In the summer of 2010, I took a trip with my family to the town my parents grew up in the Philippines. Late one afternoon, after spending the day at the beach with my little cousin Yana, I went back to my Lola’s (grandmother’s) house. My Lola started screaming as soon as we walked through the door, and I could only understand parts of what was being said since she was speaking Bisaya, the local Filipino language. But one phrase repeatedly came up and stood out: "Ma itom ka."
The literal translation means "you are black," but it can also mean "you'll turn black." In fact, I’d heard it often when I was growing up. My mom and aunts often used this phrase when offering me an umbrella or hat to wear before I went out in the sun. Sun protection might've been part of it, but as I got older, I began to understand that there was more to the phrase than concern about sun damage. The avoidance of darker skin plays into the colorism, or discrimination of same-race people based on their skin color.
Equating whiteness to beauty is perpetuated all across the Asian continent, especially in Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean and Indian beauty standards. "A lot of this pressure comes from mothers and other family members," says Nikki Khanna, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont and author of Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism. She explains that women are repeatedly told that light, near-white skin is beautiful and that they need lighter skin to attract a mate and succeed in life.
Books and media uphold that perception today, too. "The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye was a book I loved as a child, but upon reading it again as an adult, I realize how problematic books like these were," says Frances Cha, the Korean author of If I Had Your Face, a story about working women in South Korea trying to make their way through life, while also struggling with gender inequality and impossible beauty standards. In The Ordinary Princess, the darker-skinned "ordinary" protagonist is described as “homely” compared to her sisters with "white little noses and rippling golden hair," who worked to keep their complexions white and were a "delight to see."
History tells us that the desire for pale skin has always existed in Asian culture. In ancient China for instance, pale skin indicated elite status, while dark skin meant you farmed or labored long hours in the sun. This desire eventually led to skin whitening, that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar global industry in Asia today. Popular brands like L'Oreal, Nivea and Lancôme are major names in the business, selling skin-whitening soaps and creams that promise "clean" and "pure" results.
"I know when I walk into my local Indian market, I’m going to easily find whitening creams and soaps lining store shelves, but it's much more than that," says Khanna, who grew up with a white mother and South Asian father. She notes women will go to the extremes of undergoing whitening laser treatments, take whitening pills and even use whitening face covers, or face-kinis, to protect the skin. "Skin lightening is a massive industry that preys on the insecurities of people of color, especially women," she says.
The Coveted Bigger Eyes
Cha grew up in South Korea as a child, but has had her makeup done professionally in America a few times. "Because I have the typical Asian monolids instead of the double eyelids, the artists just didn’t know what to do with them," she says. Monolids are a smaller eye shape that have one eyelid fold and appear to lack a crease.
In a separate incident, Cha also shares that upon first meeting the mother of a friend, she was told she should get her eyes stitched. "This woman was a beautiful Korean celebrity who, I believe, had not have any plastic surgery herself, but had been conversing with her daughter who wanted to get her eyes done," Cha says. But even after that, Cha hasn't considered getting double eyelid surgery.
Her story reminded me about YouTube videos I used to watch as a teen of women talking about circle lenses (or contact lenses that make your eyes look bigger) and double eyelid surgery. As a teen, I was fascinated by these stories. The results were beautiful and reminded me of Asian actresses I looked up to. I quickly internalized that bigger eyes meant you were attractive, and at one point, I would try to completely avoid relaxing my eyes all day and kept them open as wide as I could, trying to replicate the cute Asian actresses I saw online.
Asian blepharoplasty, or double eyelid surgery, is another major beauty trend that dates back to the 19th century and is especially popular in East Asian countries like Taiwan and Mongolia. The surgical process lifts smaller or hooded eyes to create a more prominent eyelid crease, essentially giving the patient larger eyes. The desire for double eyelids and larger eyes in general can be blamed on Western culture's influence on Asian media, which often highlights actors and actresses with bigger eyes as the "more beautiful" characters. The average cost of cosmetic eyelid surgery is $3,282, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
The Smaller the Jaw, the Better
Though the United States is the country with the most plastic surgery operations overall, South Korea is often deemed the "plastic surgery capital of the world," with one in three women between the ages of 19-29 having had surgery. Along with double eyelid surgery, a procedure known as jaw shaving, or jaw reduction — is also very popular there, and it's exactly what it sounds like. In an attempt to create a small, V-shaped chin, the most ideal face shape by cultural standards, patients undergo surgery with the goal of filing their natural jaw into a slimmer shape, according to VIP International Plastic Surgery Center. It starts with a small incision inside the mouth, followed by shaving off excess bone. The procedure costs around $6,500.
Nose surgeries are common across Asia, too. Southeast Asian noses especially tend to be on the flatter and wider side. Asian rhinoplasty aims to "augment the nose to be more prominent with a higher bridge and sharper tip that is in proportion to the face." Bruising and swelling can last up to a month before you start seeing changes, and the average cost for the procedure is around $15,000.
Jaw realignment is a major storyline in If I Had Your Face, one that Cha researched at great length by visiting several plastic surgery clinics posing as a potential patient. "I felt extreme sympathy for the women who decide to undergo it because they know the dangers and the pain and the side effects, but still elect to go through with it because they think it will change their lives," she explains.
American Vs. Asian Beauty Standards
For Asian Americans, cultural beauty standards are confusing. While their cultural roots praise whiteness, American media and society value tanned skin. Khanna herself identifies as a biracial woman with white and South Asian ancestry. "I am light-skinned, so I fit the beauty standard for South Asian women," she says. "But before my wedding, I wanted to get a tan and I think my Indian father was completely baffled by that!"
After the incident with my Lola in the Philippines that summer, I begged my mom to go the local Filipino grocer to find the whitening soaps and creams I saw on Filipino commercials. This skin whitening process went on for two months before I realized I should be tanning for the summer, just like my American friends and favorite celebrities did. At some point, I no longer cared how pale or tan my skin looked. Looking back at this dichotomy, I realize it's no use trying to fit into either standard, when you don't belong in either.
Are Asian beauty standards toxic?
Khanna considers all beauty standards, not just Asian beauty standards, toxic and unhealthy for women. "Across Asia, many women go to great lengths to lighten their skin, even going so far as to apply chemicals to their skin, like mercury or bleach," she says. "And in the West, many women risk cancer by exposing their skin to harmful UV rays to get that sun-kissed look, while others nearly starve themselves to fit unrealistic beauty standards that tell them that they should be thin."
To understand why people make the beauty choices they do requires a nuanced understanding of history, culture and sociological issues that influence them. "For some of the protagonists in my book If I Had Your Face, there are few opportunities for socioeconomic movement in an incredibly competitive society," Cha explains. "So some women choose plastic surgery to better their prospects for a better life."
Regardless of which standards we're trying to adhere to, comparing ourselves to an idealized, often unrealistic image can be damaging to our self-esteem, especially when most of us can never measure up. After being confused all my life trying to fit into two different beauty standards, I'm finally completely happy with my medium brown skin, and medium-sized brown eyes.
Instead of criticizing the way we look, Khanna encourages us instead to look at the history of these beauty standards and ask ourselves who we're really benefitting when we perpetuate them: The cosmetic companies and clinics making money off our insecurity, or the media that tries to sell us an idealized version of beauty that doesn't really exist.
Through her own writing, Cha tries to provide context about beauty choices that are perceived as extreme to those who do not understand why one would elect to undergo such surgeries. Through telling their stories, she invites the reader to reserve judgement instead of passing it. I agree: There's a long history of reasons why some women choose to do the things they do. However, I do hope to erase these beauty standards and move forward from this history, so women can really see and embrace their individual beauty, no matter the tone of their skin, the size of their eyes or the shape of their jaw.