By Reyna Han ’23
When reflecting on the history of different countries and cultures, many factors are taken into account; economics, education, technology, fashion, and more. One category that is often overlooked is the beauty standards of that time. This, however, is a major factor that should not be overlooked; they are a blatant reflection of the cultural values that are present during a period of time. This is especially true in East Asia, where they exemplify not only the role of women, but also the economic and cultural values of different time periods and places.
Two features were prevalent in Ancient Eastern Asia (Korea, Japan, China) no matter the time or place: pale skin and long eyes. Women would go to extremes, using oshiroi (white powder) and lard, so that their faces would be completely white. In the agricultural societies of Asia, this pale skin was a sign of high status as it showed that these women were able to spend time inside cultivating their “womanly skills” rather than outside working in the fields. In addition, the snow white skin gave a sense of cleanliness and purity which not only emphasized the high status of these women but also made them seem more innocent and docile. The thin, flat eyes that are now the subject of many racial insults towards Asians, were once respected. Narrow eyes with a clear distinction between the white black parts represented tender and kind women while large eyes were seen as vacant and the women with them were viewed as hussies, or immoral women. This view of women showed that while they were objectified and sexualized by society, they were still expected to be educated in literature and intelligent.
In Ancient China, women of higher status were expected to bind their feet so that they were around 3 inches long and in the shape of a lotus. Once again, these were a symbol of status as only women who could afford to not work the fields could have their feet bound. This insured that, from a young age, women would stay inside and be docile, training to be the perfect housewife for their future husband. In addition, they were used as a measure of how desirable a woman was as the tiny, covered, lotus feet were highly sexualized by men. Unlike other East Asian cultures, the Chinese, especially the Tang dynasty, valued women who were plump. This was a sign that they came from affluent families as they could afford to feed them well. As a result, the male and his family knew that they would receive a lot by marrying said woman.
In Ancient Japan¹, women’s beauty standards varied greatly. Much like China, round chins and wide shoulders were admired, because, similarly, being plumper was a symbol of wealth. What is interesting, however, is that there are many Japanese beauty standards that seem to be in direct opposition of Chinese beauty standards. During Japan’s Heian period, long hair was valued among women, perhaps in opposition to China’s trend of short hair and updos at that time. Unlike chinese women who were expected to have certain skills of a diligent housewife, a Japanese woman’s beauty could be augmented through her ability to sing; women who had the ability to sing were perceived as more beautiful than those that couldn’t. In addition, the picture of docility was not always revered in Japanese beauty; during the Kamakura period, strong and active women were looked up to rather than those who stayed at home. Slowly, this extravagant use of makeup and fashion died down to a more natural faced trend. Cosmetic sales continued to soar, however, as makeup was now used to help women achieve this natural, clean faced, innocent look.
Similar to China and Japan, Korea valued a round face and thin lips influenced by the role of status. While beauty was a symbol of status in China and Japan, it was even more so in Korea. Women of the upper class would always have their hair well kept and makeup on. Those in lower classes also did so but were unable to do so to the same caliber. In addition, it was believed that good souls were held in beautiful bodies. As a result, women always made sure that they looked their best. After the discovery of lead powder, the creation of cosmetics became much easier and much more extravagant. As a result, Koreans became obsessed with cosmetics and beauty.
The Korean culture surrounding cosmetics was able to spread across the ocean to China. In the early 1900s, Asian beauty standards began to shift due to increased interaction with Western nations and increased industrialization. Narrow eyes began to fall out of favor in exchange for large eyes with double eyelids and round faces were overlooked in favor of sharp, delicate structure that were common among Americans and Europeans. The makeup products offered in Korea became much more numerous, most likely due to the increased industrialization. Unlike earlier in history, there was much more similarity between the beauty standards of each culture; the Koreans borrowed much of their standards from Japan so they the women of the two countries had very similar looks. Though makeup became much more accessible to different groups of people, it was still a sign of status as only those rich enough and those with enough time that could make sure to do their hair and makeup well everyday.
Despite the slight effects of Hollywood on Asian beauty standards in the early half of the 1900s, it was not until after the Second World War that they took full effect. In light of world politics, capitalism became desirable so women would try to make themselves look Westernized. American makeup products such as mascara and oil based foundations became much more prevalent in people’s normal routines. Asians began to keep up with the beauty standards in America and based all their looks off of that. While the spread of ideas is very useful in some cases, it was not here. Since Western features were so popular, women of all ages would go to extremes to achieve them. They would get their hair done very often, try to stay out of the sun for status and to appear white, and find ways to make their features look more American. In a sense, girls were being told that their natural features were not enough and that if they wanted to be considered “beautiful”, they had to conform to Western standards of beauty.
Meanwhile⁴, beauty standards in Communist China and North Korea were very different. Since the collective and hard work were celebrated, tan and strong individuals who were all dressed in very similar colors, the opposite of what was valued in Ancient China, were praised. Everyone wore a uniform of very the same colors everyday and there was not a lot of makeup lying around. Despite this, women found ways to express themselves through their hair.
Today, K-beauty is one of the most popular beauty standards both in the Asian world and in the Western world. Beautiful, slim girls with tiny waists, large eyes, long brown hair, double eyelids, delicate bone structure, and pale skin are revered. Though this standard is so different from the one present in East Asia 500 years ago, it still carries many of the same cultural connotations with it. The large eyes, delicate bone structure, and pale skin that are so sought after create an image of delicacy and innocence much like the bound feet and narrow eyes did in Ancient China.
This new standard of beauty continues to perpetuate the stereotype and cultural view that women are meant to sit prettily at home and be sexualized by men. In addition, beauty continues to have a classist connotation as those with enough money will pay to get work done so they fit the mold of beauty perfectly, while those who cannot afford to spend this money will be considered “less beautiful”. It is time that Asians move away from a history of women’s beauty standards that are based on ancient ideas of women being second class citizens and sexual objects to one where women can freely accept their natural beauty and do what makes them feel beautiful without any input from the outside world.