The Japanese media are constantly representing a mainstream, western beauty ideal, which suggests that tall bodies, big eyes and light skin are desirable traits. As a consequence, many Japanese women are repeatedly trying –and failing- to meet western beauty standards.
Who decides what’s beautiful? Don’t we all have our own preferences and tastes? Actually, we don’t. Many studies demonstrate that when it comes to beauty, we are all very much on the same page. This has to do, in part, with biology; because we tend to be drawn to a certain beauty ideal which signals fertility, but it is also influenced by social context. According to the social comparison theory, we judge our own bodies by constantly comparing them with the ones around us. Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but it could have a negative effect on our self-esteem when we mainly compare ourselves to idealized images brought to us by the media. Western media has always had a great impact on our definition of beauty, but this used to affect western women only. Today however, mainstream beauty standards have spread beyond western borders and have reached Asia, and in particular, Japan. Its fashion magazines, commercials and TV-shows are filled with westernized images, showing Japanese girls with bleached hair, whitened skin and coloured contact lenses.
Conformism and social approval
Whether we’re happy with our appearance depends on how we look compared to others, but is also related to our cultural background. Japanese culture is characterized by conformism, collectivism, and hierarchy. Unlike western countries, which tend to be more individualistic, the need for social approval is ubiquitously present in Japan. To what extent do these cultural characteristics influence the Japanese’ body image?
In 2001, research psychologists Catherine Luther and Nancy Letl investigated the degree to which Japanese teenage girls were being influenced by the media. The high school girls included in the research were asked to what extent they compared themselves to models depicted in advertisements. In addition, they had to answer questions geared towards measuring their self-esteem and need for social approval. The results showed that more than fifty percent of the teenagers engaged in comparison with the models. Most of the girls had low self-esteem and stated that finding social approval was very important. Based on these results, Luther and Lentl argue that Japanese teenagers do not engage in comparison with models to feel better about themselves, but because of their need to be accepted by their peers.
Other researchers come to a similar conclusion. In a study conducted in 1998, in which American and Japanese women were compared, the authors attempted to determine the causes for low self-esteem. First, body dissatisfaction was measured, using a subscale which contains statements reflecting the belief that specific body parts are too fat (e.g., “I think that my thighs are too large ”; “I don’t like the shape of my buttocks”). The more often the subjects agree with these statements, the less they appreciate their bodies. Second, the need for social approval was tested, again using a questionnaire. And third, the subject’s BMI (Body Mass Index) was determined. As it turned out, the American woman’s body image is related to her BMI (the higher the BMI, the lower the self-esteem). However, this was not the case for the Japanese subjects. The results demonstrate that not BMI, but the need for social approval relates to a Japanese woman’s body image. The more important this approval is to her, the less happy she is with her appearance.
To some extent low self-esteem among Japanese women can be explained by their need to conform to high standards, but what do these standards entail exactly? According to research psychologist and Japan expert Rotem Kowner, “a relatively wide discrepancy exists between the self and the ideal body.” In other words: the ideal Japanese body is the western body. Kowner’s study shows that although Japanese and American women both believed themselves to be just as far off from the prefect figure (they all desired taller, slimmer bodies and larger breasts), they showed different discrepancies when it concerned the perfect face. American women desired facial traits which were more or less similar to their own. The Japanese subjects on the other hand, were likely to prefer traits which were different from their own, desiring for example: a longer and narrower nose, larger and lighter eyes, bigger eyelids, and a lighter skin.
In addition, Asian woman tend to compare themselves with western women more often, than, for example, African-American women. During one research project on this topic, a number of white, African-American and Asian female students were given three pictures -depicting a white model, an Asian model and a black model- and were asked to rate their physical appearance. Furthermore, they had to compare themselves with each of the models. The results indicated that the African-American women did not find the mainstream beauty standards as relevant to themselves, and reported positive self-evaluations about their bodies. According to the authors, this is because black women employ self-protective strategies when comparing themselves to others, such as identifying with ‘ingroup’ standards. Asian women on the other hand, were more likely to endorse mainstream beauty standards in a similar fashion to white women. Also, the Asian subjects experienced greater dissatisfaction with their bodies than did the other two groups.
Not just the media
Japanese women are struggling with their appearance. Their self-esteem is low, and the features they desire are impossible to acquire. In order to deal with these issues, the Japanese media should first become more aware that by representing western beauty standards, both Japanese girls and women are affected in a negative sense. However, the media are not the only ones to blame; part of the problem is rooted in Japanese culture. The need to conform to a certain standard and feel socially accepted, both of which are important for the Japanese, are increasing the pressure to be beautiful. However, this wouldn’t be such a problem if Japanese beauty standards were achievable and realistic. Therefore it’s high time Japanese women start creating some beauty ideals of their own and stop following western standards.
In August 2010, Carian Thus (1987) obtained her Masters degree in Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. During her research, she investigated the relation between social hierarchy and consumer behaviour. She currently writes blog posts for United Academics on a regular basis.
Read thesis (Dutch) here