America v. Eastern Asian Beauty Standards: It’s Cute?!

In the Arctic Summer School at Lapland University of Applied Science (Shameless Plug), we have many different nationalities. The 33 students hail from many different parts of the globe, however, we have a sizeable portion of the class from Eastern Asia. Of course, beauty standards differ in various areas.

For example, in the US, we have been making movements that support body positivity with #Effyourbeautystandards in an attempt to embrace beauty of all sizes, or the natural hair movement to encourage women to love the hair you are born with. Many more movements exist and more pop-up with increasing popularity, all with an attempt to make beauty a more inclusive term. Eastern Asian countries, in my experience, tend to steer toward a specific standard of beauty that promotes thin bodies and pale skin.

Not only is that a cultural norm, it appears that it is public scrutiny of your appearance is common, particularly in the family structure or with people you are closer to. I was told that mothers can easily tell their children they are fat, or need to stop eating so much, or to stay out of the sun out of love. In the US, we would easily consider that to be emotional abuse and unbelievably rude.

You can only imagine my reaction, when a classmate come to me, and while feeling my arms says that they are “fluffy like a marshmallow.” When I expressed how that was kind of offensive, the response was “It’s cute!” This is the same classmate that disclosed her mother’s tendencies to criticize her body. I was definitely ticked off and more than a little bit upset that someone who I felt close to would make such a rude and insensitive comment.

This point was noted again when a second classmate from eastern Asia patted my stomach and stated how had the same stomach, as she poked hers out and laughed. The original classmate then said “See!” It was meant to be in reference to Asian culture’s openness to discussing the body in negative/positive (depending on which end you come from) lights. Even after I explained how the statements were offensive, it was laughed off as if unimportant. When I asked how does it make them feel for their mother to say those things? I was expecting them to say it made them feel negatively, to inspire them to maybe not say those comments that I considered to be so rude. It was once again just laughed off and it was deemed to be normal and common, therefore unimportant.

I left that conversation very upset. 1) I felt like my feelings weren’t considered at all. In the US, if you offended a friend, even without the intent to offend, you would apologize. That wasn’t the case here. 2) I was saddened. Over the short period of time knowing these young ladies, I had heard them refer to themselves as fat and ugly. I had watched as they tried to stay out of the sun because darker skin or a tan would bring scrutiny to them. I had listened to their stories of their family members speaking of their bodies negatively. And the worst part, to me, was that they viewed all of this normal, as if it should be expected to hear and say these things.

The comments I felt were rude and would never refer to a woman’s body in such a way, especially in public, is common place. So when I was hurt and offended by the comments because my culture has deemed them insensitive, another culture saw no issue with comments therefore there was no reason to apologize.

Cultural differences play a huge role in how we view ourselves and others. While America is trying to push away from conventional standards of beauty, other cultures may have a totally different view on dismantling, or maintenance, of beauty standards. I still don’t appreciate the comments that were made (and admittedly how they responded to it as well) however, it has made me realize some important things.

  • Self-love is crucial. I could let someone define and dissect my body based on their own preferences and biases, but how could I ever truly be happy always trying to live for the acceptance of someone else? My body may not be where I want it to be, but I love the skin I am. I whole-heartedly believe that I was not designed to be anything other than me.
  • Culture plays a role on what is tolerated. Things that I felt shouldn’t be said, were perfectly common to someone else. Though, I may not like it, it’s important to be considerate of someone else’s culture (even if they aren’t considerate of your feelings lol).
  • Finally, Words matter! As much as I would like to say the words didn’t affect me, they did. They made me look at my body in a way I hadn’t previously. It was very unsettling for a simple sentence could make me question myself. It made me wonder, how many conversations did I walk away from feeling fine while the other person felt belittled, ugly, unattractive, or stupid? Probably a lot, I may not have been my intent, but it was the reality. Instead of building someone up, I have, at some point and time, either deliberately or accidentally, torn them down and made them feel less than the wonderful person that they are. It’s a harsh reality, but a great reminder that sticks and stones leave physical scars, but words leave wounds that only the soul feels so deeply.

American Imperialism

Quick! What images come to mind when you think about America? If you thought of fast food, hicks, and television, then you’re not too far off from the mindset of a European.

TV

‘Merica. (Image from healthhabits.files.wordpress.com)

Despite the fact that I am nearly 4,600 miles from home (or 7,400 kilometers for the others), I still find bits of America here and there in this far off city of Maastricht, Netherlands. For example, the first place I ate at while in this city was at a McDonald’s (as you may recall). Add KFC, Subway, Burger King, and Domino’s Pizza to the list of fast food joints here in Maastricht and you got a pretty good cover of American fast food joints.

fast food

I can almost feel the cholesterol coursing through my arteries. (Image from s3.amazonaws.com)

There’s even three McDonald’s located in Maastricht, which is surprising since the city itself is not remarkably big; to give an idea of size, Maastricht is roughly half the size (by area) of St. Joseph, Missouri,  but with a population density that is more than three times greater than St. Joseph.

The idea of what an American is varies from European to European, but let me hone you in with a few keywords: Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, hicks. Yes, shows such as Family Guy and The Simpsons have created a lasting impact of the view of Americans abroad, even though those shows themselves are satires of American caricatures. And some Europeans may view Americans as being largely of the cowboy rural type, though only half of that being the truth (many Americans are largely from the rural areas of the United States). As I had pointed out before, some aspects of American pop culture have probably established this (somewhat) true perspective of Americans to an audience abroad.

Peter-Griffin

An accurate view of many Americans, maybe. (Image from www.milehighcinema.com)

Now for the big question to ask: Is all of this a bad thing? You probably won’t get a straight answer from anyone, but to answer honestly, I don’t see it as being terrible. The fast food joints are visited by anyone in Maastricht, my international friends included (though we prefer to keep to cooking for ourselves at most times) and they all enjoy the food when wanted. Television shows, such as the ones listed before, are quite popular among everyone; add Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother to the list of popular American TV shows that Europeans enjoy to that list as well.

firefly-poster

Sadly, not as well-known among my friends. (Image from askthedm.files.wordpress.com)

Hollywood films are also big business in Europe, with many of my international friends here being very familiar with all of the big titles over the years. While I can’t say movie theaters are nearly as common here as in the US, they are around and people do attend the movies (though pirating seems to be the most popular way to watch movies among everyone). The only downside with American films getting a release in Europe is that they tend to be delayed from anywhere to a couple of days to several months. Some films, such as Ted, don’t get a release until months after the US release, which can only be a shot in the foot for distributors since Europeans can easily find pirated copies of the film online before they’re ever released in a cinema in Europe.

the-pirate-bay-logo

Sorry copyright holders, but these guys are going to keep winning until the system is fixed. (Image from cdn.slashgear.com)

One film I particularly apt at wanting to see is Looper, but I’m going to have to wait until December if I want to see it at a theater, despite the fact that it has already been out in the States for nearly two weeks.

And where do I fit into this imperialistic-apparent juxtaposition? Well, for one thing, I know I’m here to get a viewpoint that is outside of the States, though I keep finding myself coming back to it from time to time, and not by my own doing. Sometimes I probably put on the look of an American a little too well, at my dismay at times. I am easily larger than your standard European, both in height and bulk. I speak loudly and talk about my love of barbecue a little too much. I even tend to wear a sleeveless shirt that reads “USA” in big bold letters, which often leads to laughs among my friends (and I’m totally cool with this as well, it’s all tongue-in-cheek anyway).

america

Not this much tongue-in-cheek, however. (Image from totalfratmove.com)

With a little over two months left in my tenure in Maastricht, it will be interesting to see how things develop, especially with the looming presidential election in the United States. I’m commonly asked about my views of the candidates by other Europeans, who do take a very keen interest in the proceedings of an election that they have no sway in. Even the long arm of American politics has found its way into the minds of others abroad…