Spots of Time

August 17, 2004

Are You Beautiful?

There is something fundamentally wrong about plucking a gray hair the same day you pop a pimple. Yet, incredibly, I find myself in this situation regularly. Thirty years old and going through my second puberty while noticing the signs of aging every day.

It use to be that a gray hair was an occasional occurence. I still remember the first one - found when I was 27 years old. I asked my boss Dan for the day off to recover (only half jokingly). He said no (only half jokingly). Recently, I found a small colony, residing on the northwest side of my head. No longer content to be solo visitors, my gray hair has unionized. Strength in numbers, no doubt.

If it were just the gray hairs, I could understand. After all, its a natural sign of aging. It's the continued facial break outs that are driving me crazy. While different countries have different standards of beauty, pimples are the bane of existance for teenagers all over the world. Except, I'm not a teenager anymore.

Being on the road doesn't help. For months I carried around no less than 5 types of facial scrubs, masks, creams, lotions and the like. And, my skin was fine. By contrast, I had jettisoned all my makeup and hair products as soon as I got to Asia - there was just no need and it seemed odd that my toiletries bag outweighed everything else in my backpack. By the time I got to India I was fed up with the hassle and weight of my facial routine, and I decided to let nature take its course. Big mistake.

At first I thought the breakout might be a purging of toxins in my skin. I was at the ashram in southern India at the time and we were doing 4-6 hours of yoga a day as well as eating incredibly mild, vegetarian food. I hadn't been this healthy and fit in years and I assumed my face would soon calm down. It didn't. And, while in America even a best friend would rarely dare comment on a particularly bad breakout, people in India seemed to have no issue with providing commetary to a total stranger. My "favorite" moment was when a young woman at an Indian wedding I was attending asked me if I was married. When I said no she made a few pity noises as she touched my face - to her, it was clear my biggest roadblock to married bliss was my less than perfect skin.

This experience was not unique to India. Total strangers have commented about my face during moments when it was especially bad in Thailand and China too. Perhaps I should be thankful that people in Asia are so straight forward about things. In America the standard response to a pimple is "its not so bad" or "you can hardly see it!" And, while that may not be honest, it at least makes you feel better. By contrast when a total stranger comes up to you, touches your face and say, "Oh, so many pimples" - well, lets just say your self confidence comes down a few notches.

During a particularly bad breakout in China, however, the response was even more frequent. And, beacause I was surrounded by porcelin skinned beauties every day my insecurity about the regular attention increased - I couldn't help but compare my skin to theirs. Several weeks ago, in a drug store, a female employee pushed her way through a crowd of people to get to me and grabbed my hand. When I pulled my hand back in surprise she pointed to my face and then to her beauty tube indicating she was only trying to help me. I wasn't particularly grateful.

For a time, if I even paused at a beauty counter in one of the many shopping malls in China I would be beseiged by women carrying a dozen different creams, lotions and cosmetics. They had no issues with pointing at my face and then pointing the lettering on the bottles - "anti-acne solutions." In Thailand, a woman giving me a facial criticized me for not "upgrading" to the super expensive "special" mask they offered, telling me that my "its too expensive" response was irresponsible as one should take care of their skin, especially when it was as bad as mine. Tears welled up in my eyes and it was only my friend Jordana squeezing my hand to comfort me that stopped me from balling outright.

Before you think that people in Asian countries are insensitive and cruel, let me explain that being forthright and honest about these things is very normal in all the countries that I visited. And, while it was very hard to get used to, I do genuinely believe that most people genuinely felt bad for me and wanted to help - especially women who had been in my position in the past. Still, its ironic that while I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman able to tackle anything life throws at me, it only takes a few choice remarks about my skin to bring tears to my eyes. My own personal kryptonite. :)

When I started writing this column, I was going to call it "Travel Puberty" because my frequent break outs were causing me to feel like a teenager all over again. Then one day a Chinese woman staying in my dorm room (who, incidently had commented on the state of my skin and recommended acupuncture) asked me, quite seriously: "In your country, are you considered beautiful?" I was surprised at the question and replied, "not especially." She responded, "In China, you are beautiful."

While I was incredibly flattered, in truth, her comment reflects the current "standards of beauty" in Asia much more than my personal attributes. To many Asians, a westerner is considered to be the epitome of beauty, misguided as this notion might be. The glorification of the Caucasian beauty standard in Asia is a relatively recent but incredibly widespread and psychologically damaging trend - especially to young Asian women. In Thailand I was shocked to see an advertisement for botox aimed at teenagers. Instead of being used for wrinkles, as in the west, botox injections were advertised to help a Thai woman's jawline become more oval and "western." Even worse are the bombardment of whitening creams. I once saw a TV commercial for whitening deoderant - with the tag line of "there is nothing worse than dark underarms!" Huh?

All over South East Asia the desire for pale, white skin is out of control. Every lotion, cream and facial product includes "whitening" ingredients - EVERY one. Even in China, my old boss at the school once commented that my skin was much paler now than when I first arrived at the school - and she was giving me a compliment. While westerns glorify the tanned, healthy-looking face and body, Asian women shun the sun. All over South East Asia and China, women walk around with umbrellas to shield them in the heat of the day. Most wear hats and some even wear full lenth gloves while riding bicycles to keep their arms white. Racism even stems from this desire for pale skin. In India, for example, pale skinned women are considered more desireable than dark skinned women - so much so that marriage advertisements in the newspapers flaunt this fact at the top of the personal ad.

But, the trend doesn't stop with pale skin. The thicker eyelids and almond shaped eyes usually associated with Asian people also seem to be less desired than larger, round ones. Most of the billboard and subway ads in Beijing and Shanghai featured women with large, very open eyes - and that was the case with pop stars and actresses as well. And, just like their American counterparts, most Asian women are obsessed with being thin - though perhaps genetics has been kinder to them in this regard.

I've gotten use to standing out physically in the past year - after all, I'm in the racial minority in 95% of situations in Asia. And, while most of the time I am "comfortable in my own skin" (to quote a friend) there are times when I feel like a giant, lumbering ox compared to the tiny and beautiful women I see on a daily basis. Truthfully, even when my skin is in good shape, I often envy the clear lovely skin of most Asian women. But, all that aside, I can honestly say I am happy with who I am most of the time and most changes I desires are internal, not external.

My perception of Asian women as some of the most beautiful women in the world has not changed in my time in Asia, nore do I believe that appeal is gone from other continents (the number of Caucasian men dating or married to Asian women being only one example). It's just too bad that while the exotic Asian beauty still has cache in Western countries, many Asian women in their own countres would rather look western than eastern.