Lest the last email from a reader featured here gives you the wrong first impression, Jacob Lee of California clearly put a lot of thought and attention into this one on the subject of Korean women’s body ideals, and has never ceased to be polite as he patiently waited almost 2 months(!) and many excuses from me before responding to it properly. Given the wait, he may be surprised to learn that I actually agree with most of the points he makes, although we draw very different conclusions from them.
For the sake of both making the email easier to read and distinguishing my interspersed comments from it, I’ve decided to preface the latter with pictures of myself, and, lacking a picture of Jake, one of popular Korean heart-throb Lee Seung-gi (이승기) to represent him. But no means do I mean to give the impression that I’m treating Jake’s email facetiously with that choice though, nor by the format that this was actually a two-way conversation. And I warn you: Jake’s email was over 2500 words long, and my response here brings that up to over 4300, so this post is definitely not for the faint-hearted!
Jake: Hello, Mr. Turnbull. I was browsing through your site the last few days when I came across your post, “From Asian to Caucasian,” at the end of which you wrote:
So although I’m always open to changing my mind, and think I have a pretty good record on this blog for admitting when I’ve been mistaken and/or changing my mind upon hearing new evidence, until someone actually addresses that point at all then I’ll continue to believe that “Caucasianness” is a very strong, albeit usually subconscious and/or indirect, influence on modern Korean women’s cosmetic surgery choices.
Well, hopefully, I can add a new, well… wrinkle to the topic of modern Korean women’s cosmetic surgery choices.
James: For readers’ sakes, let me reiterate that point here, which was that arguments that modern Korean ideals of appearance are merely extensions of historical associations of light skin and so forth, must confront the:
…big, fat, white elephant in the room that is America and the West. You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.
As Michael Hurt wrote in 2005. And so readers know what to expect, my main critique of Jake’s email is that while he does indeed add a great deal of new information to the subject, the points he make are essentially ahistorical, and he certainly doesn’t address that issue above.
Jake: First of all, let me just say that I do appreciate the work you are doing. I may not always agree with your conclusions, or the way you couch your arguments, but I do believe that for the most part, you are doing work that needs to be done, and saying things that need to be said as it pertains to Korean culture.
If you haven’t guessed already, I’m ethnically Korean. I’m a 23 year old guy living in Southern California. In the past few months especially, I’ve been interested in the question of Asians wanting to be Caucasians. Rather, I’m interested in the perspective of Caucasians regarding this topic. I suppose it wasn’t a really big surprise to learn that there are many Caucasians out there who firmly believe, as you do, that Asian women (in your case Korean women) are strongly influenced by “Caucasianness.” And no matter how vehemently these Asian women deny wanting to look white, the response invariably seems to be, “Yes you do. You just don’t know it b/c it’s subconscious, or you don’t want to admit it.” From youtube videos, Tyra Banks, the racist website stormfront.org, the list seems interminable.
To you and other non Asians, it seems that because many Asian women want larger eyes and a straighter nose, this is very strong evidence for their wanting to be white since these are deemed to be white standards of beauty…
James: Let me stop you there for a moment, as I think you’re careless with your choice of words here, unnecessarily and probably unintentionally generalizing myself and other Caucasians. Yes, I have indeed said that Korean women are strongly influenced by Caucasianness, but that’s not quite the same as saying that they subconsciously want to look White, and as far as I’m aware I’ve certainly never intentionally asserted such, either online or in person. I do agree that discussions on the subject by myself and others can certainly seem to have that dynamic you describe though, but in my own experience that’s frequently the result of either a misunderstanding or even a deliberate misrepresentation of non-Asians’ views.
Having said that, I do believe that the plethora of cosmetic surgery advertisements marketed towards Northeast-Asians but featuring Caucasians would suggest that – surely – some Koreans do indeed deliberately or subconsciously “want to look White.” But I’m not going to labor that point: it’s unnecessary. Rather, however cliched it is to do so, consider, say, that women wanting to look sexually aroused (and thereby more arousing) and men’s fondness for phallic symbols undoubtedly had big roles to play in origins of the modern habits of lipstick and tie-wearing respectively, but that doesn’t mean men and women deliberately or even subconsciously do so for those reasons now: instead, they are merely following cultural practices and/or norms surrounding them that have considerably evolved since. And in that vein, I’ll readily admit that the vast majority of Korean women that get lighten their skin and/or get cosmetic surgery operations that, to my eyes, make them look more Caucasian, actually do so to look more like Korean celebrities and/or merely follow Korean cultural norms. But while those certainly built on preexisting Korean ones, especially associations of light skins with an indoor, non-agricultural elite, they have also been heavily influenced by notions of class, civility and wealth literally embodied by Caucasians, as Michael Hurt pointed out.
That may all seem to be mere semantics, but because of the heated and often quite vitriolic debate this subject invariably seems to generate in the blogosphere, I want to remove that emotive element from any discussion immediately: I am not claiming here that Korean women simply want to look White, nor have I ever done so. With that out of the way then:
Jake: …But in the last few months, I’ve found that there has been some significant research done, mostly by evolutionary psychologists, which seem to strongly support the idea that there is, generally speaking, no white standard of beauty, Asian standard of beauty, black standard of beauty, or Hispanic standard of beauty – there is only a universal standard of beauty that is innate, recognizable by most, and aspired to by many.
I highly recommend the book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist and faculty member of the Harvard Medical School and of Harvard University’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative.
Here’s an excerpt:
Despite racism, misperceptions, and misunderstandings, people have always been attracted to people of other races. Today the world is a global community where international beauty competitions have enormous followings (although many complain that these contests favor Western ideals of beauty). There must be some general understanding of beauty, however vaguely defined, since even three-month-old infants prefer to gaze at faces that adults find attractive, including faces of people from races they had not previously been exposed to. In recent years scientists have taken a deep interest in the universality of beauty.
It turns out that people in the same culture agree strongly about who is beautiful and who is not. In 1960 a London newspaper published pictures of twelve young women’s faces and asked its readers to rate their prettiness. There were over four thousand responses from all over Britain, from all social classes and from ages eight to eighty. This diverse group sent in remarkably consistent ratings. A similar study done five years later in the United States had ten thousand respondents who also showed a great deal of agreement in their ratings. The same result has emerged under more controlled conditions in psychologists’ laboratories. People firmly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and then they jot down very similar judgments (image right: source).
Our age and sex have little influence on our beauty judgments. As we have seen, three-month-old babies gaze longer at faces that adults find attractive. Seven-year-olds, twelve-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and adults do not differ significantly in their ratings of the attractiveness of the faces of children and adults. Women agree with men about which women are beautiful. Although men think they cannot judge another man’s beauty, they agree among themselves and with women about which men are the handsomest.
Although the high level of agreement within cultures may simply reflect the success of Western media in disseminating particular ideals of beauty, cross-cultural research suggests that shared ideals of beauty are not dependent on media images. Perhaps the most far-reaching study on the influence of race and culture on judgments of beauty was conducted by anthropologists Douglas Jones and Kim Hill, who visited two relatively isolated tribes, the Hiwi Indians of Venezuela and the Ache Indians of Paraguay, as well as people in three Western cultures. The Ache and the Hiwi lived as hunters and gatherers until the 1960s and have met only a few Western missionaries and anthropologists. Neither tribe watches television, and they do not have contact with each other: the two cultures have been developing independently for thousands of years. Jones and Hill found that all five cultures had easily tapped local beauty standards. A Hiwi tribesman was as likely to agree with another tribesman about beauty as one American college student was with another. Whatever process leads to a consensus within a culture does not depend on dissemination of media images.
James: Not that this detracts from either the points made in the book or in your email, and in fact I agree with all of those made in this *cough* rather lengthy excerpt, but let me point out here how I’m increasingly skeptical of the validity of any reports on the body and face preferences and so forth of isolated jungle tribes. Primarily, this is because of the way in which they are almost invariably used in the media, literally thrown into the discussion to support almost any hypothesis. Just this June for instance, Newsweek used some other South American tribes to argue the exact opposite, arguing that men’s ideals of women’s hip-to-waist ratios were heavily dependent on women’s economic position in their culture.
Cross-cultural studies have been done with people in Australia, Austria, England, China, India, Japan, Korea, Scotland, and the United States. All show that there is significant agreement among people of different races and different cultures about which faces they consider beautiful, although agreement is stronger for faces of the same race as the perceiver.
In the Jones and Hill study, people in Brazil, the United States, and Russia, as well as the Hiwi and Ache Indians, were presented a multiracial, multicultural set of faces (Indian, African-American, Asian-American, Caucasians, mixed-race Brazilian, and others). There was significant agreement among the five cultures in their beauty ratings and some differences. For example the Hiwi and the Ache agreed more with each other than they did with people in Western cultures. This is not because they share a culture – they don’t – but because they have similar facial features, and they are sensitive to the degree of similarity between their facial features and the features of the people in the photographs. For example, although the Ache had never met an Asian person, they were curious about the Asian-American faces, attracted to them, and aware of a similarity between these faces and their own. The Ache gave less favorable ratings overall to African-American faces, and they called the Caucasian anthropologists “pyta puku”, meaning longnose, behind their backs. One Caucasian anthropologist was given the nickname “anteater”.
Since the Hiwi and the Ache had never encountered Asians and Africans, had met only a few Caucasians, and were not accustomed to using the scientists rating scales, any level of agreement with the Western cultures is intriguing. Jones found a number of points of agreement. People in all five cultures were attracted to similar geometric proportions in the face. They liked female faces with small lower faces (delicate jaws and relatively small chins) and eyes that were large in relation to the length of the face. Jones called these “exaggerated markers of youthfulness”, and they are similar to the features mentioned in other cross-cultural studies of beauty. For example psychologist Michael Cunningham found that beautiful Asian, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean, and Caucasian women had large, widely spaced eyes, high cheekbones, small chins and full lips.
People tend to agree about which faces are beautiful, and to find similar features attractive across ethnically diverse faces. The role of individual taste is far more insignificant than folk wisdom would have us believe.
Jake: And you can find the NYTimes book review here which offers some more insight (James: free registration required). Her book was even the basis for a discovery channel special which discussed the idea of a universal standard. Popseoul! (which I believe you are familiar with) even talks about it here.
No surprise that Kim Tae-hee (김태희) fits the standard perfectly, eh? Well, it wasn’t for me at least.
There might be the question, Do Caucasians fit the universal standard more than any other race? It doesn’t appear so. I can’t find the study anymore, but I’ll include it anyways just on the chance that you’ve come across similar studies or made comparable observations yourself, however informal. This study (one that was unrelated to this idea of universal beauty) suggested that 3 out of 4 people, regardless of race, were deemed to be either plain or ugly by participants who, themselves, were from various racial backgrounds. And only a very small percentage (less than one percent in each racial group if I recall correctly) was given the highest rating of beautiful.
My interpretation of this data is that since there are roughly 25% of people in each racial group who are considered somewhat attractive or beautiful, all racial groups have about the same proportion of people who fit the universal standard. It’s just that when we miss these standards, we miss them in different ways, e.g., small eyes for Asian women and big noses for Caucasian females.
Since I don’t have the source for this study, I wouldn’t blame you for ignoring it. But even if people want to believe that Caucasians fit the universal standard more than any other race, that still doesn’t change the fact (or at least what I believe to be a fact) that Asian women are trying to reach a universal ideal and not a white ideal.
James: I don’t mind that you don’t have the source for the study – I trust your interpretation of it – and I definitely agree that there are many features of human’s bodies and faces that are universally preferred: worldwide, people find symmetrical faces more trustworthy for instance.
But with that last sentence especially, I really think that you begin to carry the notion of universalism too far, as it leaves little room for what can be very influential culturally-based ideals, however malleable. And who exactly said that Caucasians fit the “universal standard” more than any other race? I know I certainly haven’t, and I challenge you to provide sources. The only sense in which I’d regard them as a universal standard is because of people’s associations of class, civility and wealth with Caucasians as explained, but that’s very different from saying that people have preferences for Caucasian features and so on for innate, biological reasons.
Update: One important thing I should add is that if Caucasian women have noses bigger than the universal standard, one would expect that Caucasian women would be getting operations to have them reduced with the same alacrity that Korean women, say, get double-eyelid surgery. I have no figures at hand and am frankly not inclined to search them out, but I’d wager that that isn’t at all the case. This ties in with the next quote by Michael Hurt I give a little later also.
Jake: So to paraphrase Nancy Etcoff, which is more likely? That a select group of men on Madison Ave. and in Hollywood determined what the ideal beauty should be and was able to influence countless billions of men and women over the next fifty years, even infants as young as one week old, even people living in the remotest parts of the world, such as the jungles of South America, people whom the only Caucasians they’ve seen were the few researchers who contacted them, researchers who were called “anteaters” behind their backs, but because of the stong influence of “Caucasianness, these people from all around the world, consistently chose what you consider to be the white standard of beauty, as their ideal standard of beauty, and they didn’t have the awareness, nor the capabilities, nor the will to resist such an influence, even knowing, perhaps only on a subconscious level, that they will never be able to measure up.
Or, could there be a universal standard of beauty, a certain facial structure that the significant majority of the people from all races and cultures find attractive, something that we are all born with, something we’ve always had even before the “westernization” of the world, just like we’ve always had an innate universal preference for the taste of fat and sugar, and a universal preference for certain sounds, rhythms and smells, and a universal enjoyment for the feeling of a soft fabric on bare skin, and a universal understanding of a smile and expressions of sadness and anger. And perhaps these advertising people on Madison Ave. and in Hollywood were as influenced by these standards as the rest of us?
Now I know that this is a gross simplification of a very complicated issue, and the “westernization” of the world is much more complicated and has many more facets including cultural, political, and economic imperialism, but at its core, the question that Nancy Etcoff poses needs at the very least to be considered….
James: Sorry, but “a gross simplification” is putting it mildly. And what’s to consider? Nancy Etcoff would find no disagreement from me that there are universally appealing facial features and shapes and so on. I’d even concede that double-eyelids, for instance, may not be quite as “Caucasian” as I first thought, and that Korean women may get the operation simply to make their eyes look bigger (and thus more attractive, by universal standards or otherwise) and/or just out of cultural habit…Caucasian ideals be dammed. But there’s so much more to the Caucasianness of the cosmetic surgery choices of Korean women then mere eyelids. As Michael Hurt points out (yes, him again, but then his post would be a adequate critique of your email in itself):
Deference to white skin here is so alive and well [here], how can one deny that it plays any role in the decision to get one’s eyes cut larger, nose Romanized, old-school high cheekbones shaved down to size, breasts enlarged, asses and lips pumped full of silicone, and nerves in the calves snipped? One can say that plastic surgery in the States or the West is also in major effect these days, but the crucial difference is that Westerners aren’t getting their epicanthic fold removed, breasts reduced, cheekbones raised, nose bridges removed, or calves fattened up. Let’s get real here – cultural sadaejuui (사대주의; flunkyism, toadyism, deference) goes in one direction. That’s what makes the case so sad when it comes to one culture trying to attain a beauty standard set by another one.
Moreover, as he eloquently puts it, you’re simply ignoring the big, fat, White elephant in the room that is America and the West:
You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.
In particular, I fail to see how a preference for light skin, taken to such extremes here that Korean women have among the lowest Vitamin D levels in the world, is anything but culturally determined.
Jake: To be sure she and her book are not without their critics, the most prominent being feminists (such as Naomi Wolf) and certain academics who have tried to downplay the importance of beauty for various reasons in the last few decades (James: see Popmatters for a recent feature article on this subject). But no one to my knowledge has been able to dismiss or discredit the significant amount of research she has included in her book. And judging by your other posts and your references to and criticisms of scholarly or journalistic pieces of work, I’m sure this won’t dissuade you from trying, lol. This book came out ten years ago, and since that time much research has been done which have only strengthened her conclusions. A couple of examples: first, from Psychology Today, and the BBC’s The Human Face documentary:
It is very Caucasian centric, but the conclusions Dr. Stephen Marquardt reaches parallels those of Dr. Escott in many ways.
Let me also say that I don’t want to give the impression that I believe “Caucasianness” had no influence on Korean women. Clearly, there has been. I think hair and eye colors are good examples of that. These aren’t universalities, so the fact that Korean women started dying their hair en masse during the eighties and started wearing colored contacts in the 1990’s tell me they were strongly influenced by white standards in this regard.
However, as Nancy Etcoff and others have pointed out, these culture specific standards (e.g. foot binding, lip plates, piercings, etc.) have a way of changing, sometimes very rapidly, to take on an altogether different meaning, such as what happened with the perception of a woman’s weight here in the U.S (source right: Scoubi).
In a similar way, I think the reasons why Korean women started dying their hair also changed along the way. Now, I think they do it for the same reasons Caucasian women do it – simply because they believe it makes them look better and they just want to try a different look. I also believe that they change the color of their hair to look more like Korean female celebrities. I don’t have anything to base my conclusions on because as far as I know, there hasn’t been any studies done on this issue. I’m only going by the word of the Korean women themselves and my understanding of how greatly Korean women admire the beauty of many Korean actresses.
And regarding colored contacts, that fad seems to be largely over.
James: Well, you can’t have it both ways. You’ve certainly made your point that some aspects of women’s facial and/or body ideals are really innate and universal, but like you and Nancy Etcoff say, others can be culturally determined. The onus is now on you to provide a list of which is which, otherwise it’s difficult to continue the discussion.
I strongly suspect though, that most of the cosmetic surgery operations that Korean women undergo (that to my eye make them look more Caucasian) will be extremely difficult to explain in terms of adherence to a universal standard, and which is in itself probably very much open to interpretation. If you do admit that some choices are culturally determined though, then again you really need to address the question posed at the beginning of this post.
But I think the point that average Korean women are whitening their skins and undergoing cosmetic surgery because they want to look like rich and famous Korean women is, to be blunt, irrelevant: it merely changes the focus of our attention, but doesn’t answer the question of why rich and famous Korean women (rather than average Korean women) are doing so.
Well, to me, the answer is quite clear.
Anyways, I support what you are trying to do as it relates to women’s and children’s issues in Korea. Even though I’ve lived most of my life in the U.S., I still feel a deep connection to the country of my birth, and I have a great amount of respect for what it has been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time, especially since I sense an earnest attempt to continually improve itself. But that doesn’t blind me to its faults, and unfortunately, there are still too many.
Hope to hear from you soon concerning this topic. Take care.
James: Apologies if I ultimately seem a bit dismissive of all your efforts, but I do really appreciate all the time and effort you put into your email, which I learned a great deal from on. And I really hope to keep the discussion going with yourself and other readers, either in the comments or by email. Naturally my preference is for the former, to make it a real discussion and all, but if you or anyone else would like to send further emails to be published here on this subject (or anything else) then by all means please do so. Preferably ones at least *cough* 50% shorter than 2500 words though!
Update: This post at Ask a Korean! about the differences in beauty standards between Koreans and American gyopos (ethnic Koreans living overseas) is a healthy reminder to be more specific about exactly which groups of ethnic Koreans we are discussing in the future. For the record then, I’ve only ever been referring to Korean women in Korea.