Beauty and the Ethnic Woman

The beautiful and natural Yunjin Kim

Thanks, King, for sending in these articles: Erasing Ethnicity.

(I google searched for a picture of a blonde haired, blue eyed Asian woman to put on the front-page of this article.  The results were all hideous, so I didn’t bother posting.  So instead y’all get to see a picture of the beautiful and natural Asian American Yunjin Kim who recently decided not to go with the typical marriage trend.  Represent, Yunjin!  Min Jin, you broke my heart; Yunjin, you put it back together!)

I know we’ve discussed this issue before.  Check out the articles though.  There are some interesting tidbits that will interest the fact-hungry.  For example:

34% of the hair dye sold in the U.S. last year was blonde.
80% of Koreans in their 20s lighten their hair.

I remember seeing Tyra Banks talking to an Asian woman on her show who had had eye surgery and was rhapsodizing about how “it’s not about race at all.”  Tyra pointed to her own dyed, straightened hair and said, “This is not my hair.”

It’s a complicated matter in the professional modeling world.  If you’ve ever seen a short female model walking next to a “normal” sized female model (with “normal” being 5’9 or more in that industry), it’s pretty clear that taller is better in the world of modeling–tall women make short women look like little kids.  This is going to be the same whether you’re in the U.S. or Asia.  It’s the same deal with guys: the easiest way to stand out among men is to literally stand out by being taller (or else just have lots of money…but that’s a different issue).  So there’s an argument for some sort of natural logic for the height preference.

There are plenty of tall Asian women if you look at the worldwide population.  Sure, it’s rare for an Asian woman to be over 5’9, but it’s also rare for White women and Black women.  Height is more a function of diet and regular genes than just race.  In terms of professions, I can see reasons to give tall models preference over short models.  I can’t see any reason for there being a height requirement for flight attendants or the Chinese foreign ministry, other than maybe screening for an attendant’s or diplomat’s ability to reach the overhead compartments.  I think those cosmetic height requirements are a form of discrimination.  They don’t affect one’s ability in the job at all.

As for the other physical traits, it’s all culturally determined.  Blonde hair, Caucasian eyes, and white or any color of skin tone should not have preference over another.  Giving the traits of one race such a big advantage in the fashion industry is illogical, and it promotes misguided values among the regular population.

The question, of course, is how to counteract the fashion industry’s current preferences.  Maybe it could be done through a special interest group within the industry, such as how the AAJA seeks to increase the number of Asian American reporters.  I would like to see more “Asian” features in the fashion industry.

20 thoughts on “Beauty and the Ethnic Woman

  1. Laudable efforts have been made on this front. Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top Model has definitely challenged current norms of beauty by the selection of its contestants. The recent series Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty is another fascinating show. Also consider: Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) and Nancy Etcoff (Survival of the Prettiest), though actually both books are kind of old by now. (Oh man, I’m getting old…considering I still think these books “just came out”…)

    As for Asians in the industry, it’s been damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There was a period of time when the trend was to pick really exoticized Asian women for models, the pin-straight jet black hair, long to the back, small slanty eyes, and small thin lips. The AA community was in an uproar over it. “That’s not what ‘real’ Asian beauty is!” Then we pick Asian women for pageants and movie roles that have large round eyes, with more prominent features, and now the AA community is in an uproar over the white-washing of Asian beauty.

    Thus I ask: what do you mean by “more Asian” features in the fashion industry? Forget the international stage– just within the Asian community, we need to reevaluate our perceptions of beauty. We have a lot of ground to cover on double fold v. single fold, light skinned v. dark skinned, size of our noses, lips, and even our jawbones (many a celebrity in East Asia have shaved their jawbones for a less moon-shaped look).

  2. I’m curious as to what you mean when you say “we need to reevaluate our perceptions of beauty.” You seem convinced that your perceptions are correct, while the majority of the world is wrong for responding positively to these beauty selection methods, when perhaps this response is just an extension of millions of years of beauty selection. Reevaluating might just reinforce selection. What do you suggest be done to “fix” this?

  3. Eric, I can’t speak for TZ, but often what is often meant by reevaluating beauty (in this context) is to oppose social pressure to regard a single type of beauty (or look) as superior, on it’s face, and to promote the idea that other kinds of beauty may be equally appreciated and admired. In other words, it’s a broadening of the perception of beauty.

  4. Thank you, King, that is what I meant.

    Eric, I did not instruct any particular perception of beauty to be correct. I am not at all convinced that my perception of beauty is correct. In fact, I acknowledge that I am probably heavily persuaded by mainstream norms on beauty; however, I can also acknowledge that what I think is beautiful is heavily influenced by imperialism, colonialism, classism, and the media that I happen to have been exposed to growing up, which is mostly Western. That’s why I actively put my ideals on beauty into question. Why *exactly* do I consider this or that beautiful? That is all I meant by “reevaluate our perceptions of beauty.”

    We can’t deny that lookism exists, but we can at least try to identify for ourselves the source of certain judgments and use that as a preliminary guide to better inform how we view the world and others.

    Btw Byron, great post.

  5. Thanks, TZ.

    Shaving their jawbones? Ouch!

    Man, all these surgical means of “improving” ones looks make me squeamish.

  6. How would you promote “other kinds of beauty”? Even when you have hundreds of minority models in the states promoting their version of beauty, advertisers still don’t pick up on it. So is there this vast, untapped market of beauty out there? If so, put your money where your mouth is. That’d be real promotion.

    I don’t disagree that our standards of beauty are lame and trendy, I hate trends. But I’m trying to figure out why or how you think those trends among the masses can be changed.

  7. Eric, the first step in promoting a wider range of perceived beauty is awareness. It’s simply pointing out the bias. When I was a kid, I used to have white friends who would say, “Hey, Janelle is really cute, for a black girl.” You should totally ask her to be your girlfriend!” They meant no harm, and they obviously perceived her beauty, but they thought of it in a category that was somewhat lower than that of the majority ethnicity. That’s why she was cute “for a black girl.” Most kids probably don’t see the world in quite those terms today, but awareness of the bias was and is the key.

    How does a single individual you promote that? Probably by talking about it, on blogs, with friends, in school, wherever.

  8. I’d argue we’ve been educated about this for a long time, that beauty is internal etc., but to pick up on this “education” agencies have to pimp standard beauty in order to reach enough people. So if you’re going to do something, make an agency that counters those other agencies.

    I make the same argument when people say (rightfully) that Asian men can’t get leading roles in American films. So if you think there’s an untapped market, then make a film with a leading Asian men and reap the insane profits. That’s how one person does it.

  9. Evidently not, because the argument is not that beauty is “internal,” but rather that is diverse.

    We’re saying that beauty is diverse in the same way that intelligence is. It’s not a case of saying that intelligence is internal, or unmeasurable, but that it can be more than rote learning, and it can be broader than mathematics, languages, and science. In the same way beauty can be better appreciated when it is understood beyond the narrow ways that it has so often been defined in the past.

    The thing is that this kind of sea change comes slowly and deliberately, and often over generations. That’s why looking at it, based on short-term market supply terms, is less applicable than you might think.

    It’s not that the majority ethnicity is incapable of appreciating the human beauty of minorities ethnicities, otherwise, it would be equally true that minorities could not appreciate european beauty. It’s just an artificial hierarchy of type that has no objective basis. That is the reason why minorities keep bringing these issues to the forefront. our goal is not to say that any particular ethnicity is “most beautiful” but rather to say that there are different kinds of human beauty within every ethnicity. Each type is equally valid and can be equally appreciated.

  10. I was going to respond to Eric’s statement about making films. It’s hard because there’s a whole distribution channel in place that carries historical baggage. That’s of course what some us–Eric and me included–want to do (produce films, write books, reap the big bucks, etc.), but it’s a long, hard road just because of society’s habits.

    I think our Miss Asian Oregon beauty pageant last year did well. It’s a step, as King mentions, towards bringing awareness. Yet it’s going to take some time before it’s powerful enough to concretely change mass perceptions.

  11. I’m trying to get my Asian brothers in the habit of complimenting accomplished Asian American women who support the community. In the spirit of that, Yunjin, you rock!!! You are an awesome actress, extremely elegant, and I hope you have a long career. You were also half of the first AM/AF couple on prime time. Props to you!!!

    (Who’s gonna give the next compliment?)

  12. My compliment will not have the same context meaning, or effect, but, I have to admire any Asian woman who “gets it” and stands by Asian men. In doing so, she’s cutting against the grain of society, and criticizing many of her own gender. She does this at a personal cost, when she could very easily choose to just go with the flow. That is worthy of admiration every time it happens.

    No war is won by treating your allies like your enemies.

  13. “It’s just an artificial hierarchy of type that has no objective basis.”

    Lots of people write books and make documentaries about this EXACT subject. Much like how the American diet sucks. We make documentaries about how culture is causing people to get fat, people watch them, then people get fat. I’m interested in hearing your idea.

    The hierarchy is there, but I’m not sure what you mean by it being “artificial”. It’s the mechanism that people respond to, so it sticks, even if it’s crap. Nobody’s innovated a better method that sticks, apparently.

  14. Well, it’s the last part of the statement that qualifies the first. There is no objective or concrete basis for the current hierarchy. It’s artificial in the sense that it’s arbitrary and manufactured. We know this because the standard of beauty is clearly perceived differently in different parts of the world. We also can clearly see that on the micro level, beauty trends, within the larger trends, are mercurial and often short-lived. The perception of human beauty is relative to time, place, and trend.

    The smaller trends—long hair/short hair, skinny/full, pale/tanned cycle fairy rapidly. The larger trends that are tied to macro events like colonialism, economics, and national power trends, tend to take much longer to cycle through.

    So we’re observing a slowly moving target. It’s correct to say that people respond to the current hierarchy (of course) but that’s only until the current long trends change and someone else is on top (perhaps the Chinese?)

    However it’s also quite possible to mature beyond these artificial hierarchies with an acknowledgement of arbitrary human bias. It’s possible to realize what we’re doing and change our perceptions. We can realize that throughout history there have been many different standards of human beauty and agree that they were all beautiful, just in different ways.

  15. MaSir,

    Nice post, man! I agree with you. (except for Asian beauty thing and the weight thing…but people have different opinions, and all is good!). We’ve got to keep up the positive talk!

    Where’s urban and kobukson?

  16. “There is no objective or concrete basis for the current hierarchy. It’s artificial in the sense that it’s arbitrary and manufactured. We know this because the standard of beauty is clearly perceived differently in different parts of the world.”

    They’re no more manufactured than the demand for gold jewelry or sex or lolcatz. But regardless, what I’m reading is that you view that current beauty trends are the result of colonialism and power structures, which you disagree with, and therefore you feel they and their symptoms (in beauty) should be erased. But if you’re not going to force the issue upon people, and thousands of different educational methods have been tried, and you’re not willing to wait until the next trend comes along (which might be colonial), what is there to do exactly?

  17. No, I think my stance is slightly different than you have stated.

    What I’m saying is that the current hierarchy—and ALL of the previous hierarchies—have all been affected by power and the imposed biases of the powerful. That reaches back to every significant human empire in recorded history. So, the question that we then must ask ourselves is whether or not people really become more beautiful, as their group obtains more power, of do they just impose their own perception of beauty on those less powerful?

    The problem is that these artificial hierarchies of human beauty, or perceived intelligence, or athletic superiority, or whatever, are counterproductive. They insight discontent, inequity, and unrest. It’s more efficient to humankind to minimize such arbitrary biases and their collateral effects on human populations.

    However, the issue cannot be successfully forced on people, it’s just a slow, long, and deliberate process of growing out of a bad instinct. Talking about it, calling it out when possible, modeling different and alternative behaviors to the accepted norm. Once a neurosis is understood it can be averted.

  18. “The problem is that these artificial hierarchies of human beauty, or perceived intelligence, or athletic superiority, or whatever… insight discontent, inequity, and unrest. It’s more efficient to humankind to minimize such arbitrary biases and their collateral effects on human populations.”

    This is partially true, but on the other hand they offer superior property rights and law enforcement compared to more “equal” systems that have been tried. What’s the alternative in your mind? And why do you suggest that we will just “outgrow” what current power structure we have? Isn’t it possible that we could enter into a power structure that is even more confined when it comes to beauty and intelligence as long as it provides even more wealth? The march of progress might not go your way!

  19. I’m afraid that you are misunderstanding me. It’s not the power inequities themselves that can be outgrown. There will always be inequities of power—this is unavoidable, and in any case, the alternative would be far worse. It’s simply a question of to what extent and to what purpose the power will be used, when each particular group has their “day in the sun.”

    Will we continue with this succession of oppressors, with each world empire using it’s power to elevate their particular people group to be the best looking, the most intelligent, and the most moral? Or can we finally forgo all the claims to genetic superiority? When the next people group ascends to the top of the power pyramid, will it be necessary to flood the fashion runways only with models of their particular ethnicity? Will all the magazines covers look only like them? Will those who look least like their ethnic traits suddenly be deemed to be “ugly” and inferior?

    This is what I think we can outgrow

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