In December 2021, megawatt American entertainer Ariana Grande posted a photo of herself wearing black winged eyeliner, a foundation lighter than her skin, and a bright red lip that is often associated with Korean makeup. Online commenters were so quick to drag him up for “Asian-fishing,” appropriating parts of Asia, that he quickly deleted the post. But some Asian-identifying advocates have weighed in to say that labeling Grande’s appearance as “Asian” in the first place only confirms prejudices about what Asians look like: pale skin; smaller, slanted eyes. Earlier in the same year, Oli London, a white British K-pop fanboy, underwent several cosmetic surgeries to look like BTS member Jimin. London then defined themselves as “transracial” and found themselves at the center of controversy as a result. Rejecting the imbalances of power in the distribution of culture, these examples illustrate to a degree that the West as a leader in setting global aesthetic norms is disappearing, as is the role of America as a geopolitical standard-bearer.
Always bleeding, Korean doctors are already considering globalism. So Yeon Leem, a Korean biologist turned social scientist, says that clinics design and constantly tweak their computer algorithms for analyzing beautiful faces so they can recommend the best. methods of their clients. These algorithms measure the proportions of beautiful people of all different ethnicities and analyze the aggregate data to determine the “global proportion … It’s part of seeing technology at work , feeding and creating demand at the same time. Machines know which faces and characteristics correspond to the “magic” ratios polished by science and present us with the latest aesthetic standards Inevitably, they require expensive interventions or additional aesthetic work.
Sociologists have already noticed a regional trend, in the 2010s, of flattening many good characteristics into a “Pan-Asian face”: a combination of European and Asian features with a focus and favor that has what sociologist Kimberly Kay Hoang calls “a specific East Asian ideal—round face, thinness and even, untanned skin color.” In his fieldwork, Hoang studied the beauty practices of Vietnamese sex workers. He found that they operated and changed to achieve a combination of looks, but one that favored being Asian: ” Now the new modern is Asian,” his informants said.
The modern face of Asia is increasingly defined by a Korean beauty standard, with Southeast Asian women in particular looking to Korea for the latest and most innovative beauty products and procedures. Michael Hurt, a Korea-based sociologist who calls Korea “hypermodern,” has photographed Seoul Fashion Week every year and has been documenting Korean looks in his street photography for more than a decade. When he visited Vietnam to photograph fashion models in 2019, he thought that one in particular resembled a Korean woman. “I noticed when he turned his head in my direction, I was like, ‘Wow, you’re really Korean.’ And he said, ‘Oh my god, thank you. That’s the biggest compliment I’ve ever had.’”
This shift in appearance values is neither linear nor one-directional. It is more of a mixing and kneading of what academics call it neoliberal multiculturalism. Coined by Jodi Melamed, the term is used to define an ideology of global racial formation that devalues the native culture of a country, favoring the mixing of many cultures. It emerged after the civil rights movement in the US and with the globalization of capital. It is a type of neoliberalism that includes multiculturalism, which sheds more light on the profit-first, consumption-and-consume ethos of capitalism. Researchers of Korean culture such as Emily Raymundo see this happening in the fusion of global “beautiful” ideals—big lips from the Global South, bigger busts from Africa and Latin America, prominent nose from Northern Europe. “The consolidation of the ‘face’ is about a cosmopolitan combination of beauty standards (K-beauty, Bollywood, Hollywood, Instagram influencers around the world, etc.),” he wrote to me in an email.
It may not be long before these cross-Pacific differences are further flattened into a transracial appearance altogether. Korean beauty standards are now mixed with broader beauty norms as the reigning beauty look becomes more of an internet-driven global uniformity. In home design, for example, internet platforms for rentals like Airbnb have led to a sterile, recognizable aesthetic of living spaces. When it comes to aesthetic values for people, Instagram’s global pageant plays out the same, placing us in a largely homogenous set of beauty standards that are increasingly embedded in increasingly circulated in the market of ideal faces and our preferences.
And these possibilities of body development and transformation are renewed through the social internet, where injections and surgeries are sold among the many improvements available to us in the name of “progress.” As cultural critic Haley Nahman has observed, a tentpole of modern life is the belief that more technology is always better than less. This leads to some bad examples of “development” that actually makes things worse while the companies behind them make more money. He cited TurboTax, Face ID, and self-checkout and wrote: “It’s easy to name examples of pseudo-progress and harder to imagine our trajectory not barreling toward a more ‘optimized,’ frictionless . our individual stress about frowning—aka aging—but not good for the collective. It’s an investment in a worldview that we NEED creaseless in midlife or older. And it feeds the worries for those who don’t.