White, slender and wide-eyed

Western media once imposed a unified idea of beauty across the globe, but ‘only white is beautiful’ has begun to fade.

From Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro, leafing through women’s magazines can be depressing: the models are uniformly skinny, their large eyes beaming from wrinkle-free faces and, in Western magazines at least, the vast majority of them are white.

For centuries, every society has had its own canons of beauty, its own role-models for cosmetics, clothing and hairstyles. In many cultures, curvaceous women were highly appreciated as the fuller form was often associated with fertility. The shift began in the second half of the 19th century, largely as a result of colonialism.

According to Geoffrey Jones, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, it was then that “a kind of global beauty standard emerged where to be beautiful [meant having] white skin and Western features”.

Jones explains that the early 20th century “was the high point of Western imperialism, [when] white skin was considered superior”, adding that this was when women also had to be thin. He goes on to note how these ideals were then picked up and promoted by the cosmetics industry, Hollywood movies and American television programmes.

These standards seem to put much greater pressure on women than men. When comparing themselves to the models they see day in day out in the media, many women end up feeling unattractive. To narrow the gap between their own bodies and the ‘ideal’ bodies featured in magazines and on the web – made all the more unattainable by the rampant use of Photoshop - they are willing to subject themselves to strenuous diets, expensive cosmetic or aesthetic treatments and painful plastic surgery. It’s no surprise, then, that some feminists – like writer Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women – see standards of beauty as a form of alienation that borders on violence.

It’s astonishing how much the old saying ‘beauty is pain’ still holds true today. While Western women don’t think twice about going under the knife to remove their cellulite, enlarge their breasts or eradicate their wrinkles, the most common cosmetic surgery in Asia and among Asian-American communities is blepharoplasty, involving the creation of a double eyelid to make the eyes seem bigger.

This practice has burgeoned in recent years, particularly in China and South Korea. Korean mothers even give their teenage daughters the operation as a birthday present, believing it might help them find a good job and a husband in the future. The surgery makes a significant difference to one’s appearance, and some – still rather isolated – detractors speak out against what they view as a loss of identity.

Another invasive cosmetic practice widespread in both Asia and Africa is skin whitening. However, according to Jones, this is not so much a matter of an imposed Western criterion, at least not in Asia, where lighter skin is traditionally viewed as attractive. In many cultures, even in Africa, dark skin was associated with poverty and farm labour. Indeed, many dark-skinned stars have bowed to this trend, and not just Michael Jackson.

The writers of the Beauty Redefined blog, launched for the specific purpose of opposing standardised ideals of beauty, point out how media images of Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna “have become increasingly ‘anglicised’ or ‘whitewashed’ over time, with lighter-coloured, straighter hair, lighter makeup, coloured contacts”.

Formidable economic interests lie hidden behind the universal ideal of light-coloured skin, and more than a few health risks too. According to figures published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2011, 77% of Nigerian women and 35% of South African women regularly use skin-lightening products, while in India they account for 60% of the dermatological market. And while WHO warns against mercury-based creams and soaps, there is a huge illegal market in strong but potentially dangerous products that contain harmful substances (acids, hydroquinone and so on).

For the past century and a half, ideological pressures and economic interests have used the mass media to impose a model of the perfect body. “However, there has been a huge movement away from assuming only white is beautiful, and I see a growing diversity of beauty standards”, notes Jones, citing the influence of the civil rights movement in the US, decolonisation, growing ethnic diversity in Western societies and the economic growth of China and India.

“In terms of beauty, [this change] appears to have stimulated a reassertion of local traditions”, adds Jones. “We live in a moment of transition, but the trajectory of the transition is still unclear. On the one hand, we have global celebrity culture and global brands, and a number of companies, like L'Oreal, that operate almost worldwide. On the other hand, beauty is becoming far more diverse in terms of ethnicity and skin tone”.

The Dove brand (owned by Unilever) was the first to pick up on this new trend with its ‘Real Beauty’ ad campaign. Launched in 2004, it uses real women rather than models in commercials, including stunning older women. This is a sign, perhaps, that even the obsessive search for youth has begun to slow down. In an era with an aging population, cosmetic companies can no longer afford to alienate an important – and affluent – slice of the market.

But one final taboo remains: size. Curvy celebrities – from Kim Kardashian to the singer Adele – and plus-size models such as Tara Lynn, are still stark exceptions. So it seems as though ‘big is beautiful’ is not around the corner just yet.

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