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.

Beauty, Judgements & Hypocrites: Enough is Enough

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That’s a picture of me when I was about 6 months old.  As you can tell I’m wearing a special shoe on my left foot.  That shoe, along with a cast, straightened (well, for the most part) the crooked leg I was born with.  I’m sure my parents were thinking that having a slightly crooked leg would hamper my movement as I grew up.  But I bet the biggest reason for the correction was that I would just look plain funny with a twisted leg.

So many of us have reconstructed some part of our bodies that we don’t even think twice about it.   Think about how many people have straightened their crooked teeth or in the case of Debora L. Spar, who recently authored “Aging and My Beauty Dilemma” in last week’s New York Times, reduced her breasts via breast reduction surgery.  Such procedures rarely faze us or compel us to judge people harshly because of them.  When a 13 year-old boy walks around with upper and lower braces in his mouth,  we don’t say: “oh, he’s so vain” or “he’s succumbing to social pressures, he should be above that.”  Of course not.

So why do so many of us strong, empowered women feel so damn insecure getting fillers or a boob lift?  Why must we think we are somehow being hypocrites or turning our back on feminism?

I have to hand it to Spar for putting herself out there and sharing her insecurities.  And bravo for the New York Times to take her words seriously enough to print them.  As president of an excellent women’s college, Barnard, Spar is certainly a model of feminism.  And yet, she, like so many of us, are fearful of looking old, and, at the same time, ashamed for feeling that way or doing anything about it.  It wasn’t so much that she was insecure with her changing looks (though she clearly is) but that she feels she is going against her feminist principles that really bothered her.

I get it.  The media or western culture in general can often makes us feel ugly and prey on our insecurities around aging.  And then, to make matters worse, it pressures us not to address those feelings lest we be called frivolous or worse, a hypocrite.

But, c’mon.  Getting a haircut, shaving our legs, and wearing Invisalign are such common behaviors now we don’t think anything of them.  And yet they are all part of our daily regimen to transform how we look.  Should we feel ashamed that we do them, no way!  And men do them too.  They don’t make us less powerful, brilliant or leader-like.

And the same should be true for fillers, botox, breast augmentation, you name it.  They will become so common one day that we will put them in the same bucket as teeth whitening.

So let’s stop wasting our precious energies on judging others for their beauty boosting behaviors.  And even better, lets stop wasting our time and effort feeling ashamed for partaking in them.

I applaud Spar for her article.  Good for her for having the courage to be so vulnerable and talk about something WE ALL feel in some shape or form.  But wouldn’t it be even better if all those “judges” just left her alone so she can feel confident about how she looks and what she does to keep herself feeling beautiful.  And that way she can spend more of her time writing about and sharing her valuable insights on women’s education and leadership instead.

“The inevitable dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance is the engine not only of philosophy but of civil society at large.” Andy Martin. SXSW, Satre & Scissors: Getting Prepped for SXSW Reflects the Basis of Philosophy

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I’m in SXSW now but before my trip, I knew I had to clean up my act before my panel. I don’t mean I had to behave like a responsible adult (the totally wrong move in Austin :)).  No, I had to get beautified.

When it comes to getting my hair cut, I push it off as long as possible. I just can’t commit the time. But when I do, I enter into a state of euphoria as soon as I plunk myself down in the stylist’s chair.  This is especially true when I’m at getting styled by my good friend, and beauty expert to stars and tech gurus alike, Gad Cohen.

Hair transformations have been even more top of mind for me thanks to this week’s episode of American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J Simpson.  Poor Marcia Clark (played superbly by Sarah Paulson) undergoes a hair redo in order to be better liked in the courtroom. The look on her face as she’s about to get shorn totally looked like mine: gleeful excited and full of happiness.  Thank goodness, my result did not resemble her’s on the show! Oy.

Why do so many of us love this type transformative experience? Is because we all need a change? Actually it goes FAR deeper than that.

This question reminds me of a post a wrote a few year back in response to a pretty heady article in the NY Times, The Phenomenology of Ugly called Philosophy: A Bi-Product of Ugliness.  In the Times piece, writer, Andy Martin, realizes (while getting a haircut) that our recognition of our ugliness (in other word the need for physical improvement) is the basis of philosophy. We believe that the world, like ourselves, can be improved.

Here’s an excerpt from my post:

Is vanity vapid or virtuous?  Andy Martin certainly makes a case for the latter.  As you can imagine from the title of his article, the piece was a bit esoteric (lots of references to Sartre and Camus, with a bit of Britney Spears mixed in). But what I got out of it was quite interesting.

In essence, he writes that analyzing your beauty (or lack of it in his case due to a very bad haircut) can have great consequences. That is, by virtue of recognizing that an aspect of your appearance can be improved, let’s say a bad hairdo or big zit cropping up on your chin, you realize that improvement is within reach in other aspects of life.  Says Martin, “that original, self-conscious, slightly despairing glance in the mirror (together with, “Is this is?” or “Is that all there is?”) is a great enabler because it compels us to seek improvement …The inevitable dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance is the engine not only of philosophy but of civil society at large.”

If the knowledge that we have some power over our looks empowers us to change other aspects of our lives for the better, maybe a dose of vanity is what we all need!

I certainly walked away empowered from my amazing transformation experience thanks to Gad.  I feel like I can conquer the crazy networking in Austin and, especially, my stage event on Monday.  But knowing that any kind of change — even just a few inches chopped off and colored — can be the spark to even greater societal movement, gets me all goose-bumpy.

If you’re in Austin, come to our panel!  But if you’re not, then go get a haircut :).

Beautiful Protests: Don’t Dismiss Beauty Queens. The Chinese Govt is Downright Scared of Them & for Very Good Reason!

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There’s a lot of different ways to protest.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the worst of them over the past few weeks.  But, for the most part, challenging the status quo, the social wrongs we see, or just plain ol’ anachronistic thinking is an incredibly valuable and innate human behavior.  And, tonight being the first night of Hannukah — a commemoration of the Maccabees’s protest against the repressive Greek regime of their day — it’s only fitting to celebrate it!

The more tyrannical or oppressive the object of our protest, the more crafty, clever and creative we must be in our rebellious acts.  We can’t always march in the street or publish our thinking.  We need to use what we have at our disposal.  And that is exactly what a few feisty beauty queens did as they protested against the Chinese government.  Over the course of the last few days, I saw news story after new story highlighting not just one, but two, beauty pageants that have enraged the Chinese government.

At the Miss Earth beauty pageant, the contestant from Taiwan, Ting Wen-yin, refused to change her sash from “Miss Taiwan ROC” to “Miss Chinese Taipei.”  Her explanation: “I was born in Taiwan, my sash now says Taiwan, I represent Taiwan, and I’m going to use the name of Taiwan in appearing at this pageant.”  She also shared in social media the horrible treatment that all the contestants were subjected to like not being served some meals and forced to attend night clubs to flirt with men.  The result? She was reprimanded, banned from certain activities, and not allowed to be in pictures.  Eventually she was kicked out all together. (For more of the story, read here)

Around the same time, another story hit the news stream about Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born woman who was crowned Miss Canada.  She has been using the pageant’s platform and the subsequent press coverage to speak against the Chinese government.  She has also created films and written essays to share the corruption and repressive acts of her former government.  And the Chinese leadership was pissed.  Majorly.  They tried to ban her from the Miss Universe pageant.  This, of course, backfired creating an even bigger uproar and heightening her efforts that much more.

Needless to say, the Chinese government is super skittish now when it comes to beauty pageants.

What these stories show us is that the “popular” cultural activities, like beauty pageants (and the people who participate in them) which we may snicker at, can play a powerful role in society.  While I have a hard time endorsing the parading of women around in bathing suits, I also have the seen the power of these “institutions.”  Since the beginning of time and into today, pageants have served as spaces where women could achieve something — whether a way out of poverty or a podium to protest.    I applaud Lin and Wen-yin who not only risked their success to tell their stories, but who realized how to best use the gifts they had and the circumstances they found themselves in, i.e., beauty contests, to do it.  Would they have been listened to if they didn’t use this platform?  Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.

It’s easy for us to look down at people who want to show off and get rewarded for their physical beauty.  But many of us aren’t in the same social, economic and political situations as these people.  Moreover, when beauty contestants use their beauty, and the pageants that showcase their beauty, in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to, how can we NOT admire them?

Lesson here? First, let’s never ever assume that beauty queens are dumb.  Second, we shouldn’t assume that the popular, seemingly frivolous events, like beauty contests, don’t have a potential role for social betterment.  Finally, let’s appreciate the fact that we live in a society where we CAN protest a multitude of ways without fear of reprisal.

 

Want to Understand our Cultural History? Take a look at Vintage Beauty Tutorials

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I’m often asked, “why did we choose to write about beauty?” After all, we, from Beautyskew, are a group of strategic planners in the technology and brand worlds.   The reason? Through the lens of beauty, we can learn so much about the world around us and our place in it.
Whether we invest a ton of effort in beauty or barely wash our faces in the morning, beauty — and the discourse around it — surrounds us, drives us and transforms us.  As such, beauty affects us and will be affected by us — our norms, concerns and dreams  — as individuals and as a culture.
When I stumbled upon this story about beauty tutorials of yester-year, I had further evidence of this.  Fashionista curated a bunch of YouTube beauty videos from the past 100 years.  From a call to wash your hair more frequently — twice a week! — to a Coty commercial for perfume to be used before you “stalk,”  you feel these are definite messages from another era.
The article also references some truly scary stuff.  Imagine a how-to-video to remove radioactive waste from your face? Yep! Or a video that shows how to apply make-up given one’s physiognomy.  In case you don’t remember, physiognomy is the false “science” that allowed white people to further devalue people of color during the first half of the 20th century.
Wow, how things have changed, right?  I can’t help but look at these videos and wonder, are we mere subjects of all this beauty culture?  After all, at one time, we thought these messages were bang on! Do we have a role in all of it?  Can we change it for the better?
Yes!
The first step is to be aware of it.  Be conscious of the messages — bad and good — that surround us.
Second, take a stand.  If you see beauty being used for the wrong reasons, e.g., if teenage girls make fun of someone’s appearance, stop it.
Third, appreciate beauty.  Don’t belittle it.  When we appreciate it, we will be more able to see it as a force of good.
Fourth, reveal the beauty we see around us to others.  Take pictures of it and share those pictures.  Blog about it.  Bring your kids to museums.
Finally, use beauty to help others, e.g., tutorials to prep people for job interviews.
Without us even realizing it, we use beauty to reflect who we are — the good, bad and ugly.  The good news is we can play an active role in applying  beauty to help us make the world a better, more beautiful place.

Could Beauty & Fashion Be the Keys to Saudi Women’s Independence?

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Thank goodness for my husband’s intellectual pursuits.  If it were up to me, I would be watching stupid TV and reading People magazine all day.  Unlike me, my husband watches Charlie Rose and reads the The New Yorker.  And since I hang out with him (that would be expected, right? :)), I sometimes pick up what ever he’s reading.  In this case the New Yorker issue from weeks December 23rd & 30th (a double whammy). In it was a fascinating article, “Shopgirls” by Katherine Zoepf, about Saudi women and a first inkling of their independence.

In June 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decreed that women could, no, should, replace men in shops where female customers are seeking intimate items.  First the law referred to lingerie shops and then the law extended to other typical feminine spaces like apparel and cosmetics, and even into supermarket checkout counters.  For women who have not gone to college (and there are many), this is their first opening to a sort of financial independence.

To us Westerners, that should feel like a “no duh”, especially in a country with such rigid rules restricting contact between the sexes.  Wouldn’t you rather be told your true bra size from a woman than a man?! Ironically, there are many protesting such laws because they fear women (that is, the shop girls) will be in that much more contact with men.

The article certainly highlights the intimidation and family pressure many people receive once starting to work.  It ain’t easy.  But it also shows how much more confident and happy these shop girls are.  Instead of living secluded lives at home or maybe in the malls shopping, these women can learn a skill, broaden their social network and secure themselves against financial ruin (the divorce rate is high in Saudi Arabia and often women lose custody of their children because they can’t afford to care for them).

While so many of us independent, well-educated Western women love make-up and a cute bra or two, we would probably think the last place women would gain a sense of freedom and independence would be at a Victoria’s Secret shop or at the Macy’s make-up counter.  But in Saudi Arabia, these places may not only be wonderful, liberating places for women, but may actually prove to be the spark to set in motion so much more change.

Hear, hear for lingerie!  Oh, yeah, and Happy New Year!

Could Beauty & Fashion Be the Keys to Saudi Women's Independence?

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 10.48.35 AM
Thank goodness for my husband’s intellectual pursuits.  If it were up to me, I would be watching stupid TV and reading People magazine all day.  Unlike me, my husband watches Charlie Rose and reads the The New Yorker.  And since I hang out with him (that would be expected, right? :)), I sometimes pick up what ever he’s reading.  In this case the New Yorker issue from weeks December 23rd & 30th (a double whammy). In it was a fascinating article, “Shopgirls” by Katherine Zoepf, about Saudi women and a first inkling of their independence.
In June 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decreed that women could, no, should, replace men in shops where female customers are seeking intimate items.  First the law referred to lingerie shops and then the law extended to other typical feminine spaces like apparel and cosmetics, and even into supermarket checkout counters.  For women who have not gone to college (and there are many), this is their first opening to a sort of financial independence.
To us Westerners, that should feel like a “no duh”, especially in a country with such rigid rules restricting contact between the sexes.  Wouldn’t you rather be told your true bra size from a woman than a man?! Ironically, there are many protesting such laws because they fear women (that is, the shop girls) will be in that much more contact with men.
The article certainly highlights the intimidation and family pressure many people receive once starting to work.  It ain’t easy.  But it also shows how much more confident and happy these shop girls are.  Instead of living secluded lives at home or maybe in the malls shopping, these women can learn a skill, broaden their social network and secure themselves against financial ruin (the divorce rate is high in Saudi Arabia and often women lose custody of their children because they can’t afford to care for them).
While so many of us independent, well-educated Western women love make-up and a cute bra or two, we would probably think the last place women would gain a sense of freedom and independence would be at a Victoria’s Secret shop or at the Macy’s make-up counter.  But in Saudi Arabia, these places may not only be wonderful, liberating places for women, but may actually prove to be the spark to set in motion so much more change.
Hear, hear for lingerie!  Oh, yeah, and Happy New Year!

Weekend Observations:Damned If You Do, Damned If Don’t

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Over the past week Dove has gotten a lot of press over their new campaign, “New Beauty Sketches.”  Even we posted about it last week.  It portrays how off base women’s perceptions of their own beauty really are.  A good message I would argue.

And you know when you’ve gotten some traction with an idea when the spoofs emerge.  And they are hilarious!

Now, people are talking about it for another reason.

They’re criticizing it (see latest AdWeek article on the topic).

Puhleeeze.  Can’t we just appreciate a good message when we see it?

The criticism goes something like this:

1. It’s too white and the women are “traditionally” attractive (what does traditionally attractive mean anyway?)

2. It seems to define beauty as being thin and young.(I think some people would see a few of these models as “middle-aged”)

3. Positions beauty as the yardstick by which women define themselves. (oh come on, beauty matters to women.  Oh, yeah, and Dove makes beauty products.  It would be pretty ridiculous to talk about computing or household appliances, right?!) 

4. It shows women as their own enemies rather than victims of a sexist society. (Maybe the lens is on how women hurt themselves vs how society plays a role, I get that. Buuuuutttt, we negotiate our way through cultural norms and expectations.  We don’t follow everything.  We can’t blame everything on the culture surrounding us. So, yes, women are their own worst enemies some times.)

5. It is hypocritical because it comes from Unilever, which also makes Axe, Slim-Fast and more. (Yeah, heard that over the years.  This is tough.  I don’t mind Slim Fast because the brand is trying to help people get healthy (not anorexic).  But Axe does portray young women in a sexist light.  On the other hand, it is so clear from the Axe ads that women have the upper hand with boys — hence all the fantasies!  So,maybe we can argue that women are actually recognized as a pretty powerful bunch — way too powerful for the average guy to attract.)

Finally, let’s give Dove a break.  They can’t possibly create a video to include every person and perspective out there.  Otherwise we ADD-prone people wouldn’t bother to watch it!

So let’s just sit back, relax, and applaud Dove for their great efforts.

Weekend Observations:Damned If You Do, Damned If Don't

Screen Shot 2013-04-21 at 8.33.36 PM
Over the past week Dove has gotten a lot of press over their new campaign, “New Beauty Sketches.”  Even we posted about it last week.  It portrays how off base women’s perceptions of their own beauty really are.  A good message I would argue.
And you know when you’ve gotten some traction with an idea when the spoofs emerge.  And they are hilarious!
Now, people are talking about it for another reason.
They’re criticizing it (see latest AdWeek article on the topic).
Puhleeeze.  Can’t we just appreciate a good message when we see it?
The criticism goes something like this:
1. It’s too white and the women are “traditionally” attractive (what does traditionally attractive mean anyway?)

2. It seems to define beauty as being thin and young.(I think some people would see a few of these models as “middle-aged”)

3. Positions beauty as the yardstick by which women define themselves. (oh come on, beauty matters to women.  Oh, yeah, and Dove makes beauty products.  It would be pretty ridiculous to talk about computing or household appliances, right?!) 
4. It shows women as their own enemies rather than victims of a sexist society. (Maybe the lens is on how women hurt themselves vs how society plays a role, I get that. Buuuuutttt, we negotiate our way through cultural norms and expectations.  We don’t follow everything.  We can’t blame everything on the culture surrounding us. So, yes, women are their own worst enemies some times.)

5. It is hypocritical because it comes from Unilever, which also makes Axe, Slim-Fast and more. (Yeah, heard that over the years.  This is tough.  I don’t mind Slim Fast because the brand is trying to help people get healthy (not anorexic).  But Axe does portray young women in a sexist light.  On the other hand, it is so clear from the Axe ads that women have the upper hand with boys — hence all the fantasies!  So,maybe we can argue that women are actually recognized as a pretty powerful bunch — way too powerful for the average guy to attract.)
Finally, let’s give Dove a break.  They can’t possibly create a video to include every person and perspective out there.  Otherwise we ADD-prone people wouldn’t bother to watch it!
So let’s just sit back, relax, and applaud Dove for their great efforts.