose bridges heightened, and the tips of their noses altered’ (99).
In some Asian cultures, the acceptance of any surgical procedure at all is a relatively recent development. The traditional Chinese prohibition against opening the body limited all forms of surgical intervention until fairly recently (Gilman 99).Modern medicine in China is in many ways Western medicine combined with traditional methods.
In Japan, plastic surgery was not even recognized until 1975, and then only for reconstructive purposes. It was not until 1978 that aesthetic surgery elective plastic surgery was sanctioned as an acceptable subspecialty (Gilman 100). However, procedures to correct the shape of the eye had been performed on a frequent and regular basis since the end of the nineteenth century. These procedures were considered, significantly, to be within the bounds of official medical practice.
In the 1930s,Gilman explains, American surgeon Henry Junius Schireson claimed that the shape of the Japanese eyelid actually impaired proper vision a claim that was totally false. However, it is significant in that it reflects again the view of Asian features as somehow inferior and in need of correction. The claim that the eyelid form has a negative impact on sight is nonsense, asserts Gilman, but he concludes that it was clearly evident that the focus of the surgery was to create beautiful women beautiful according to Western standards (102).
After World War II, with the American occupation of Japan, there was a renewed interest in surgical procedures which would transform Japanese eyes into Western eyes. It was just a matter of time before the number and range of surgical procedures increased throughout Asia to include other types of physical enhancements, particularly breast augmentation. Again, here, as Gilman notes, this responded to the introduction of the Western notion of the larger breast as a sign of the erotic (103).
Dr. Ichiro Kamoshita, director of Japan’s Hibiya Kokusai Clinic, believes that the prevalence of this type of elective surgery is a direct result of the massive advertising efforts of aesthetic salons. The advertising encourages inferiority complexes in Japanese women of all ages in fact, surgical procedures in adolescents are rising in number. There is now a pattern of presenting procedures as gifts from patents to children, especially those seen to be ‘hindered by small eyes, a flat nose or a big face’ (Gilman 104). Use of the word hinder is quite telling here; the notion that Japanese features will impede an individual’s future accomplishments is practically a given.
Cullen notes that in Asia, surgically enhanced beauty is both a way to display wealth and a tool with which to attain it. However, advertisers continue to lure those who are less wealthy. Individuals who have strong aspirations to get ahead often succumb to the promise of upward mobility that is not-so-subtly implied in these advertisements. It is not uncommon for individuals to take out loans or empty savings accounts in order to finance these procedures. The rationale for paying such exorbitant fees is based on their belief that this will help them get ahead. Often they believe this is the only way they will get ahead.
Sexual allure is also part of the advertising package: just as Asian faces require unique procedures, their bodies demand innovative operations to achieve the leggy, skinny, busty Western ideal that has become increasingly universal (Cullen). A surgeon in Seoul, Dr. Suh In Seock, has struggled to find the best way to fix an affliction the Koreans call muu-dari and the Japanese call daikon-ashi: radish-shaped calves.
Liposuction has proven to be ineffective in changing the appearance 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 accept thick calves, some Asian women will resort to the type of surgery Suh now performs exclusively. The procedure involves severing a nerve behind the knee; this, explains Suh, will eventually cause the muscle to atrophy, “there by reducing its size up to 40% (Cullen).
The most drastic form of surgery, it may be argued, is a surgical procedure that actually increases the patient’s height. In a Time Magazine feature, it was explained that this procedure originally developed in Russia to help patients with legs disfigured by accidents or birth defects, such as dwarfism (Beech, 2001). Though in Western hospitals the practice is limited to cases in which it is explicitly for medical conditions, in Asian countries it has become a popular and profitable procedure.
Despite the exorbitant fees, the considerable risk, the lengthy recovery time, hospitals and clinics that provide this procedure often have waiting lists of a year or more. The procedure is particularly popular with individuals who aspire to professions for which they do not meet the height requirements. In addition, it is clear that increased height is sought by those with strong drives to get ahead, particularly in Western societies. Yet this may be seen as yet another way and a drastic one at that in which Asians respond to the pressure to appear more Western.
Some who have studied overseas felt inferior because of their lack of stature the article points out. A surgeon at a Beijing hospital explains that for individuals who feel disadvantaged because of their height, “for them, the main purpose of the operation is not to improve their physical health…it is to help their psychological growth [Beech].
However, the value of such drastic surgery as an antidote to feelings of inferiority is fraught with ethical issues. The fact that many will resort to such drastic measures to have an equal footing in society speaks volumes about the tremendous pressure placed on women to meet unrealistic ideals. It is also a telling statement about the power of advertising in not only shaping but reinforcing these beliefs. In the larger framework of society, this has ominous implications for the future.
Social, Legal and Moral Issues of Cosmetic Alteration
Doctors Bennett Johnson and Ronald Moy explain that cultural traditions and resistance often have a profound psychological influence on the non white person who is contemplating cosmetic surgery, and these changes can be far-reaching. Changing ethnic appearance (e.g., ‘Westernization’ of the Asian eye lid or reduction cheiloplasty in blacks) can cause feelings of guilt (Johnson & Moy, 245).
The decision to choose surgical body modification may in fact affect the entire family, particularly older family members who are less willing to understand or accept the need to conform to Western ideals: because elders play a dominant role in many non white societies, their acceptance or rejection of cosmetic procedures has a psychological influence on the ethnic patient (Johnson & Moy 245).
The fact that so many women continue to opt for elective surgery is especially frightening when considering the possible complications. As Johnson and Moy assert:
Complications are not uncommon with blepharoplasty in Asians; up to 10% will require revision procedures. Complications that are of special concern with blepharoplasty in Asians include eyelid asymmetry, loss of the palpebral 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 can result from botched surgeries or infections. The procedures are more risky and complicated than beauty magazines and friends’ accounts let on, asserts Eng, citing post-surgical infections and permanent scars as the most common. In some cases, operations to re-contour the jaw line can cause the jaw to weaken to the point that it becomes difficult to even chew.
And like any invasive surgery, the months that follow can be uncomfortable and chock-full of antibiotics, as the body attempts to heal (Eng119).
The legal complications that result from surgeries which fail to produce the desired results are incredibly complex. The complexity is further deepened by the murky psychological and social issues involved in both making the decision and following through on it.
Surgeries which not only fail to fulfil expectations, but also result in additional pain and suffering, are even more complicated, as well as emotionally-charged. The financial losses 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, legal recourse in Asia is much more difficult to obtain. Most Asian lawyers avoid malpractice cases, writes Cullen, since so few result in victory and financial payoff.
Cullen asserts that it is the bargain-hunting instinct that leads patients astray, tempting them to use unqualified cosmetic practitioners. However, bargain rates are still exorbitant sums to individuals who pour their life savings into something they view as an investment in their future, and the future of their children. People who pay high prices in the attempt however misguided to further their success, often disregard the risks that accompany the procedures. Driven to succeed, they are compelled to move on, fully cognizant of and choosing to ignore the risks.
According to Cullen, elsewhere in Asia, this explosion of personal re-engineering is harder to document, because for every skilled and legitimate surgeon there seethes as warm of shady pretenders. As an example, she cites Indonesia, which has a mere 43 licensed plastic surgeons registered yet which somehow manages to perform 400 illicit procedures each week in the capital city.
Another example Is Shenzhen, China, which Cullen describes as a boomtown housing thousands of unlicensed “beauty-science centers.”
These centers cunningly target the upwardly mobile and openly vulnerable to market a new pair of eyes or anew nose as the perfect accessory to their new cars and new clothes. The ease and immediacy of access increase the probability that women will succumb to the pressure to undergo risky procedures in questionably safe environments, and there is little recourse available to them if the procedures fail, or worse, cause additional harm.
These murky legal issues will demand to be addressed eventually. Many believe that strict government regulations, faithfully and consistently enforced, will be the only controls on this highly-profitable industry. However, considering the fact that this industry is so profitable, government regulation will probably be along way off. In the meantime, the government’s inaction suggests a tacit approval. This approval only serves to help the proliferation of unethical, unsafe surgery centers, and it further reinforces the negative messages that women are already bombarded with through advertisements.
Indeed, these issues 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 disguised in the language of self-improvement, the fashion industry continually bombards them 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 Asian women continue to cling to this belief that assimilation of Western features will 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 them will go to achieve this are frightening on a number of levels, as demonstrated here. It has also been made clear that selling the concept of Westernization is a profitable business: industries promoting it are largely unregulated by government, 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 are becoming aware of the manipulative methods and subliminal messages that they are bombarded with on a daily basis. This awareness is what will give them the power to decide not to buy into an unrealistic and unattainable ideal, and to take charge of their bodies and their futures.
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