A small incision into beauty ideals – ever changing throughout time and place.
The discussion of beauty ideals through time and geographical space is a very long, layered, and complex one that can be approached from many different angles. While ideals may have shifted over time, and not all parts of the world subscribe to the same ones, it is undeniable that some truths persevere, such as the heavy association of external beauty with internal life. This may have been propagated through myths, literature, and poetic allegory in the past. Today it is done so largely through marketing and all forms of media, from classic magazine ads to social media bringing all sorts of morphed imagery into the palms of our hand and the subconsciousness of our minds. In this article we will scratch the surface of how certain beauty ideals have migrated through time and space and affected our aesthetic ideals.
A Cross-Cultural Analysis
A study published in March 2005 titled “The Construction of Beauty: A Cross‐Cultural Analysis of Women’s Magazine Advertising” compared the advertising in women’s magazines from three distinct countries and cultures – the U.S., Singapore, and Taiwan. Those three were chosen for their comparably similar living standards and wealth, while also possessing key differences, with Taiwan and Singapore emerging from a highly confuscian, though not totally insular, cultural influence more representative of Eastern culture, unlike the quintessential Western culture embedded in the U.S. Furthermore, Singapore and Taiwan contain important distinctions; “Singapore has a culturally diversified society with the Chinese making up about 70% of the population, followed by about 20% Malay and 10% Indian” with English as the official language, while “Taiwan is a homogeneously Chinese society” (Ghazalli, 2005) where Chinese is the mother tongue.
Comparing ads from the top three fashion and beauty magazines from each country, with similar formats, audience demographics, and circulation figures, it was found that Asian ads contained a larger proportion of cosmetic and facial beauty products whereas the U.S. advertisements were more focused on clothing. This could be interpreted as a dichotomy of beauty defined by whole body appeal in the U.S. versus a pretty face being the defining factor in Asian cultures. Beauty products aimed at improving women’s hair, skin, and face took up the greatest amount of ad space in Singapore (40%) and Taiwan (49%), while clothing ads occupied the largest proportion of ads in the U.S. (54%) (Ghazalli, 2005). This statistic already sheds some light as to the types of ideals that women are trying to uphold in each culture and the types of aesthetic treatments they’re likely to seek out.
Sex Kitten or Girl Next Door?
Another point of comparison can be found in the “types” of femine ideals the magazine ads aim to represent. In 1992, researchers Solomon, Ashmore, and Longo conducted an experiment that resulted in the classification of beauty images into eight major types; “Classic, Feminine, Sensual, Exotic, Cute, Girl-Next-Door, Sex Kitten, and Trendy” (Ghazalli, 2005). A subsequent study in 1994 compared major U.S. fashion magazines and found that the Trendy, Classic/Feminine, and Exotic/Sensual types of looks were the most prevalent. The aforementioned 2005 study also found that Sensual/Sex Kitten types are used more often in U.S. ads (32%) than in Singapore (19%) and Taiwan (22%). Cute/Girl Next Door is portrayed more frequently in Taiwanese ads (27%) than U.S., while the Classic beauty type was used more often in Singaporean advertisements (54%) than in Taiwanese advertisements (44%). The Trendy type was used more frequently in Singaporean (11%) than in Taiwanese (6%) advertisements, and the Cute beauty type was used more often (27%) in Taiwan than in Singapore (15%) (Ghazalli, 2005).
Diving deeper, it should also be noted that “Caucasian female models were used most frequently in all three societies under study, with 91% appearing in the United States, 65% in Singapore, and 47% in Taiwan.” (Ghazalli, 2005). While it would stand to reason that marketing does better within a culture when reflecting its own demographic within its ads, the fact that Causasian models are prevalent within predominantly Chinese populations proves that forces of colonization and globalization play a role in defining our standards of beauty. Diving even deeper, the research showed significant differences in the beauty types portrayed by each race; “The Classic beauty was used most frequently for both [Caucasian and Chinese]. However, the Sensual/Sexy type was used more often (27%) with Caucasian models than with Chinese models (11%). The Cute/Girl-Next-Door type was more popular with Chinese models (25%) than with Caucasians (16%). In addition, the Trendy type was used more frequently with Caucasian models (9%) than with Chinese models (6%)” (Ghazalli, 2005).
As originally stated, representations of beauty go far beyond a reflection of the demographic they are trying to reach and are not solely skin deep. The predominance of Caucasian models in these two Asian societies point to both a troubling commodification of the white, female body as well as its forceful intrusion into foreign culture. The findings of this study would suggest that “Caucasian women are being presented as sex objects in Asia while Asian models are being depicted in more demure ways” (Ghazalli, 2005). From a feminist perspective, this points to a commodification of the white, female body through its sexualization, a form of currency in Western culture that is being exported, but not exchanged. This phenomenon might have some historical roots, where traditionally in Western art the female body has served as the object of sexual stimulation, whereas displaying the body has not been the tradition in Chinese art; “In fact, traditional Chinese art often presents nature as the central focus, and human forms are often small and insignificant” (Ghazalli, 2005). Historically rooted or not, the sexualization of the female body in Western culture seems so deeply ingrained that it has become embraced, as opposed to rebuked, by the population it exploits – an interesting consideration when seeking to alter the body to better embrace beauty ideals.
A Moving Target?
In a problematic loop of influence, the large proportion of Caucasian models in the comparative Asian countries points to a form of cultural imperialism and a hegemony of white beauty ideals. This is also perpetuated by advertisers in the U.S. who also do not diversity beauty ideals within their own pages – 91% of the U.S. models were Caucasian (Ghazalli, 2005). This can be credited for creating unfair expectations in non-Caucasian women especially, by maintaining an unattainable beauty ideal; “In fact, the fixation with “skin whitening” products in Asia may be in response to this overuse of white models. […} The overuse of White women in Singaporean advertising may contribute to the increasing sales of products like whitening creams in this region” (Firth, 2006). On the other hand, light, porcelain skin has historically been valued in China and Singapore (Firth, 2006).
This brief foray into the inextricable confluence of certain beauty ideals as indicators of internal virtue, their exportation as cultural imperialism, and their general support in the exploitation of the female body leaves us without a clear answer as to how to untangle these threads. But what we can ascertain is that beauty ideals are an ever changing cultural construct and arguably becoming more difficult to achieve. Therefore new tools at our disposal give our bodies greater malleability. In the early 2000’s, large breasts were seen as a beauty ideal among black, white, and Latina women, and this trend continued into the 2010s; “According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, breast augmentations […] saw a 48% increase from 2000 to 2018” (Beauty Standards Over Time, 2021). Today, trends are rising and falling more rapidly with the heavy presence of social media and influencer culture. Procedures such as the Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) popularized by celebrities like Kim Kardashinan, and “lip flips”, a precise placement of just a few units of botox along the upper lip muscle, near the border, to relax and “flip” the lip making it more visible, are just a few examples of the types of “expansions” on traditional treatments. In 2022, it is becoming difficult to ascertain the main perpetrators of unrealistic beauty standards. Even the very definition of “unrealistic” can be seen as shifting. It may be a conversation without a clear end or answers, but one that should be had.
Ghazalli, Nurul Izzati. “The Construction of Beauty: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Women’s Magazine Advertising.” Journal of Communication (2005): n. pag. Print.
Frith, Katherine. “Race and Ethnicity: A Comparison of Global and LocalWomen’s Magazine Advertising in Singapore.” International Communication Association, Annual Conference in Dresden, Germany. June 2006.
Beauty Standards Over Time for Women. The Derm Review. October 19, 2021. Accessed October 24, 2022. https://thedermreview.com/beauty-standards-over-time-for-women/