For me, it was a headline that was hard to ignore. “A young Korean woman goes to extreme lengths to transform herself into Australian super model, Miranda Kerr!”
We’re not just talking about a simple change of hair colour here, or even purchasing some baby blue coloured contacts (which for the record, she did).
No! This was much more that that. It was going under the knife! A nose job and eye surgery.
Now, it’s clearly no secret, there are plenty of people who indulge (over-indulge if you like) in cosmetic surgery all the time to ‘look’ a certain way. Mostly, it’s in the hope you’ll look like a younger, new improved version of YOU, not so much a different version.
And of course just quietly, who wouldn’t like to look like the ever-stunning, jaw-droppingly gorgeous super model from DownUnder – Miranda Kerr!
When it comes to good genes, there’s no doubt she’s got the x-factor – but for most of us poor cousins, we’re faced with the reality that, (sigh) looking like Miranda Kerr is about as achievable as having Channing Tatum
for to dinner!
So, we get on with attempting to straighten our unruly locks, rub in that collagen firming cream with a little extra gusto and pull up the Spanx!
But this story was about a young Asian girl changing her looks to resemble someone of a completely different nationality, an Australian with a very different genetic make up.
It’s not the first time I’ve noticed the word de-orientalise bandied about in the news of late.
Men and women in Asia are undergoing surgery at a rapid rate to make their eyes bigger and noses more pointy to take on a more ‘westernised’ look. In South Korea it’s being called the ‘K-Pop plastic surgery obsession.’ To keep up with their rich and famous idols, young people are getting V-line surgery (which involves (shriek) breaking and shaving the jawline) which is often (gasp) a gap year gift – from parents!
Even Miss South Korea (2012) has confessed to going under the knife.
In China, spending on cosmetic surgery is now coming in fourth behind houses, cars and travel and it seems the most popular surgery asia-wide is the double eyelid procedure to make eyes appear larger.
As a westerner in awe of the Asian beauty I see paraded before me on a daily basis here in the Kong and beyond, it’s a little perplexing.
But I get it, you always want what you can’t have.
It’s certainly nothing new and in every culture, there are those who go to great lengths to achieve a certain look (that often defies what nature intended).
And just for the record, I am sure that a lot of ethnic Asians choose to go under the knife for a lot of reasons other than trying to look more westernized.
Nonetheless, Asian countries have long histories of utilizing white skin as a key criteria for beauty. In Korea, flawless, freckle-free white skin has been preferred since the first dynasty, while in China, milk-white skin has long been held up as a symbol of beauty.
Don’t get me started on the plethora of whitening creams lining many a cosmetic shop in Hong Kong! So much so, this sun-loving Gweilo can’t find a tanning cream within a 100 kilometre radius! (FYI, if you’re new to the blog, ‘Gweilo’ is a slang term (I like to think of it as affectionate) for foreigners in Hong Kong. It means ghost!) 😉
First world problems aside. What really worries me though, and mainly for those more impressionable, younger members of society, is the obvious over-exposure to western faces on advertising billboards, namely for fashion labels and cosmetic brands.
You see, my local shopping centre is overflowing with ‘Gweilo’ faces peering out from exquisite boutique fronts with their sultry smiles, piercing blue eyes and wavy blonde locks, shop after shop, after shop!
With a heavy colonial influence, Hong Kong is no doubt a melting pot of cultures, but the predominant look on the street is Asian.
Where we live is not exactly considered ‘local’ but on most days, the number of blondes pacing the mall with a mini blonde in tow is limited. More often than not, it’s just me myself and I… the lone Gweilo traipsing the mall clutching a Mint Mocha and an H & M bag (and the occasional small person)!
And even I – the ‘brown-eyed’-blonde feel a little cheated looking at these glossy images of blue-eyed beauties on display so prominently before me! Is this the standard we are all aspiring to?
I’m aware this superabundance of westernised advertising may well be the location of ‘Elements Shopping Mall.’ A potential hub for mainland Chinese crossing the border, its retail nirvanas target the extremely wealthy who crave the big brand-names and the way of life they represent.
‘Central’ though, Hong Kong’s heartland, I’m afraid to say is not that much different. Nicole Kidman (as much as I love a fellow aussie girl in town) looms down at me with a knowing look, showcasing her flashy Omega watch; Gap, who is credited with being on the more culturally diverse side is still missing an asian face on this supposedly multicultural billboard.
And when she is on show, she’s sporting blonde (platinum blonde) hair, as is the Shanghai Tang Asian model.
Don’t get me wrong – there are Asian faces to be seen in this city. The MTR is plastered with pictures of locals doing their thing, but for the most part it’s for ‘things’ that don’t involve beauty or fashion.
Ironically, a lot of the ads are for cosmetic surgery!
And as a Hong Kong cosmetic doctor pointed out to me, in the more local areas of Hong Kong, it’s still not Chinese images that are being featured but rather those East Asian faces of South Korea and Japan.
So, I’ve often wondered how women of Asian appearance feel about this over representation of caucasian faces beaming out at them from every open space available to savvy marketers.
Is it culturally insensitive?
Or is it something they’re just used to/have come to expect/or for that matter, want to see?
How would I feel if the roles were reversed? I’m not sure I would care so much, but I suspect it may subconsciously encourage me to look towards a different ideal of beauty.
I know just living here amongst the many Asian faces, I often find myself coveting their (generally) thick and shiny straight hair, full-lips, wrinkle-free faces and slim physiques. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
I put the question to Hong Kong locals and interestingly got a mixed response…. many had never thought about it, others had but weren’t bothered by what they see as typically western brands, naturally advertising with western models. Would a Chinese brand use a white face, they asked? Probably not.
But to me, the difference is these aren’t small, western brands, they are major ‘global’ brands.
And truth be known, their goods are probably made in Chinese factories.
The world’s largest cosmetics company is L’Oreal and China is it’s 3rd largest market. The company even has a Research and Innovation Centre in Shanghai with manufacturing centres in Suzhou and Yichang, where it produces most of its mass and professional brands.
Isn’t there a duty of care to showcase every type of nationality and perhaps cater a little more to a country’s people that advertisers are pitching to?
To quote 90’s runway model Veronica Webb “When you see someone that looks like you, it makes women feel beautiful, and it makes women feel they belong.”
The irony of it is – most of the western models gracing the front of fashion houses in Hong Kong wouldn’t even fit into the clothes these shops have in stock.
From my own personal experience, cosmetic counters are often guilty of not selling the right colours for a Gweilo girl’s skin (despite the shop front being emblazoned with America’s all time California girl).
With most Asian countries boasting their own national movie stars and pop stars to revere (Katy Perry who?) you have to question why campaigners aren’t cashing in on Asia’s famous faces.
Do they know something we don’t?
While, I’ve been told Asian stars probably wouldn’t consider modeling as the face of a product, I would also hazard a guess that there’s a ‘method in their madness’ approach by marketing gurus of the big fashion labels and cosmetic houses. They aren’t just ignorantly placing western brands with western faces across the far East for fun, with a “we can’t be bothered shooting ads for individual countries!” attitude.
It’s a sure bet there is some hardcore planning and politics by some heavy duty masterminds behind these strategies.
An article in Women’s ENews had this to say a few years ago about the subject.
“I think it’s a conscious effort that they are featuring Caucasian models,” Royce Yuen, chair of both the Ogilvy Group in Hong Kong and of Hong Kong’s Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies, said.
Caucasian models, he said, are used to sell everything from real estate to cheap clothing. The advertisers are not doing it because they “might as well” use the same ad in Hong Kong as elsewhere, Yuen said. They do it because “it gives people the impression that they’re more international and premium brands.”
While mainland China is not known for embracing western ideals, it’s widely acknowledged that western countries produce and consume higher quality consumer products and as China becomes a more affluent nation, it’s tastes for luxury western products are in hot demand.
You can read more about the Chinese consumer’s penchant for big name brands here in my earlier post Design of the Times.
With over half a billion women in China and Asian women today living in the fastest growing consumer market in the world — more cashed up than ever before — clearly today’s ad campaigns are working! They’re popular and sell the products in question….
But does that make it OK to use women and men – who’s face and body type is generally not attainable (for sheer genetic and race reasons) to advertise to the masses?
Some argue western media has effectively set a new standard of beauty in Asia.
Does it discourage people to appreciate beauty in its many forms? Or is the equation much more simple than that?
As a Price and Murray study in 2009 pointed it out “it’s anticipated that female Asian consumers would be less potentially intimidated by attractive western models as they draw less direct comparisons due to the models being less similar, therefore resulting in more positive attitudes and purchase intentions.”
Today Asian faces are definitely being utilised more and more by luxury brands – I’m just struggling to see much evidence of it here!
As one Fashion Designer put it, “In order to sell to Asians, you have to put your merchandise on white models.”
Fashion Faux Pas?
Or should this concerned Gweilo just mind her own business and as they say, ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.’
Perhaps this quote by Francis Bacon sums it up?
What do you think?