Every culture has their own perceptions of beauty. While there are similarities, Asian and Western cultures often have very different beauty standards.
Certain looks are often favoured in Asian cultures. In Western cultures and for many Caucasians, the ‘ideal look’ can be very different.
Having lived in both Asia and Australia, I’ve noticed different people and cultures measure beauty differently. What is attractive and beautiful to someone may not be to someone of another background.
Beauty and what it means to be beautiful is subjective. It’s often defined by history and cultural and personal values. There’s beauty on the outside, and beauty within.
Here are some common perceptions, trends and differences between Asian and Western beauty standards, with a focus on East and South-East Asian and Australian beauty standards among women.
Asian vs western beauty standards
Round, big doe eyes with double eyelids tend to be favoured in Asian cultures. Monolids are often seen as unattractive.
Blepharoplasty or double eyelid surgery is one of the most popular cosmetic procedures among Chinese, Japanese and Korean women. Some want to look ‘more white’ with bigger eyes while others argue double eyelids simply gives the illusion of more open eyes regardless of ethnicity. Bigger, doe eyes are commonly seen as more feminine and doll-like which is often desired in the feminine Asian epitome.
For many Caucasians, what’s the most common, most fascinating and more attractive eye colour is a popular topic. Research has shown blue eyes seem to be idolised and interestingly enough, the blonde-hair blue-eyed Aussie stereotype is one of the more memorable looks around the world.
Asians generally have flatter, wider noses compared to Westerners. There’s a preference for smaller, slender and straight noses among many Asian women, and this was explored in a study on ideal facial beauty in China. This look for a nose arguably mimics the shape of Western noses to some degree, but on a smaller scale. Interestingly enough, some Westerners see big noses as beautiful.
When it comes to facial structure, smaller, V-shaped faces is highly desired among Asian women. This usually entails a rounder forehead with round eyes, and a slim chin and jawline, which are markers of Korean beauty standards. Caucasian women on the other hand seem to prefer higher, protruding cheekbones.
When it comes to makeup, Asians lean towards natural makeup looks. Many like the glowy, glass-like skin look that projects a youthful, innocent aura. Westerners normally show fiercer makeup looks such as favouring sharp, bold contoured cheekbones – which coincidentally matches the stereotypical outgoing, friendly white Australian persona and gives the illusion of a tan.
4. Skin colour
Many in South-East Asia prefer having fair skin. Some are obsessed with having their skin look as pale as possible, wearing long sleeve clothing and using umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun to avoid getting tanned. Skin whitening products are all the rage in many parts of Asia too.
Fair skin is a marker of privilege and class in Asian cultures. It has been desired throughout history in Chinese culture, symbolising a luxurious life as opposed to a life of laborious work in paddy fields and getting very tanned skin as a result.
In other words, looking ‘dark’ is seen as ‘ugly and poor’ to some Chinese. Moreover, getting tanned also generally leads to more wrinkles and skin damage, and looking youthful is prided upon among many Asians.
On the other hand, many Australians desire to look a few shades darker. Many Anglo-Saxon Australians are fond of tanning during summer and see a tan as attractive.
5. Body type
There’s the common perception that slender and slim bodies are the epitome of beauty across Asian, Western and many other cultures. A bigger chest is also usually regarded as attractive.
Noticeably many people tend to have larger physiques in Western places, such as larger physical stature and more voluptuous bodies. There is generally more proudness and acceptance of these kinds of bodies here compared to places in Asia.
Historically small feet is desired in Chinese culture. Along with having a small face and petite body, small feet is seen as beautiful. During the Tang Dynasty in China, foot-binding was common among young women to restrict their normal foot growth.
Not much has been said about the relationship between feet and beauty in Western cultures. However, if you have big feet it’s usually hard to find shoes in the right size anywhere.
The trend to look kawaii in Asia is quite popular. Made popular in Japan, dressing up and looking innocent, naïve or childlike is part of the kawaii look (also known as cute Asian fashion), along with wearing colours. Often looking young and docile is seen as attractive; in Asian cultures youthfulness is prided upon and dressing up is also a kind of escapism from working long hours.
Here in Melbourne wearing black is quite the trend. People here wear black a lot as it blends in with different outfits throughout different seasons – and arguably a colour that is flattering on many.
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Everyone defines beauty differently. Sometimes you won’t understand someone’s perception of beauty. Perhaps how someone dresses or how they see another culture’s habits or traits can even amuse you.
For instance, once I was on the tram and this Caucasian lady got up and offered her seat to two short, petite elderly Asian women. The two elderly Asian ladies looked greatful and sat down. The moment they sat down, one of them said in Mandarin, ‘This seat is so hot! Just like other white people, that white lady has a really big butt!’
There has been much discussion around the Westernisation of Asian beauty, and that Western colonisation has left its mark on Asian perceptions of beauty to some degree. The paper Occidentalism of Beauty Standards suggests during British imperialism, East-Asian female deities were illustrated in artworks to emphasise their sexuality and golden skin in contrast with ordinary East-Asians features. Also mass media has a habit of focusing on portraying beauty as whiteness.
As editor Leah Donella wrote on beauty, class and colonisation, beauty standards celebrate whiteness and its often embedded in your daily beauty routines and choices such as straightening hair and having cosmetic surgery. She writes that ‘beauty is a facet of power’ and points out beauty movements have encouraged women of colour to appreciate their own individual beauty.
It’s no surprise then that racism is often embedded within beauty standards. You could be treated differently based on the way you look: some see women from Asian backgrounds as attractively ‘exotic’. Some see an Asian woman who looks masculine or androgynous as a turn off or simply not a good enough, feminine Asian woman.
My friends in Singapore are fairly tanned with their skin a few shades darker than mine. That’s usually because Singapore is tropical and sunny all year round whereas where I am in Melbourne it’s much less sunny all year. When I catch up with my friends in Singapore, many of them exclaim along the lines of, ‘Look! Your skin is so pale! Very pretty!’
Each time I hear these comments, it feels like I’m put on a pedestal for the way I look. That I’m worthy because I am a Chinese person who looks like a white person, embodying Western beauty standards which some see as ‘classier’ as I wrote in How I Came To See ‘Whiteness’ As Ordinarily Beautiful.
You go through different phases and ages in life, and value beauty differently. The growing older process also affects how you look and how you feel, just like the stresses and joys of life as well. At different points in your life, you dress a certain way depending on what fashion you’re into, what feels comfortable or what you can afford.
In a world that prides on looks as markers success and the epitome of beauty, it’s easy to forget about beauty within. The phrase ‘look good, feel good’ isn’t always true. You could look put together by society standards but on the inside you’re going through personal issues or working on improving parts of yourself (or yet to realise these sides of yourself).
You could look attractive to someone but they’ll probably remember you more for the way you treat them and make them feel.
How you define and value beauty affects your self-esteem and relationships around you. Perhaps when you ’feel good, look good’, you’re more likely to feel the most comfortable and confident around others – and especially with yourself.
What makes you beautiful? What feature or trait are you most proud of about yourself?