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The enduring tyranny of the beauty myth

Asia Pacific rapidly becoming the epicenter of a global beauty industrial complex

| China
A cosmetics advertisement in Tokyo: in the beauty industry, a high proportion of Japanese advertisements feature white European models.   © AP

Natalie Kyriacou is a social entrepreneur, management consultant and the CEO of My Green World, a Melbourne-based social enterprise dedicated to addressing global wildlife and environmental challenges through innovative, youth-focused education.

For centuries, beauty has been the currency of womanhood, transcending class, culture, and time. More valuable than intelligence, athleticism, confidence, or kindness, physical beauty has always been a woman's most precious commodity.

In the Middle Ages, women would bleed themselves to achieve a pale complexion. A pale face signified wealth and nobility. Lead poisoning as a result of skin and hair powdering was equally common throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Complexion enhancing edible wafers made of arsenic, a known carcinogen, promised to transform the most sallow skin into radiant health; remove pimples; and clear the face of freckles and tan.

Women's bodies were equally under siege. Corsets, at the height of their appeal in the 19th century, prompted women to remove ribs and endure skeletal deformities and organ damage, in addition to the inconvenient and frequent fainting spells that they caused.

The list of dangerous, violent, and harmful practices inflicted on women's bodies is endless. From eyelash extensions that were sewn onto eyelids and foot binding techniques to achieve doll-like feet; to eye drops of deadly nightshade or belladonna to dilate pupils; to vials of urine from young boys to erase freckles; and pills containing tapeworm to promote weight loss.

The pathological obsession and fixation with female beauty have hardly dimmed in recent years. Rather, with globalization and mass production, the 20th century brought unprecedented exposure to the beauty industry and saw the intensifying of unrealistic beauty standards. Today, beauty is a $488 billion industry, where the Asia-Pacific now accounts for one-third of the industry's global value and is one of the world's fastest-growing markets.

Fifty-three years after the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, femaleness and womanhood continue to be defined by rigid -- often white, young, thin, and able-bodied -- beauty standards that manifest as a collective vanity.

Such narcissism is not so much a celebration of female beauty, but a response to feelings of worthlessness and shame that the beauty ideal has embedded in the collective female consciousness since time immemorial. The lengths modern women will go to achieve these ever-narrowing standards of beauty are beyond anything remotely imaginable in the Middle Ages.

The Asia Pacific region is rapidly becoming the epicenter of this beauty industrial complex. In 2019, the region made up 41% of the global cosmetics market and is anticipated to be the fastest-growing region for cosmetic surgeries and procedures. Women drive this demand, accounting for 86.4% cosmetic procedures worldwide.

China and Japan represent two of the largest beauty and personal care markets in the world, while South Korea is now the world capital of cosmetic surgery, with the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries per capita in the world.

A cosmetic surgeon operates on a woman who wants to have double eyelids in Seoul: South Korea is now the world capital of cosmetic surgery.   © Reuters

The rise in cosmetic surgeries and exposure to beauty standards has coincided with a movement promoting concepts like body positivity, self-acceptance, and "expanding" the beauty ideal to incorporate more physical diversity. Instagram beauty influencers and YouTube tutorials dominate social media, with body positivity the central message being projected. While the intent of this movement is noble, the beauty denialism phenomenon still puts the burden on women to be physically beautiful, while also asking them to change their own self-perception.

The truth is, an alarming portion of the public conversation about women -- "positive" or not -- is still focused on beauty. As New York Times critic-at-large Amanda Hess has said: "Expectations for female appearances have never been higher. It's just become taboo to admit that." In fact, the Journal of Plastic Reconstructive Surgery found that viewing cosmetic surgery-related material on social media, spending longer hours on social media platforms, and having negative self-views when viewing social media increased the likelihood of those considering undergoing cosmetic procedures in the future.

Female beauty, no matter how expanded and diverse the definition, will continue to be an oppressive constraint on women unless we challenge the system that perpetuates the notion that beauty is a woman's primary currency. Discourse around stringent beauty standards across Asia has been dismissed by critics as a symptom of Western arrogance and Eurocentrism. They argue that pale skin can be traced as far back as the Han Dynasty where skin color reflected social status. While Western arrogance and Eurocentrism undoubtedly play a role in assumptions about Asian culture, denying the existence of Western beauty standards in Asia is shortsighted and unhelpful.

It is uncomfortable to acknowledge that, despite momentous progress in women's rights, beauty continues to endure and be reinforced as the dominant currency for women. Beauty as currency in the 21st century harms women, occupies a majority of their time, and distracts society from the diversity of talents that we have to offer.

The answer to this problem is not the creation of more space for beauty content and conversation. Instead, let's lift and celebrate the diversity of other areas of female worth including their contribution to sport, history, academia, science, politics, and business. This does not mean that we ignore beauty entirely. Instead, we must admit that there is a toxic preoccupation with female beauty that is driven by a reliance on women's shame and insecurity.

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