This week’s reading discussed at large the issues behind cosmetic surgery in Brazil and South Korea. It was easy to distance as merely a “it’s them, not us” concept and idea — obviously, cosmetic surgery exists here but the problem regarding it is overseas.
This idea is exactly what Professor Lee seeks to critique in “Beauty Between Empires: Global Feminism, Plastic Surgery, and the Trouble with Self-Esteem”: the reason people in other nations look to go under the knife and emerge with a new, better body is a result of western aesthetic imperialism — through increased globalization and the financial hegemony of the United States, the idea of a “beautiful” woman is one that was decided by the western world.
Ironically, the opposite has already been in place as well. It’s interesting to think of how Asian bodies try to conform to looking more Caucasian — wider eyes, thinner noses, lighter skin when the Western world still exoticizes and finds fascination in the Asian subject. “Yellow fever” is a term heard relatively often in Western society, and paints a different image of how Asianness exists in social valuations. The question to pose from this is relatively simple: how is it that Western society can value and fetishize the unique aspects of Asianness while simultaneously pushing an aesthetic of whiteness of them?
Years ago, I watched a documentary titled Seeking Asian Female. This documentary, narrated by filmmaker Debbie Lum, told the story of a older white man named Steven living in California and how he met a Chinese woman named Sandy online, soon getting engaged and moving in together. Throughout the film, we see them go through a number of relationship troubles, all with Lum translating in between them, the most prominent of which involves Sandy finding images of Steven’s (also Chinese) ex.
Though this movie ends with a relatively uplifting note, noting that there may exist true love between 60 year old Steven and 30 year old Sandy and accusations of yellow fever might not matter, the consistent fetishization still leaves a sour note in that it finishes with the idea that Sandy’s humanness has trumped Steven’s vision of only loving women for how Chinese they look. Sandy then “westernizes,” learns English proficiently on her own, and settles down happily with Steven. It’s this ending that erases the fetishization of Asianness that had existed the whole movie.
The relevance of this film, besides being an interesting watch if you have an hour and a half to spare, is that it is a perfect showing of how Asianness is desired and fetishized as something to be had. To contrast, cosmetic surgery to emulate whiteness then exists to reaffirm a sense of innate worthiness in Asian women. The desirability of an Asian look, especially in women, is something that necessitates remaining passive: simply as an object to be seen or a wife to do chores, as opposed to having any sort of independent autonomy. Such agency is reserved for the Western world, where the value distribution among such ideas of beauty is one that travels more than skin deep. Asian women can remain as is and be valued passively as objects, but a Caucasian look gives them value as people, leaving us with an interesting look as to how transnational identities play a role in such popularized beauty structures.