A cultural look into beauty and how beauty is defined

by Ali Wood


As a mixed race child raised in Los Angeles, one of the preeminent beauty defining cities in the world, I have developed a complex idea of what beauty means. I have experienced first hand how two cultures can contradict the idea of true beauty. From the time I was a young girl, the question of what it meant to be beautiful was often on my mind. Coming from a family that preached the importance of looking one’s best, I was never sure which “one” I should be, Japanese or Australian, for both cultures have their own idea of what is truly beautiful. All cultures have their own manuals on how to become beautiful, but the true epitome of beauty is defined by the person staring back at you in the mirror.

I live with Japanese beauty products scattered around my house, each one adorned with a light skinned, wide eyed women with thick doll like hair. I’ve sat with my mother as she lathers cream after cream on my face in the hopes of warding off undesired wrinkles and freckles. I receive gifts of whitening products from my mother’s compatriots that I have been too scared to open. I come to school with extended eyelashes, longer than my own fake nails. All these products are meant to make me the most beautiful Japanese woman I can be. This is the standard of beauty I have been exposed to and expected to uphold as a woman of Japanese descent. But I am not only a Japanese woman, I am an Australian one too. The Australian women in my life praise the freckles that are sprinkled across my face. They embrace the color the sun gives them, even using tanning wipes to achieve the optimum sun kissed look. Lashes and nails are not of the utmost importance, but having nice white teeth and a nice beach body to match are essential. These are the ideals for an Australian woman in my Aussie family’s eyes.

But if the cultures that make up my genealogy have different ideas on what makes a woman beautiful, then what is true beauty?? This is the question I have pondered time and time again. The essence of beauty has always seemed to be found in a product, whether it was cream or a mask. But when you begin to pick apart products that seem to make us beautiful, you are just left with the product, not the answer to why you are not seemingly beautiful. A cream does not determine if a woman is beautiful. Nor does the color of her skin or the lack or abundance of freckles on her face. Beauty is a cultural ideology that society has burdened women with as a requirement to achieve. When you grow up with an inside look on multiple nationalities as I have, you see the ways different countries define beauty based on their cultural standards and unique environments. These definitions turn into expectations thanks to constant advertisement of products and the glamorous people who are paid to promote them.

And while beauty can be seen as an arbitrary standard enforced by the masses,  it is hard to swim against the tide of the established ideal of beauty, such as a Barbie doll figure and a diminutive personality. Being beautiful, cute, pretty, or hot has become essential for a woman. From the Princess Diary makeover to the Regina George effect, it is constantly being promoted in the media that to succeed, beauty is a must. With teenagers especially, the idea that boys only go for the pretty girls has been promoted, evidenced by classic character types such as the ever popular cheerleader. However, in recent years, the global ideas of beauty have evolved to include more types of women. The 21st century has been a door opener for exposing different ideas of what constitutes beauty with movements such as #Plusisequal which celebrates body positivity through models such as Ashley Graham, who was the first plus size model to grace the cover of the coveted Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. More and more versions of beautiful are being highlighted in the media making beauty more diverse than it has ever been before. But while there are more versions of beautiful in the world today, the standards of cultural beauty are more demanding than ever. Girls in Sierra Leone are going to extreme lengths to achieve light skin through bleaching while other girls in Europe and the United States are idolizing and trying to mimic perfect photoshopped bodies that only a computer can achieve. Gifts of plastic surgery are being given to young South Korean girls by their parents to fix their eyelids, noses, cheeks, and chins. When considering national standards of beauty the idea of diversity is hard to embrace due to the fact that classic beauty has been established over generations, whether it is a Geisha with lily white skin or a Swede who covets blonde hair and big blue eyes.

 But deviating from your nationality’s idea of beautiful does not make you less beautiful in any sense. With beauty being an opinion with no right answer, in theory anything and everything should be beautiful, right?? Formulating your own opinion on what is beautiful should be celebrated and accepted. Beauty is defined by the individual’s opinion, as I am fond of stating.  After years of being exposed to contrary beauty standards, I have come to learn to take things that make me feel beautiful, rather than subscribing to one culture or person’s idea on what makes a women beautiful. I wash my face with Japanese face soaps and creams. I indulge a guilty pleasure by having eyelash extensions and fake, elaborate nails. I tan at the beach and smile when my summer freckles appear. My freckled face does not make me less Japanese, nor do my extended eyelashes make me less Australian. My opinion of what is beautiful does not compromise my cultural identity but re-enforces who I am. Just because the popular view of beauty may seem ubiquitous it, does not make it correct. What is beautiful should be an opinion that every girl should formulate for herself and while it may be difficult to appreciate what makes you shine, you are better off appreciating your own unique traits rather than being a slave to prejudiced societal standards. There are no wrong ways to be beautiful. Today, there are more ways than ever, just put your best foot forward.