Colonialism’s new frontier: Western beauty ideals plague China and the world

I’m riding in a 4×4 with Sweetbert, my Tanzanian language tutor out in the sticks of rural Tanzania — no electricity, TV, internet, nothing, except the odd battery-powered handheld radio. Local entertainment, from what I can see, mostly involves the occasional regional drumming-and-dance competition and getting drunk on village brew banana beer. We get to talking about women, and when I mention that North American men like skinny women, he busts a gut laughing, literally can’t stop. “A beautiful woman must be FAT!” he exclaims between uncontrollable giggles, incredulous, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, as if finding thin women attractive was the most counter-intuitive thing he’s ever heard and can barely even imagine. A few years later he gets married and sends a photo of him and his ‘fat’ wife, of whom he is very proud.

Meanwhile, Western beauty ideals have metastasized throughout every media-saturated corner of the planet. We’re all well accustomed to a large daily dose of visual B.S., but that doesn’t mean it smells good, or that it’s healthy. Criticism is piling up in the West, from “Health Warning” label legislation to movie-style rating systems for manipulated photos. According to the speaker quoted below, our malignant Western beauty ideals are also compounding body issues in the already patriarchal beauty cultures of China and the rest of the world.

It’s no secret that Western beauty ideals rule in first- and second-tier Chinese cities. Of course, traditional and modern Chinese culture has plenty of its own ideas about which faces and bodies and postures, etc. are attractive. But walk through any mall and count the number of ads that use Caucasian models. The highest beauty ideals in China are Western. And the highest beauty ideals in the West require surgically and digitally altering the bodies of underfed, underweight, unhealthy women.

I’m thinking about this because of a recent speech at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which opened fire not at oppressive patriarchal traditions of 2nd and 3rd World cultures, but at us, calling out our societies for our hypocrisy in criticizing foot binding and female genital mutilation, and for the cancerous effect on women that aggressive Western corporate marketing has in societies around the world, specifically including China. I’ve excerpted much of it below, but the whole thing (not long) is worth a read. Regardless of how much you disagree, it’s a fantastic conversation starter. Emphasis from the original.

Susie Orbach Speaks at the UN Commission on the Status of Women

. . .what has been overlooked have been the vicious body practices that girls and women have come to take on themselves in the west in the mistaken belief that they are doing good for themselves. . .

The west congratulates itself on its distance from Eastern practices of foot binding which constrained and limited women. It fails to see the links between toe operations carried out now to enable women to fit into the latest 4 inch high heels.

The west smugly criticises FGM while sanctioning labiaplasty and the remaking of the genital lips which has become a growth area for cosmetic surgeons.

The west makes appeals about famine victims in the southern hemisphere but has failed to notice the voluntarily insane food practices that exist in their own countries.

The west hasn’t noticed that these are forms of violence and constraint for women. . .

. . .the engine which feeds the tyrannical hold that beauty exercises on girls and women’s energies, dollars and sense of self. . .relates to those industries which grow rich on creating body distress and body hatred in girls and women. . .

The beauty companies, the fashion houses, the diet companies, the food conglomerates who also of course own the diet companies, the exercise and fitness industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the cosmetic surgery industry combine together, perhaps not purposefully or conspiratorially, to create a climate in which girls and women come to feel that their bodies are not ok. They do this through the promotion of celebrity culture, through advertising on every possible outlet from billboards to magazines to our electronic screens, through the funding of media outlets which can only exist because of their economic support. . .

As immoral and unethical as the activities of these companies are in and of themselves, the economics of growth as we currently conceive it depends upon their extending their markets. L’Oreal’s growth rate in China is 26%. They achieve this not by marketing their lipsticks and hair products to Chinese women per se but by marketing the western body as the body to have to Chinese women. They and the other beauty, fashion, media companies promote the western body to the new economies as a way of finding a place to belong in the maelstrom and confusion of modernity.

Alongside the disseminating of western ideals of beauty to Asia, Africa and South America, is the export of the consequences of these ideals: body hatred and body anxiety. This is the emotional fallout from the endeavours of these industries and the basis on which they make their extraordinary and obscene profits.

. . .They are mining bodies as though they were a commodity like coal or gold. Women’s bodies all over the world are being designated as profit centres.

As the western ideal becomes plastered over the globe we bear witness to the loss of indigenous bodies. This is a new frontier of colonialism. Mad eating is normalised. Western style bodies are revered and local bodies are swallowed up as fast as demise of local languages. [Link]

I wonder what my Tanzanian language tutor would think. Then again, they were selling skin-whitening creams in East Africa, too.

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2 thoughts on “Colonialism’s new frontier: Western beauty ideals plague China and the world”

  1. Susie makes several excellent points, but I find it somewhat bizarre that she throws the exercise and fitness industry in the same category as plastic surgery. If anything they are a general force for GOOD, especially in light of the ironic fact that the very western society being attacked is also the same one that is wrought with obesity.

    However I absolutely agree with banning or punishing photo editing in the fashion/makeup industry, there is no need for this kind of behavior.

  2. Well, I assume she’s not against exercise, or beauty or fashion or surgery, for that matter. She’s saying the exercise industry participates, “perhaps not purposefully or conspiratorially, to create a climate in which girls and women come to feel that their bodies are not ok.” In other words, it’s in their financial interests to promote dissatisfaction with women’s bodies, regardless of whether or not they’re are overweight.

    Every public gym I’ve ever been in has had its fair share of posters showing images of female beauty that are literally impossible to reach without surgery, photoshop, and spending most of your waking hours in a gym. That’s how they participate in what the speaker is criticizing, I think: by promoting unrealistic standards of beauty/creating dissatisfaction with realistic, healthy bodies.

    I’m curious to see how responses to the image manipulation problem play out, given all the related issues (freedom of expression, etc.).

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