Finally Going East: Creating Ties Through Beauty and Culture

As I hinted in my last post, there were some changes going on with my website which was why I’ve been a bit delinquent about my posts.

Well, I’m happy to announce that I’m officially a member X UNIPX INFLUENCE Program!  In other words, I’m now acting as an influencer in the Chinese market leveraging UNIPX media platforms which focus on pop culture, lifestyle, media and entertainment.  Here is a recent article my friends at UNIPX published that effectively introduces me to the market as a strategist and lover of all things beauty (It’s super easy to translate into English :)).

While I’m going to represent one of many different points of view from the U.S. market, I realize I need to wrap my head around views of beauty in Chinese culture too.  As you can imagine this can be a life long pursuit, but even just peering in to this new world could be give some insight.

So the first thing I did was look into my past research.  To explain to my colleagues and clients how views of beauty differ across cultures, I compared how Americans vs French, Russian and Chinese natives interpret beauty.   Initially I jumped into social media and published research.  While it’s a few years old (I’m looking forward in my new role to motivate me to do update this), and I’ve had to generalize a bit, I believe some of these themes stand the test of time.   What intrigued me the most, and it surfaces in the article written about me linked above, is the true duality of inner and outer beauty in China.  While concepts of inner beauty are in “vogue” in Western culture, when we talk about beauty, let’s face it, we are really referring to our outer appearances.  From an outer beauty perspective, the Chinese tend to view a healthy body and skin, as well as white skin, and an sense of approachability as attractive.

As a woman wrote in social media (translated into English): “Actually health is beauty.  It’s better to get up early, do some exercise everyday and focus on the balance of whole body.”

At the same time, Chinese culture deems traits like confidence, intelligence and honorability as beautiful.  As another stated:

“Out long tradition emphasizes more the inner beauty of a woman.  Beauty is not only your appearance but also your charm, characteristics and nobility…..”

Of course this is only scratching the surface. But imagine if we started thinking about or appreciating beauty this way. I’m not saying that all the Chinese notions of beauty will be right for us here. In fact, maybe by sharing some of our more enlightened notions of beauty with them we can all grow. I’m looking forward to learning more about these differences, experiencing and adopting some of them myself.

Speaking of experiencing them, I tried to do just that.  While I couldn’t take the next flight to Beijing, I did the best I could and headed down to NYC’s famous Chinatown to explore the beauty world.  I went shopping with my friend, Kristi, at the neighborhood beauty shops, and indulged in some beauty treatments a few weeks later.  Not surprisingly, the shops offered way more beauty products from Korea and Japan than from China.   But that didn’t stop us from partaking. 🙂

In terms of beauty treatments, I went on a lark to a place that had a website offering manicure and blow outs on Canal St.  The manicure didn’t seem any different than one I would get at a typical salon uptown.  But the hair experience certainly was.   (Let me caveat by saying this is certainly not a comparison of all Chinatown salons since I only went to one. )  The first thing that happened was I was asked to sit on one the of the blow out chairs while a woman covered my collar in plastic.  She then gave me a 5 minute shoulder massage — which was awesome.  Here is where it gets really interesting: while I’m sitting there, she takes the shampoo, pours it on my head while another woman squeezes water out from a plastic bottle to be mixed with the shampoo.  The first woman washes and massages my scalp for another 5 minutes as I’m sitting right next to a gentleman getting his hair cut.  So I’m thinking, do they not have sinks?  What’s the deal?  They do! I know because after the 5 minute wet hair massage I’m led to the sinks where my hair is rinsed and rewashed and then conditioned.  Clearly a healthy, clean scalp and head of hair is a MUST!

Another interesting difference between “western” blowouts and and the ones I experienced myself or saw on others in the salon, is emphasis on smooth and straight (vs full volume).  I was not surprised at this look given the high preponderance of Japanese straightening products that have made their way around the globe, and especially in Asia.  Given the humidity and my general lifestyle the look lasted a day or so but experience was a blast.

No doubt beauty is more than skin deep.  But I’m not referring just to inner beauty.  Rather I speaking about how much beauty is a product and reflection of culture.  While there may universal truths about physical symmetry and health as markers of beauty, it’s so evident how our rituals around, beliefs of and issues with beauty tells us a world of information regarding our values, social politics, environment and the list goes.  This is one of the key goals of Beautyskew: to shed light on culture through the lens of beauty. More than that, as evidence of my new relationship with UNIPX media, beauty can be a vehicle to connect with and learn from others, even those from a totally different world.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to this great new relationship, sharing what I know and learning from others too, maybe just maybe, helping to build some amazing bridges.

To get a taste of some of the Chinese-American beauty influencers on U.S. soil, check out Soothingsista and Francis Lola.

Is the Return to Old Fashioned Glamour a Good Thing?

Avon posted a story about the return of “old fashioned glamour.”  While I love the womanly look  — shapely skirts, dramatic make-up, and spiked heels, I wonder whether this trend is a positive one.

Beauty and fashion historians (e.g., Valerie Steele) have linked different looks to the social and economic state of the country.  The womanly look of the 50’s is correlated with the ambitions of Americans at the time, namely, social, economic, political growth.  Family values reigned supreme and women were expected, first and foremost, to manage their families.  It’s no surprise that during Reagan’s presidency fashions again accentuated the female curves, as Regan’s agenda included (among a glorification of capitalism and global supremacy) “women in traditional female roles” (Dress Codes, Ruth Rubinstein).

So what should we read into this trend?  Are we telling ourselves we should return to the past?  Maybe.

But perhaps the popularity of this look is a reflection of:

(1) a greater appreciation for womanly bodies (Who doesn’t love Christina Hendricks from Mad Men?)

(2) Women’s response to the greater, more powerful roles we have in all spheres of life – social, economic, political.

In other words, maybe the womanly look isn’t a throwback at all but rather a sign that we HAVE “made it” because we can now openly appreciate what makes us different from men — our womanliness.

Phew, I would hate to have to toss my spikes!

One More Minute Please

I was smearing my favorite and extremely hard-to-come by moisturizer by Trish McEvoy over my body this morning.  (Just as an aside, you can’t get the scented version anymore so I hoarded 5 bottles about a year ago thanks to a personal shopper on the look out for me.  Now back to the smearing story…) No, this isn’t the start of some erotic video but rather a typical scene from my actual morning routine.  As you can imagine with 3 kids and a hectic work schedule, my mornings are ANYTHING but languid.  So I’m always “speed dressing” and never spend more than 4 minutes on beautifying.  But today something different happened: I actually spent an extra minute massaging the moisturizer on my legs.  In that extra minute I was reminded of the tremendous value of self-care.
Let me explain.  A few months ago I interviewed Ying Chu, the beauty and health director of Marie Claire, and asked her whether American women approach beauty differently than European women. She told me a story of being in France a few weeks earlier with a number of American and French colleagues.  They were asked if they would take a pill that immediately took care of all their daily beauty routines.  The Americans jumped on it but the French said no way.
No surprise. We Americans want immediate results with little effort.  Who wants to work hard anyway?
The French don’t see beautification as work but view it as a form of, in the words of my good friend and Anthropologist, Tom Maschio, “self-care.”  For many French women their bodies aren’t detached objects to be prepared for public appearance but, rather, are inextricably linked to the self.  And every part of the body — appendage, organ, secretion, etc., function together harmoniously.  Beautification, i.e., the act of massaging, applying, fixing, plucking, whatever the actual activity, isn’t just a means to an end but an act of health care and self-love.
Unfortunately our relationship with our bodies is more distant.  We tend to see the parts of our body as separate from our own selves.  And, as Tom pointed out to me, we see our secretions (sweat, menstrual flow, mucus) as bad.  They must be managed at all costs. And, let’s face it, spending too much time taking care of our bodies in the form of massages, facials, make-up is considered an indulgence.  Think of the language we use to describe self-care: maintain, treat, transform.  Very objectifying, no? Like our bodies are machines.
Some good news.  Things are changing.  With the growing interest in Eastern medicine and holistic health, and the influences from other cultures, we are becoming much more aware and respectful of our bodies.  And we’re beginning to recognize the tremendous value in caring for them.  We just need to be reminded of this more often.
So the next time you reach for the jar of moisturizer try not to schmear it on in record time, but consider showing some love to your body, and ultimately, yourself.  Just don’t go for the almost extinct Trish McEvoy stuff!

Beauty: A Birthright

“Beauty is my birthright.” This is a quote from an interview with a young Los Angeles woman.  These words are just fantastic to me because they totally capture how so many American women view beauty.  In my exploration of beauty in our culture, I have seen how women see it as something that ALL should be able to attain — just like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  True, most of us aren’t natural beauties.  But if we just  take a little time, spend a few bucks and work a bit, and we too can be beautiful.  None of us are destined to be unattractive! According to Lois Banner’s American Beauty this belief dates back even to the 19th century:  “In the innumerable analyses of beautiful women in the popular journals of day…the beauty advice was always the same: live right, eat right, exercise, and you will become beautiful.”
The other day I was talking to a friend who writes for beauty sites and her own beauty blog.  In an embarrassed voice she described a piece she was writing that helps people figure out how to flaunt their assets, e.g., legs, butt, neck, etc.  While I can see how she may have found the information in her piece a bit more shallow than, lets say, the BP spill or the latest battle in Afghanistan, let me tell ya, people still care a LOT about how to make their assets work for them.  Why?  Because it’s something all of us can do to fulfill our “birthright.” By the way, isn’t it interesting that we all use the term “assets” to define our best beauty parts?  Like it or not, we know how valuable — economically and otherwise — our beauty is!
The downside to this democratic attainment of beauty, though, is that we may spend too much time trying to fulfill it since we think that there’s no reason NOT to have it.  And the competitive among us can end up wasting a lot of energy (emotional and physical) pushing that much farther to be even more beautiful.
Still, I’d much rather live in a society where everyone has a chance at anything:  success, love, beauty, you name it.  With July 4th nearing, let’s celebrate the freedom to be happy, healthy and, yes, beautiful — and maybe even pick some bronzer along with the sparklers and hot dog rolls.

Ah, French women

I have to confess, I have a major “girl crush” on my new French colleagues.   They are in their mid-forties, smart, statuesque, thin and have great style.  At a reasonable  5 ft 5 in, I feel like a munchkin compared to them.  They appear so sensual, womanly and edgy at the same time.  Oh yeah, they make is all seem SO effortless.  If I could just bottle all that class and beauty,  I’d make a killing!
I’m certainly not the first person to wax poetic about the particular beauty of the French.   I mean, how many of you haven’t read French Women Don’t Get Fat? Recently Jessica Simpson investigated French women for one of her episodes of The Price of Beauty (a pretty good show by the way).  We’re raised to see them as the icons of beauty and style.  If you look at historical sources on beauty, you’ll see that American women looked to Paris for fashion and beauty trends even back in the 1700’s and 1800’s.
I don’t pretend to know their secrets.  Yes, you can dissect their wardrobe, beauty regimen, diet and bone structure and extract some good tips.  But what I’ve seen that’s most inspiring is their attitude.  Forget the cliché of French snobishness.  That’s not what I mean.  And, honestly, I’ve only experienced warmth and collaboration from the French women I’ve encountered.  What I’m referring to is a general ease with themselves.  Their overall lack of pretense and comfort with their own individual beauty and their overall selves is palpable.  I read a blog post about a year ago on the difference between French and American women and it spoke of how French women “think of themselves as bodies in motion….the average well-dressed Frenchwoman produces an impression of much more elegance in person than can really be captured in a static photograph.”  American women, in contrast, “assemble themselves in front of a mirror and construct a very static image of beauty.” (Pandalous)   The French approach is so much more natural because the human experience is one of motion not of stasis.  When I refer to natural I don’t mean that they are devoid of make-up and grooming.  Au contraire!  I mean they are true to themselves and don’t try to be anyone else.  They are loose, human and full of authentic emotion and energy.  In posts from France I saw even more ammo for this.  In a French blog called: Au Secoures, j’amie la mode!, a  young women writes: (translated from French) “We just need to be natural and not to feel insecure with ourselves.  Charm makes all the beauty of a person.”
As trite as this may sound, I don’t think we all truly believe it.  So many of us are insecure and we feel we need to be more poised, or more eloquent, or more sophisticated.  Certainly I’ve felt this many times.  Following their example requires us to relearn a lot.  It means loosening up a little and not guarding our emotions, thoughts and energy so much.  If we do that I really think we could start capturing some of that amazing French “je ne sais quoi.”
Now, if I could only learn how to tie my scarves just so…