In the Blog
East Asian Beauty Standards
Illustration by Ki Chin
“Have you considered fixing your eyes? If you come visit me in China next summer, we can go and get you some double eyelids!” my aunt gleefully said in her signature Chinglish accent.
“Hahaha…haha,” I replied awkwardly. I looked around to see if anyone heard our conversation. How could my mom and dad just continue to smile and wave when someone tells their daughter that she needs plastic surgery? Why wasn’t anyone coming to my defense and insisting that I’m beautiful just the way I am? I spent the rest of the afternoon greeting my extended family from China and enduring their unfiltered comments about my appearance.
Later that night, I tearfully confronted my mom.
“Can you tell your family members to stop talking about how ugly I am? Today, your sister told me to get double-eyelid surgery, your cousin told me that I’m too fat to be pretty, and my grandpa told me that I’d never get a boyfriend if my legs were so big! Don’t ever let those people into our house again!”
She held me in her arms as I continued crying.
“Baobao, that’s just the way they are. My family told me those same things when I was your age. As I’ve gotten older, they’ve moved on to lecture me about my wrinkles and stands of white hair. There’s nothing wrong with the way you look. Just ignore them.”
In China and other East Asian countries, publicly criticizing women’s appearances is considered a cultural normality. Most of the time, close friends and relatives are well-intentioned when they comment on something they deem as unflattering. In East Asia, the concepts of “beauty” and “success” are often synonymous because women are constantly expected to please other people. The more attractive a person is perceived to be, the more “likeable” other people find them. That perception of beauty increases their likelihood to marry a rich man and find wealthy friends who want to maintain their superficial images. In South Korea, some jobs even require women to include their headshots in their resumes. It’s often difficult for foreigners to understand East Asian beauty standards because they seem so arbitrary: after all, how can someone possibly quantify the notion of abstract beauty?
Similar to Canada and the US, East Asian countries still present a dominant “white” face as the ideal standard of beauty. Rather than attempting to develop diverse standards of beauty, most individuals in East Asian countries strive to achieve the same, antiquated look: big eyes, small nose, thin chin, slim legs, and pale skin. Some sociologists speculate that these physical characteristics represent an implicit desire for Asian women to transform themselves into the Western ideal of beauty while others believe that these homogeneous beauty standards are an attempt for East Asians to blend into a collective rather than distinguishing each individual. Either way, it’s clear: East Asian beauty standards are not truly indicative of a person’s value.
Often, people, especially developing teenagers, tend to forget the distinction between culturally appropriated self-worth and true self-worth. Every society in the world has developed their own unique standards for characteristics such as beauty, intelligence, and success. People usually conform to these standards, rather than challenging the underlying cultural developments that caused them. When people feel that their characteristics do not align with society’s expectations or the expectations of those around them, their idealized notion of self-worth plummets. Insecurities about beauty standards, in any country or culture, stems from people’s culturally-rooted desire to gain affirmation from other people.
True self-worth, on the other hand, is not a reflection of society. True self-worth stems from the understanding that all humans deserve dignity and respect, regardless of their ability to conform to societal expectations. People should perceive self-worth as a constant in their lives. Their inherent value does not change because someone else changes their opinion. Most people do not have difficulty maintaining their self-worth since true self-worth never fluctuates. Rather, most people struggle with finding their true self-worth when they are burdened with the expectations of those around them, especially from people who care about them.
In particular, many East Asian teenagers and young women choose to succumb to the overwhelming temptation to conform to societal standards. East Asians who feel that they need to align with one particular set of beauty standards go through excessive means to achieve their desired goals. Countries like China and South Korea have exceedingly high rates of plastic surgery and millions of cases of anorexia and other body-related issues. On social media, it has become a trend for East Asian women to show their daily makeup routines, which consist of eyelid tape, whitening foundation, and even prosthetic noses and chins.
From a distance, it’s easy to dismiss these beauty standards as superficial and shallow, but these ideals have been ingrained in East Asian culture for generations. People adamantly believe that following these strict guidelines will bring them success and happiness. But instead of the happiness that they strive for, these strict standards of beauty often bring them a myriad of physical and mental problems. In Japan, where the notion of slimness is considered an essential prerequisite for success, over 30% of women in their 20s are medically underweight. Being medically underweight can cause growth issues, malnutrition, and lead to compromised immune systems. But because of the existing beauty standards, some women might not consider their medical issues to be a legitimate problem. Many East Asian women would rather risk these complications than be deemed unattractive by society. These serious health concerns reveal the painful, and often sugarcoated, consequences of strict East Asian beauty standards.
As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I have been burdened by these standards for my entire life, but I have slowly learned to view them as a cultural normality rather than an indication of my true beauty. Of course, I still struggle with my body. Every time my relatives offer plastic surgery to me as a high school graduation gift or a birthday present, I find myself tempted by their invitation. It takes me a minute to see past the words and recall the cultural origins of their comments. I smile, decline their offer, and remind myself that their words will never encapsulate my true beauty.
About Renny Jiang: Renny Jiang is a high school student at The Webb Schools in Los Angeles, California. When she gets bored of watching Criminal Minds, Renny heads her school’s debate team, edits a literary magazine, and writes articles and poems about the female experience. Her Instagram page can be found at rennyjiang2002.