After the Hysteric Glamour shoot, and completely unrelated to it, my mother agent emailed me, asking if I wanted to go to Tokyo. Two days later, also unrelated, I shot the Harajuku X-Girl campaign, bringing my tally of run-ins with Japanese advertising last week to three. I’ve always felt that my blonde hair, pale skin, and blue eyes made me look like a washed out 1960s housewife. But it’s a look that does well in commercial Japanese campaigns. With globalization and capitalism making the world smaller and companies bigger, this Eastern appropriation of Western beauty trends is not a surprise. My Aryan-Stepford-Wife look is not only different from Eastern physical features, but it also connotes a Western capitalist culture associated with the products being sold. Harajuku X-Girl shot in New York in order to have the city in the background, because, similar to my shoot with Joy Magazine, it sells in foreign markets (this meant shooting spring wear outside, unfortunately).
This same appreciation for the Western physical appearance is also true in China. Two summers ago, I taught English in Guangxi. My students were a bunch of precocious 15-year-olds from Sichuan. On my first day, they gave me a Mandarin nickname, which translated as “Blue-Eyed Beauty.” One student came up to me and confessed that she had wished she would have a teacher with blonde hair and blue eyes, and she was so happy that it came true. Traveling around the country, I was often stopped by Chinese teens asking to take my picture, as though I was some strange creature let loose from the other side of the world. I certainly didn’t enjoy this exoticization, but in a country where my physical appearance is removed from most people’s daily experience, I understood its shock value.
When the West reveres the East, however, it becomes a slightly trickier issue. Consider this month’s issue of Vogue, which features a two-page spread of models from China, Japan, and South Korea, shot by Steven Meisel. In the photo, the women all have the exact same hair and makeup. The tagline reads: “Asia Major: A new crop of models from China, Japan, and South Korea is redefining traditional concepts of beauty.”
The problems with the photo are obvious: in styling the models with the same hair and makeup, not to mention using the word “crop” (models, Asian or otherwise, are not harvested or bred, like some evil eugenic experiment!), Vogue lumps all the women together, homogenizing them as one monolithic culture and appearance. The magazine thus undermines its own argument: the tagline claims that these models are redefining “traditional concepts of beauty” (we’ll get to that in a sec), but the photograph de-emphasizes their revolutionary power because the American magazine still gets away with reducing them to one appearance.
Moreover, punk hair aside, the women look like they are at an aristocratic tea party. The photo is a play on Cecil Beaton’s 1948 photograph for Vogue, below, of an all-Caucasian cast of women. In this way, Meisel’s photo does make the claim that the models are redefining “traditional” beauty ideals, if those beauty ideals are rich white women from the ’40s. Also, I wonder: does putting the models in that scene connote a conformity to Western culture, if not in terms of beauty, then in terms of a Western lifestyle?
James Lim, writing for New York Magazine’s The Cut, sums it up thusly: “While it’s refreshing to see the magazine acknowledge the importance of Asian models in the industry, especially since Vogue has largely ignored Asian models in the past, it always seems easier for magazines to lump the girls in a feature like this, feel like the acknowledgment has been made, and then revert back to their usual ultra-white mix of models in subsequent issues.” Is this the inevitable outcome of such a weighty photograph? Or will these and other beautiful women continue to make headway in American Vogue?
Despite the controversial photo, its corresponding article is very informative and well-written. Samantha Chang, interviewing Vogue China editor Angelica Cheung, writes that the Chinese models do not have the “Western” features—“big, round eyes, cute small mouth, a high nose, and very fair skin”—that are considered beautiful back home, and so are thus also redefining and “modernizing the concept of beauty in China,” bringing Eastern beauty standards back to the East. As for the Eastern reverence of Western features, Cheung says: “It is a combination of copying what they see is popular in the Western world and trying to stand out in a nation where almost all of the 1.3 billion population have straight black hair and brown eyes.”
Perhaps as globalization and capitalism continue to expand, and more women from China, Japan, and South Korea appear in Western campaigns and vice versa, this dual exoticization of the other will lose its significance, or at least lose its East Meets West overtones. After visiting China, I really got to learn and enjoy so much of Chinese culture. Perhaps if I take up my agent’s offer on that trip to Tokyo, I can do the same with Japan, and thus not just bring a Western presence to their commercial market, but also come back West with a real understanding of their rich and hyper-evolving culture.