Unhappy Campers: Ethnicity and the standard of beauty
Sitting in a New Delhi restaurant a few years ago, our Indian tour guide told us that his daughter was living in New York, which is where we live. He proudly recounted her best attributes – she had a good education, a well paying job, and then he mentioned with conviction that she was “very pale in complexion.” The last one threw us a bit. We had seen and heard the skin cream commercials promising “whiter” skin, but had not, until then, experienced a father’s aspiration for his daughter to be more white.
The standard of beauty in many parts of the world still fits a Caucasian ideal. Maybe the explanation for this comes from an understanding of the West’s popular cultural influences that have global reach. Music, movies, television, and internet content has largely come from the West, which still exudes an Anglo standard of appearance more often than not. CNN reports that Korean and Chinese, who have increasingly high levels of per capita occurrence of plastic surgery, are driven by a desire to “look American”.
Dr Kim Byung-gun, the head of Seoul’s biggest plastic surgery clinic says:
“The Chinese and Korean patients tell me that they want to have faces like Americans. The idea of beauty is more westernized recently. That means the Asian people want to have a little less Asian, more westernized appearance. They don’t like big cheekbones or small eyes. They want to have big, bright eyes with slender, nice facial bones.”
The origins of looking “Caucasian,” and its purported aesthetic superiority, stem from mushy classifications of humankind dating back to the 18th century. Theories of how humans evolved from the Caucus Region (hence, Caucasian) were dubious to begin with, but have stuck in our collective consciousness and have led to thousands, if not millions of nose jobs since.
We can blame the Dutch. Specifically a guy named Petrus Camper and his theory on facial angles. In 1770, he unveiled his analysis of facial angles including the “ideal” proportions of nose widths. This theory went hand in hand with evolving perspectives of phrenology, cranial studies and other pseudo-scientific explanations of superiority that became enmeshed a century later in Darwinian undergirded social theories like Eugenics. Social power was, and still is, rationalized with a social science that set standards across cultures.
Are things going to change? In the U.S., evolving ethnic norms driven in large part by the growth of ethnic consumers, most especially Hispanics, suggest they might. Allure magazine launched a beauty survey where 64% of respondents thought women of “mixed race represent the epitome of beauty”. Whether it’s Beyoncé fighting to keep her curves , or Jennifer Lopez wowing after 40, there is some evidence toward this shift.
However, it isn’t that simple. The Camper facial angles theory still impacts popular culture standards in the United States, and for every Beyoncé there is a new nose for Kelly Rowland, Little Kim or a Janet Jackson (and sister LaToya). There is an active conversation on the notion of darkness of tone for African Americans, like Oprah’s recent focus on Dark Girls and body features for Hispanics.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but history has a long established set of assumptions that define how it is beheld. The socio-historical background that has led to today’s global explosion of rhinoplasty seems to have its roots in an 18th century theory that rationalized social power, creating generations of people who, when it comes to their self assessment, are very unhappy Campers.
Stephen Palacios is the Executive Vice President of Director Hispanic Practice at Added Value Cheskin. Click the link for more on Added Value Cheskin’s Intercultural offer.
Post originally written for The Huffington Post’s Latino Voices.
Photo credits: Beyoncé in the 2013 H&M Summer Collection.