Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a concerning surge of anti-Asian hate crime, with racist generalizations of a “Chinese virus” weaponized against East Asians in particular. Combined with the Atlanta shootings in March, the normalization of racism towards Asian people in Western society has moved to the forefront of conversations. The UK is no stranger to anti-Asian hate, as recent heavily criticized race reports suggest. There is a wealth of Asian culture here, and many Asian people have experienced abuse.
Amid the ongoing discussions, the beauty industry is on the top of people’s minds. In recent years, it has become apparent that racism and cultural appropriation towards South and Southeast, Western, and Central Asians is normalized in so-called beauty “trends.” From “skin brightening” to facial fillers, many trends are rooted in white-favoring beauty standards and erase people of color. Unintentional or not, it needs to be challenged.
Social media has become a frenzy of big beauty movements. One major “look” that has swept across all platforms is the “fox eye” trend. Endorsed by makeup artists and Instagram influencers alike, it involves distorting one’s eye and brow shape using thick, light-colored concealer, tape, or even Botox. The goal is to achieve an upward slanted look. On TikTok alone, the #foxeyemakeup hashtag has 25.4 million views and counting. It can’t be ignored that this opens a gateway to fetishizing Asian features, and is entirely ignorant.
“The fox eye trend is catastrophic to the Asian community,” tattoo artist Alex Lawson says. As the fox eye peaked in popularity, many pointed out that it relies on taking facial features from East Asians — features that have often been mocked. It’s wrong, not to mention racist, to glorify these features on white faces alone. “I’ve had strangers in the street pulling their eyes and shouting slurs at me,” Lawson continues. “People want to wear Asian features without living the effect of being an actual Asian person.” Photographer and podcast host Natalie Lam also voices her concern about the fox eye trend. “We were mocked for so many years and we still are,” she says. “It’s insulting that Westerners can pick and choose things that are out of our control and just drop the ‘trend’ when the next one appears.”
As the “fox eye” makeup trend peaked in popularity, many pointed out that it relies on taking facial features from East Asians — features that have often been mocked. It’s wrong, not to mention racist, to glorify these features on white faces alone.
Dr. Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist and beauty expert, says the trend makes her uneasy. “I feel really uncomfortable with anything that changes one’s ethnic features,” she says. Though some might argue that it’s unconscious and unintentional, the popularity of the fox eye trend proves that beauty and racism are so intertwined that stealing from other races, ethnicities, and cultures has become the norm. If the basis of your “aesthetic” comes from the oppression of others, it is unfair and unjust. “The opposite of this, often in Far Eastern countries, is having plastic surgery to remove eyelid folds to create a more Westernized experience,” Dr. Mahto adds, referring to blepharoplasty, also known as double eyelid surgery. It is popular among East Asian people and is said to make one’s features appear more Caucasian, as women strive to achieve Eurocentric standards of beauty.
Speaking of surgery, it’s impossible to scroll through beauty-focused TikTok and Instagram without coming across before-and-after videos of nose jobs. Liquid nonsurgical nose jobs that use filler to alter the shape of the nose are trending in particular. Of course, plastic surgery (or any face augmentation) is entirely down to the individual and their personal happiness — but so many of these liquid nose jobs and ideals of what noses “should” look like pander to whiteness.
On TikTok, the hashtag #nonsurgicalnosejob has 16 million views; scroll through and you’ll see many women undergoing procedures to smooth out what they consider “bumps.” More often than not, these bumps are features of ethnic noses, showing genetic ancestry. Beauty influencer Halima of Fashionicide says that while her nose wasn’t a huge issue for her growing up, when she really got into beauty she noticed a lot of South Asian influencers would alter their noses with makeup as the contouring trend took off. Contouring is still big today, and can be seen to reinforce the idea that ethnic noses are not beautiful. “It didn’t make me feel particularly bad about [my nose], but if the people that are supposed to represent you are doing this, then I can totally see how South Asian women would feel that pressure,” Halima says.
Liquid nose jobs have become popular recently among East Asian women. The trend sees people getting filler injected into their nose to give them a bridge bone, much like a Caucasian nose. An online search uncovers countless aestheticians who claim they can create a “higher nose bridge” in people of Asian descent who tend to have “lower nose bridges,” as though the latter is something to be changed. It’s obvious that beauty standards are at play here and that insecurities may be shaped by years of white Eurocentric goals, which target Asian women of color.
The Western world repackaging Asian beauty items truly treads a fine line between appreciation and appropriation.
Aesthetics aside, beauty tools and techniques have recently been called into question, too. Massage technique gua sha has a history in traditional Chinese medicine and is known to relax muscle tension, bring down inflammation, and reduce eye bags. However, similar to other cultural traditions, the Western world has rebranded the technique as “new” or “innovative.” Some have even gone so far as to tout it as “natural Botox,” causing offense. On their own, gua sha facial massaging tools are harmless, but the Asian women I spoke to for this feature vocalized a greater concern for how Western society revamps Asian rituals as its own. “The Western world repackaging Asian beauty items truly treads a fine line between appreciation and appropriation,” Lawson says. Lam adds, “Massage tools specifically are an instance where appropriation has been so normalized that even those whose cultures have been appropriated are no longer fazed by it. I think Western beauty companies essentially stealing an idea and claiming it as their own is, over anything else, incredibly lazy.”
Lawson adds that henna products, although not inherently discriminatory, are another example of Asian appropriation in beauty. “This is something East Asians have used for centuries,” she says. “It’s seemingly harmless but I’ve seen beauticians and makeup artists advertising henna eyebrow and freckle treatments for £30-£50,” when it is a cheap dye that many East Asian people use at home. Capitalizing on things like henna and gua sha by rebranding them as Western innovations via “trends” doesn’t sit right with many people, Lam says. “The key to appropriation vs. appreciation is giving credit where credit is due. To my knowledge, people aren’t giving credit to the originators of these techniques and tools, and instead act like they are revolutionary.”
On TikTok, there are countless videos by beauty experts and enthusiasts which show Asian women how to reduce their dark underarms or “strawberry legs” (pigmented hair follicles) using ingredients like acids and retinol.
Colorism is another of beauty’s biggest unkept secrets, and products that position their marketing with the goal of achieving “lighter” or “fairer” skin are rooted in racially coded language. It implies that anything other than white is undesirable. In the UK, we like to think we’ve moved beyond this: Unless prescribed by a dermatologist, lightening creams containing ingredients like hydroquinone, steroids, and mercury are banned here — yet you can still find lightening creams illegally stocked in high-street retailers and on third-party beauty websites. Frighteningly, however, beauty brands are shifting their strategy by appealing to consumers using different terminology such as skin “brightening” and “pigmentation reducing,” which arguably has a similar effect in some cases.
On TikTok especially, there are countless videos by beauty enthusiasts that show Asian women how to reduce their dark underarms or “strawberry legs” (pigmented hair follicles) using ingredients like acids and retinol. In a handful of videos, plenty of comments show that people have noticed body pigmentation but have never cared to do anything about it until now, while others ask if body pigmentation is normal. The answer is yes — but viral videos like these perpetuate the notion that it isn’t. Sometimes, it’s even less subtle. Recently, TikTok pages advertising questionable skin-brightening creams to Asian people have made their way into women’s feeds. Their advertising strategies often show dark skin being lightened, with hashtags such as #YesVeryClean. This suggests that dark skin is dirty, and no doubt leaves an impression on a younger audience.
Model and DJ Flik Renée says colorism haunted her growing up. “I was so harsh on myself in my teens, trying to meet unrealistic beauty standards which had me convinced that my beautiful skin wasn’t beautiful enough because I was ‘too dark’ or ‘not fair enough,'” she says. “It wasn’t unusual for aunties and family members to unintentionally drop remarks and give you tips on how to lighten your skin. This is how deep the ideology is set within the South Asian communities in particular.” Beauty influencer Yasmin Johal says that we need to turn to our communities and reconcile with our own colorist ideals. “I think a lot of the pressure of colorism comes from within my own culture, and for me that began when I was 8 years old,” Johal says. “I’d just come back from a holiday in Spain and I had really dark skin. My grandma told me to scrub it off. It implied to me that having dark skin wasn’t good.”
Beauty brands champion “bushy brows” as the look to aim for. Yet when trends like this come into fashion, they are only ever celebrated on white women.
Like melanated skin, our disdain for body hair has become deeply entrenched in whiteness, not to mention misogyny. South Asian women with darker, thicker hair are often the target of ridicule and shame as their body hair tends to be more visible. Though perhaps not rooted entirely in racism, appealing to a white gaze pushes an unfair standard on many women of color. Of course, women with fairer skin and lighter hair may feel similar pressures to maintain grooming due to patriarchal standards, but they most likely do not face the same mockery as those with more noticeable body hair. Johal points specifically to brow trends, as brands and magazines champion “bushy brows” as the look to aim for. When trends like this come into fashion, they are only ever celebrated on white women. “A lot of South Asian women have very hairy faces naturally, and we generally tend to have hair in between our eyebrows,” she says. “It’s not a trend; it’s something we live with and something we’ve been bullied for, especially as younger women.”
On TikTok and Instagram, videos showcasing sugaring, threading, and hard waxing, and new shaving, epilating, and laser devices are uploaded in vast numbers. It’s safe to say that hair removal is trending, but this only adds to the existing pressures on young women. TikToker Anna recently took to the app to talk about having body and facial hair as an Asian woman after being criticized by a man online. She said, “There’s this conception that women should be hairless and I think it comes as a shock when they see how much hair a woman can grow.” Touching on a recent video that showed her underarm hair, Anna added, “As an Asian woman I have really thick, coarse, dark hair all over my body and face. I’m sure other women have been bullied for having hair in places they’re not supposed to, so stop policing where we should have hair. It’s so natural.”
Halima says that damaging beauty ideals are enforced by many women, too. “I was speaking to some of my colleagues about not shaving my legs one winter because I’d need all the warmth I can get and another South Asian girl overheard, looked at me in disgust, and asked me whether my husband would mind,” she says. “Sure, the standard may be Eurocentric, but it is enforced by non-Europeans just as strongly, if not stronger.” Music journalist Lucinda adds that says misogyny is definitely a factor in how body hair on women of color is perceived. “I’ve heard Asian men mock Asian women for their hair but it’s usually because they’re comparing them to white women,” she says. “Their ideal notion of a hairless woman stems from the media, not to mention the beauty industry pushing this as the expectation.” Shaving and removing your hair should be a choice, not something you feel you have to do.
It isn’t just race that comes into play when analyzing today’s beauty “trends,” nor are Asian women the only ones affected by harmful beauty standards. While change is slow, calling these trends into question is a start in dismantling the beauty industry’s discriminatory views and blatant appropriation towards Asian people. What’s more, representation in beauty should be championed not simply because it’s the tokenistic “good thing” to do, but because white faces should not be the only ones allowed to thrive and prosper in this space. It’s more important than ever to be conscious of our behavior, our attitude towards those from diverse backgrounds, and how we consume beauty trends in the future.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
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