Three different hair-color, skin-colored girls looking at the mirror

Beauty Anthropology: Are Asian Beauty Standards a Good Influence?

What are the Asian beauty standards?

three Asian women standing by looking each different ways
Photo by project voice pod

The most common Asian beauty standards are whiteface. It’s a concept with a long history in the beauty world. For example, a geisha, a Japanese symbol of feminine glamor, or a Beijing opera actress. They have very smooth skin with a rosebud mouth.

“In China, Korea, Japan, India, and Thailand, countries that have set a great deal of stock on siloing their people by class, skin color created firm lines of division between the wealthy and the poor. The paler you were, the more obvious it was that you spent your life coddled inside, away from the harsh sun and hard labor in the fields under it. Paleness was a mark of prestige, a signifier that you were kept.” -The Secret Beauty Issue Asian-Americans Deal With Every Summer

Nikki Khanna, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont explained. A lot of this whitening skin pressure comes from the mother and other family members.

“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.”

Junior and Asian Student Association co-leader Jessica Yang added.

“Most of it has its roots in history — more specifically, colonialism. Which resulted in the promulgation of European beauty standards in cultures all over the world.”

“Even before European colonialism, fair skin was considered desirable in many civilizations. Because it meant you were wealthy enough to stay inside and not work. This desire for fair skin has carried into the modern day. Even though fair skin isn’t necessarily an indicator of wealth anymore.”

The culture has a deep connection with today’s Asian beauty standards

For instance, in China.  Having pale skin describes the woman as elite status, while dark skin means farming or laboring long hours in the sun. This unspoken rule led to skin whitening. And it has grown multi-billion dollars in the Asian beauty industry. For instance, famous brands L’Oreal and Lancôme are popular in this skin whitening business.

“discriminatory treatment of individuals falling within the same ‘racial’ group based on skin color”-on our terms: White and Beautiful 

In a 2017 report by Grand View Research, the value of the skin whitening market was $8.3 billion.

Another example, in Japan. Japanese beauty prefers simple products that are used in their daily routine. To keep your skin naturally perfect and glowing. One very common practice is “double-cleansing”. This was originated by geisha. They used camellia oil to remove their heavy white face makeup. Then wash with a foaming cleanser to rinse the leftovers. The oil breaks makeup and sebum on the skin. A water-based cleanser helps to remove the oil residue. These two steps make our skin much cleaner than just washing with soap.

Japanese beauty is about clear, light, and wrinkle-free skin and not golden skin.

Avoiding the sun is a standard for Asian beauty

From history, In many East Asian countries, people want to have paler skin. Therefore, they will take precautions to stay out of the sun. Which is the opposite of Western culture. People love to go to the beaches in the summer to get golden skin. They even skip putting on sunscreen and will go to the tanning booth when they can’t spend enough time in the sun.

When I was a child, I was told not to get tanned. Always bring a hat or umbrella, put on SPF cream. After growing up at a certain age, every girl in a classroom intensely cares about protecting their skin and not being black. They adored keeping white skin. All the photo booths have a filter that can turn our skin to look very white. It was not a question until I lived in Australia.

The girls in Australia are going to the beach to get tanned and chill out under the sunlight. People admire going on vacation. The culture of makeup was the opposite. The industry pushes products to make women look more bronzed, sun-kissed.

The difference between Asian and Western is about skin types

The skin reaction to the sun is based on 6 levels of the skin. From type 1, ivory to type 6, dark brown. Type 1 and 2 skins tend to burn more easily and type 5 and 6 rarely burn or tan darkly. Many Asians have a brown skin type. However, East Asians have fairer complexions. Their skin type is around 3 or 4. They tend to burn more than South Asians.

“The lighter your skin, the more at-risk you are for issues like melanoma and other skin cancers.”-keshuome

Many Asian cultures are more conscious of skin protection than  Westerners. Which makes sense why Asians use more sunscreen.

Even for sunscreen, the formula is different from Western countries, especially the United States. In Asia, they treat sunscreen as a cosmetic. This means the ingredients go through a different testing process. And they have more ingredients than US sunscreen. It can protect our skin from cancer, UVA light rays.

“Asian cultures, such as in Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines, differ. These cultures are similarly enamored with pale skin. Which contributes to their wide range of high-quality sunscreen products. Because the market is so competitive, the products are not only better. But cheaper as well.”-HealthLine

Skin whitening market with beauty brands

In 2013 Emma Watson from Lancome's skin whitening products advertisement
photo by Lancome

In beauty products, there is BB cream. It is used for skincare benefits before putting any makeup on. It’s meant to hydrate, illuminate, protect the skin. However, in Asia, it’s more popular as a skin whitening product.Even men want to be white-skinned. In a 2016 study, roughly 50% of men in the Philippines tended to purchase skin-whitening and anti-aging products.

A cosmetic trade reporter Andrew McDougall noted. Skin lightening has been a long trend in Asia. And it will continue in the next five years. He added more. “it’s good to be white in Asia, where TV stars are white and models are white. Everyone is airbrushed until they look like ghosts. In Asia, dark skin is poor, white skin is rich. They promote whiteness because no one wants to be perceived as poor,”

The view of pale skin has remained the basic East Asian beauty standards. Many East Asian makeup products include very specific purposes toward lightening the skin. Whether people put on a foundation or skin bleaching products, there are tools to help them to look lighter. As a historical result of darker skin being labeled as inferior, lighter skin is labeled as superior. Which reinforces historical racial inferiority complexes.

Senior Aaron Lin said. “Darker-skinned people get treated worse than lighter-skinned people.” “It’s a sign of Western supremacy in our world and the lingering effects of imperialism.”

First example with L’Oreal

As we have previously seen, L’Oreal and Lancôme are two major brands in this market. And what is happening exactly?

Last year, 2020, L’Oreal has announced they will remove the words referencing “ white, fair, and light” from its skin-evening products.

They are a big player in the global market for skin whitening creams. It is used in many Asian, African, and Caribbean countries. In these countries, fair skin is often considered desirable.

The social criticism towards skin-lightening products is increasing. Its pressures on companies for colorism. As they pushed to address using their racial stereotypes in popular products.

“Cosmetics companies were next to enter the firing line as critics highlighted the disparity between supportive Black Lives Matter posts and the continued profiteering from products that promote colorism and have been banned in several countries.”- Forbes 

Second example with Lancôme

Another particular example from Lancôme. They have a product called “Blanc Expert”. Lancôme explains how this product works our skin.

“It helps brighten even skin tones and provides a healthy-looking complexion. This kind of product, proposed by every brand, is an essential part of Asian women’s beauty routines.”

However, the word “white”(blank in French) became the key to this topic. Christine Chang, co-founder of, Glow Recipe explained.

“It’s such a one-dimensional word. It doesn’t speak to radiance and luminosity and transcendence, and all these things that these products are supposed to do. It’s not about the shade of skin, but about the overall glow.”

Filter culture and plastic surgery are major in the Asian beauty standard

Describing how to use filter app
image by

In Asia, selfie consumption can be the most advanced in the world. PhotoWonder and BeautyPlus have over 200 million users. Both launched in China. PhotoWonder claims to have its users in 218 countries.

So what can they do? In PhtoWonder, only pressing one button “Intelli-beauty” will transform a photo into a thin face with large eyes.

The selfies demanded on social media work on a larger scale in Asia Lev Manovich, a new media theorist explained.

“But what is most crucial is that facial beauty is even more important in Asia than in the West. And it is carefully crafted through the use of makeup, skin lightening products, and often also plastic surgery.”

Plastic surgery for doll face

image shows us what kind of plastic surgery are operating in Asia
image by Shary Ali

If you have ever watched K-drama or K-pop, you’ll notice a strange phenomenon of excessive homogeneity.

Most women look almost highly similar. It’s called a “doll-like look”. Very pale skin, big eyes with double eyelids, a tiny nose with a high nose bridge, and rosebud lips. All these features are highly demanded by the South Koreans and the Chinese. And it can’t be achieved only with makeup. That explains the popularity of cosmetic surgery in these two countries.

A study from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Almost one in three South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 have experienced it.

According to CNN, more than 50% of plastic surgery cases in China are performed under the age of 26. In East Asia, plastic surgery is encouraged at a young age. This is the opposite in countries like the U.S. Where only about 6% of plastic surgery cases are done by individuals under the age of 30.

Especially in South Korea, plastic surgery is sometimes seen as a high school “graduation gift.” where parents pay for their children to have a procedure. These parents want their children to look pretty before they send them off to college and the workforce. It is believed that the better looking is easier to get opportunities at obtaining jobs, finding a partner.

Double eyelids

In Asia, double eyelid surgery there is another major beauty trend. Back in the 19th century, it was very popular, especially in East Asian countries such as Taiwan and Mongolia. The desire for double eyelids and larger eyes was influenced by Western culture in the Asian media. It often highlights it as more beautiful.

Even though the United States is the most plastic surgery operation country, South Korea is still the capital of plastic surgery.

Smaller jaws

There is another popular surgery. It’s jaw shaving. In order to create a small, V-shaped chin, patients had surgery to make a slimmer shape. VIP International Plastic Surgery Center described.

“It starts with a small incision inside the mouth, followed by shaving off the excess bone. The procedure costs around $6,500.”

Nose jobs

Nose surgery is also common in Asia. In southeast Asia, they tend to have a nose with a flatter and wider side. The average cost for operation is around $15,000.

“Asian rhinoplasty is to augment the nose to be more prominent with a higher bridge and sharper tip that is in proportion to the face.” –Woodbury plastic surgery 

In South Korea, plastic surgery is not even a question. It’s a very usual thing to do, especially among young women. At one point, they considered building a cosmetic surgery clinic at the airport.

It does sound very intense, but for them, it’s necessary to change their lives for the better. They even understand the dangers, the pain, and the side effects.

Finally, are Asian beauty standards toxic?

Women with different skin colors, hair colors, are all looking one direction
image from

Khanna considers all 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.”

“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 meet unrealistic beauty standards. Which tells them that they should be thin.”

Asian beauty standards are influenced by history, culture, and sociological issues. Whether which standards we’re trying to adjust to, the unrealistic images can damage our self-esteem.

Therefore, Khanna encourages people to look at the background history of their beauty standards. It’s the way we can recognize ourselves for who we’re. While the beauty companies are making money off our misunderstanding.

In addition, Junior and Asian Student Association co-leader Samantha Chin said. “East Asians need to recognize that people are born with different physical features unique to their ethnicity.”

In conclusion, it will take a long time to completely erase the toxic East Asian beauty standards. However, it’s worth taking. Including makeup products being more inclusive of different skin types. All East Asian countries should discourage idealizing Western features.

No matter the color of our skin, the size of our eyes, or the shape of our face, there are always better choices. Knowing the history and culture will lead people to move forward from beauty standards. And it will let people see their individual beauty.

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