*Originally published by Complex Media’s NTRSCTN on February 5, 2016
One of my favorite things to read is Into the Gloss’ “The Top Shelf,” an ongoing interview series that features high-profile women discussing their beauty rituals, philosophy, and preferred products. A slideshow of photos accompany the transcribed copy, including one or two of the interviewee, often wearing a shy half-smile.
There are about five years’ worth of interviews in the archives. Go back far enough, and some archetypes emerge: the minimalist Frenchwoman who lives and dies by the philosophy of au naturel; the southern Californian health nut who can’t do her own makeup, but doesn’t need it; the Woodstock babe incarnate who refuses to use shampoo. The most interesting thing about these women—all distinctively Westernized tropes of womanhood—is not what they use, but what they opt out of. And when they look like Lea Seydoux and Tali Lennox, this audacity becomes even more romantic.
Voyeuristic appeal and product porn aside, “The Top Shelf” tries to distil beauty to its most democratic elements, stripping away its mystique. Into the Gloss looks to enlighten readers of a process that, upon closer reading, is more dictated by whimsy and emotion than societal pressure: moisturizer seemingly used out of boredom; a lipstick to match that vampish feeling. These women aren’t striving to become beautiful, so much as they’re striving to become their authentic selves—at least, that’s what the PR-friendly copy preaches. So, the process that “The Top Shelf” details is one where all the hard work is ostensibly done by Mother Nature or other nameless entities behind closed doors.
Asian beauty, in contrast, defines itself as a process—of transformation, craftsmanship, technological innovation—that readily embraces artifice and effort over the God-given. The Korean skincare regimen, now popular in North America, is famously tenfold. And everyday contouring, for us, was in vogue long before the Kardashians; I first learned this technique from legendary makeup artist Bobbi Brown’s bookTeenage Beauty in a chapter dedicated solely to Asian faces.
Step into cosmetics chain Sa Sa, Sephora’s Eastern counterpart, and one can see how this mindset manifests economically. Sa Sa stores have Sephora’s impressive square footage, shrewd lighting, and a plethora of products, but that’s where the similarities stop. Whereas Sephora’s abundance showcases the artistry of makeup, Sa Sa’s overstocked aisles are more reminiscent of a Home Depot; the latter’s products are not so much instruments of imagination as they are tools of self-improvement. Instead of Pantone-certified multicolor palettes, there are numerous contraptions, each with a purpose you need to decode: nose clips, eyelid tape, face-slimming masks.
To be fair, this isn’t entirely unique to Asia. Generally speaking, the cosmetics industry became a behemoth by tapping into the cross-cultural desire to change one’s appearance. But noticeably absent from the branding of Asian beauty is hypocrisy and shame, which makes up the underbelly of Westernized beauty ideals.
The Confucian concept of “face” emphasizes the importance of community over individuality for the sake of social harmony; it separates the undignified from the refined, the improper from the proper. As a result, “face” imbues Asians with a sense of duty in cosmetic self-expression, reinforcing societal standards of not only what’s beautiful, but also what’s acceptable. Pair that with the absence of Puritan values in Asian history and culture, and suddenly, the erasure of self by way of skin-whitening creams and circle lenses makes a little bit more sense.
In Asian cultures, family members are more likely than friends to pass down beauty ideals. I distinctly remember having my then-monolids taped to achieve the fabled double-lid before first grade; another friend, who also grew up in Hong Kong, was gifted a clip to slim her nose down at age 12. For both of us, the women in our families delivered these suggestions—or instructions—with a shrugging pragmatism that would be perceived in the West as politically incorrect at best, and traumatizing at worst. But we were thankful. These were the same people who fed us, bathed us, helped us with our homework. Beauty was just another lesson taught by the aunts, mothers, and older sisters in our lives.
To attribute the effort behind Asian beauty exclusively to the male gaze would be overly simplistic, as the actual explanation runs far deeper than gender inequality. Like women, men in Asia are expected to behave and appear a certain way so as not to threaten the homogeneity of the social fabric. When you consider that gender ambiguity is far more common in Asia than in the West, regional beauty ideals seem less about pleasing the patriarchy, and more about the harmony that stems from a cohesive look.
Artist Bora Kim, and her collaborators Samantha Shao and Karin Kuroda, created I’m Making a Boy Band (#immabb), a project that casts five non-Asian men as members of a K-Pop-inspired boy band called EXP, to explore this unique phenomenon.
A postmodern exploration of cultural stereotypes both old and new, #immabb challenges sociocultural perceptions of Asian beauty ideals by applying them onto Western canvases. Beyond releasing singles, music videos, and eventually an album, the project will also document the audition process, training, and merchandise. When defining #immabb, which Kim showcased at Columbia University’s 2015 MFA Thesis Exhibition, she referred to the male K-Pop aesthetic as gender-bendingly “pretty” (instead of handsome) and powerful due to its widespread appeal among female fans globally. The curiosity of #immabb is its disregard for the westernized ideal of organicness, instead favoring the artificial, glamorous engineering of pure, perfect pop. These are the kinds of faces that are worthy of fawning over, the project posits, because they each have a story worth telling.
Kim cited Ock Joo-hyun of Fin.K.L, one of South Korea’s earliest girl groups, as an example of such stories. Heavily ostracized by fans and media alike because of her perceived heaviness, she lost a drastic amount of weight, and underwent a series of plastic surgery procedures. Coupled with her trademark honesty and humor—rather uncharacteristic for the industry—Ock’s metamorphosis eventually propelled her to role-model status.
“When she finally [lost weight], the entire republic praised her. They think she’s such a hard worker,” Kim, who is a Korean native, told NTRSCTN.
Beyond the doe-eyed, lithe aftermath, it’s Ock’s effort that was applauded. She didn’t even have any interest in becoming a singer until the president of a casting agency promised her blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery), an anecdote Ock shared on national television.
Shao said the open dialogue surrounding cosmetic self-improvement in Asia stems from the homogeneity of Asian beauty standards. It’s not uncommon for comments about one’s looks to follow a greeting, and what you’d expect to be offensive is actually complimentary. A “fat nose” translates in Japanese to a high-bridged nose, for example, and to look “well-fed” in Korean is an indication of health and cherubic charm. Deeming this “normalized exceptionalism,” Shao explained that if everyone is aspiring towards a similar aesthetic, then pointing out a shortcoming is only stating the obvious. By that logic, there’s no fear of offending others in doing so. “[There’s] a fine line, but a clear goal—all under the guise of concern for your well-being,” she told NTRSCTN.
EXP is equal parts funhouse and familiar. Some things don’t translate quite as well, like the band members’ eyeliner and eyeshadow—hallmarks of artistry frequently found on K-poppers such as G-Dragon—because they ended up looking too goth or too drag. In a separate interview, Kim attributed this unintended result to the project’s Western context. “Because we’re trying to use the same techniques, or tactics, and putting them on American boys—we’re in a different environment, using different objects and resources. It reads totally differently,” she said.
#immabb’s exploration of the Asian beautification process highlights the value of transformation in itself, and how artifice doesn’t necessarily make something less beautiful—but can make it even more so. Kim said the band members’ makeup is meant to convey cuteness and friendliness, which better caters to teenage female sexuality. It’s about highlighting the accessibility of these male idols: their attractiveness characterized with a prettiness that their fans not only understand, but also relate to. #immabb underlined this point by juxtaposing the craftsmanship of Asian beauty with white, Hispanic, and black men, whose cultural masculine ideals are rooted in ruggedness.
However, some Westerners have misinterpreted #immabb’s motives as racist, disregarding its social commentary in the process. Kuroda recalled another interview in which she was accused of cultural appropriation because one of the photos depicted a band member with his eyes closed. “That was a racist comment in itself. [I’ve] had people pull their eyes at me. So there’s the tension of being discriminated against because of that, and I’m also the stereotype being used against me to some degree,” she told NTRSCTN.
When asked whether or not the project has illuminated them to new ways of perceiving their own Asianness, Kim, Shao, and Kuroda are quick to say no. If anything, turning Asian beauty ideals on their head confirms their actual fluidity, further challenging the notion of what’s objectively beautiful. Globalization symbolizes the convergence and acceptance of all ideals.
“Ultimately, I find myself asking: Does it matter? [Beauty ideals] are just trying to achieve something that has a very psychological impact,” Kuroda said. “Yes, they come from different places and have a symbiotic relationship. Idealization or not, I try not to associate things specifically to just Asian or just American.”
What’s more regressive: a beauty culture of conformity or hypocrisy? Is the idea of readily available plastic surgery in South Korea really more perverse than an American tabloid that will shame a Kardashian for her weight, then shame her again one month later when she undergoes liposuction? Some might say we can’t win either way.