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Where is the Line Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?

I’ve noticed that Western beauty trends have started borrowing from Asian trends. One of the first few similarities was the “clean girl aesthetic” which originated from Tik Tok. It features the combination of beauty and fashion trends including glowy skin, blush-heavy makeup, glossy lips, and slicked-back hair to create that “effortlessly gorgeous” look. This style has gained popularity as trends shift towards minimalistic makeup–something that Asian culture especially emphasizes. 

We’ve heard of Asian beauty trends inspired by Western cultures like colored contacts and the double-eyelid surgery known as blepharoplasty. Many beauty standards in Asia lean towards euro-centric features including a slim nose, fair skin, big eyes. Skin-whitening products line the shelves at supermarkets and cosmetic surgery continues to increase in popularity. The double-eyelid surgery is perceived as “more attractive”, solidifying the idea that double eyelids—a feature most Westerners naturally have—are superior. However, as social media bridges the two cultures closer, I’ve noticed that this influence has almost reversed; the question is, is it for the better or the worse?

One of the most distinct elements of this “clean girl aesthetic” is glowy skin. This means no acne, skin texture, or pigmentation, and importance is placed on skin care. It sounds uncannily similar to the “glass skin” trend in 2013 that took hold and is still taking hold in Korea. Glass skin refers to skin that’s poreless, shiny, and almost translucent, hence the name. Both of these skin trends capitalize on people’s desire to fit into these standards; the skincare industry in Korea is to be worth around $21 billion by 2026 as they continue to expand globally. Korean skincare has gained reverence within the beauty industry as the US is now the third-largest market for exports from South Korean beauty companies. Emphasis is now placed on lightweight foundations and dewy skin, as opposed to the matte, heavy, cut-crease makeup that was popular a decade ago. Even blush placement trends can be drawn to Asian roots. There was a popular Japanese trend called “hangover makeup” where they apply blush underneath the eyes and across the bridge of their noses for the flushed look that Asians get when they drink alcohol. Nowadays on Tik Tok, Western influencers also incorporate this technique in their routines and share it as a pro tip.

This exchange of products, techniques, and trends bridges the two cultures closer and fosters appreciation. The similarity of the “glass-skin trend” and the “clean girl aesthetic” demonstrates that through cultural differences, there can still be a common denominator through common beauty standards. 

As for body types, there has been controversy and debate over how they are included in these changing beauty standards. The thigh gap and flat stomach that people have desired for the past few decades were put on halt when the Kardashian-Jenner family popularized the curvy body trend with butt and breast implant controversies. However, after Kim Kardashian was rumored to remove her butt implants in 2022, new conversations sparked about the return to the “Y2K” body trend. The fact that there is such a thing as “body trends” is absurd, but it is invigorated by influences through social media and celebrities. This new potential return to the skinny body type is another similarity to Asian body standards, where being skinny has always been the ideal.

Cosmetic surgery is a big and growing industry in East Asia, with nearly 25% of women aged 19-29 in Korea having undergone it. “Going under the knife” has been normalized in Korean and Chinese society as young girls are pressured by beauty standards. The top surgeries include double-eyelid surgery, nose jobs, facelifts, and chin reduction–a surgical procedure to reduce the size of a prominent chin, creating a “v-line” jaw. East Asian women desire this shape as it creates a softer and more feminine jaw. Similarly in Western culture, people have started to purchase the gua sha, a traditional Chinese healing method that became popularized through Tik Tok (again), to sculpt and lift the face for a more defined jawline.

These products, techniques, and trends are simply a few similarities that can be noted between Asian and Western beauty cultures, which seemingly borrow from each other. Many plastic surgeries in Asia are performed to “westernize” their features, but with the West’s changing and easily influenced beauty standards, will people start trying to “asianize” their features likewise? There were controversies over the “fox-eye” trend, which is a specific way to apply eyeliner to create a fox-like eye–something Asian people were bullied for as kids. It was ironic that non-Asian people would film tutorials on how to achieve this look and receive praise and credit when it holds so much historic weight for how Asians were treated in the past (and still are today). Ignoring the implications of certain trends or cherry-picking features of a race is unfair, but where is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

Oli London is an internet personality known for his multiple ethnic plastic surgeries, including one to make himself look like Jimin, a member of the South Korean boy band BTS. He underwent 32 surgeries while facing much public criticism for trying to become another person. This is one of a few radical cases where non-Asian people use cosmetic surgery to “asianize” their features. It was disturbing for the public to see London trying to emulate a person so obsessively–it became the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. 

What’s considered popular, attractive, or trending is constantly changing with beauty standards meshing within our fast-paced world. Slanted eyes were ridiculed a couple of decades ago, and now people get facelift surgeries to mimic these eyes. Freckles were neglected, and now people purchase freckle pens to manually draw them on. Even though the fox-eye trend is inherently bad, it has stirred controversy and therefore raised awareness about cultural appropriation within the context of Asian-American communities. These beauty trends, if credited, can bring cultures together and lead to appreciation. The world has already been segregated by many categories and identities. Beauty standards are one of the sad but few universal things young teenagers face. As long as the histories of certain features and trends are understood and credited, the West–and East–should be able to appreciate and use techniques popularized and created in other cultures. 

Social media connects these cultures and introduces people to outside conventions. When people are exposed to unfamiliar things, they’re able to open their minds towards it and welcome differences. Seeing diverse beauty trends can inspire young girls of minorities since it deviates from strict euro-centric culture. As the world and its beauty standards become more racially diverse, we are deconstructing the notion that only a certain race’s features are what’s considered conventionally attractive. We have already seen this phenomenon expedited through platforms such as Tik Tok, and it will most likely continue to expand. People should be able to appreciate another culture’s trends without being labeled as appropriating it on the condition that they honor and put in the effort to understand that other culture. These beauty trends might just be a symbol of uniformity within our divided humanity.

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