Is Beauty Globalized?
Is Beauty Globalized?

It’s something we have internalized, and it’s propagated by everyone since we still have this colonial hang-up that white is better, white is wealth, white is someone rich enough to never toil in the sun.”1 Nikki Dugal, an Indian graphic artist

Traditional notions of feminine beauty vary across cultures and generations. Stereotypes include a Latin American appreciation for petite women with curves; an Asian appreciation of oval faces, black hair, and average heights; and, Indian and African appreciation for women who have a healthy weight. While these stereotypes held true in the past, globalization is changing traditional notions of beauty. Many societies are now valuing an “international” standard of beauty, as propagated by international beauty contests.

Who decides what is beautiful? Societies often develop norms that are reinforced by cultural industries. Increasingly, multinational corporations are developing norms through corporate branding and advertisements. Branding tries to make an emotional connection for the viewers to social status, fashionable cities, movies stars and models, and romantic images. As globalization is bringing increased interaction and integration amongst societies around the world, definitions of “what is beautiful” may also be converging as well.

A confluence of events is occurring. First, both European and American corporations in the beauty industries are further expanding into new markets and are heavily advertising their products and images of “beautiful” women. Second, U.S. movies and televisions shows, including beauty pageants, dominate theatres and television stations around the world, projecting Western ideals of beauty. Third, in countries such as India and China, there is a growing middle class with disposable income, who are buying these products with hopes to increase their standards of living. Unfortunately, many in the developing world equate “whiteness” and Caucasian features with economic success, further solidifying the trend.

Historical Context: Overview of the Globalization of the “Beauty Industry”
A Harvard Business case study, “Blonde and Blue-Eyed? The Globalization of the Beauty Industry 1945-1980,”2 provides a comprehensive overview of the growth of beauty industries. The modern beauty industry developed in three phases:

  1. Fragrance and soaps: started in the U.S. and Western Europe. Demand for these products stemmed from mid-19th century urbanization that resulted in growing stench and infectious diseases;
  2. Facial beauty products: demand came from increased visual awareness that accompanied commercial photography and advances in printing, including the mass circulation of female fashion magazines;
  3. Transformative beauty products: lip stick, hair dyes, and mascara.

From 1914 to 1945, beauty products, as soaps and toiletries, became nearly universal in developed countries. The US Great Depression forced companies to make beauty products affordable. During this period and beyond, beauty products were marketed and developed for different audiences and ethnicities.

In the developing world, such as in southern Africa and Asia, the spread of soap and hygiene products accompanied colonial efforts to “civilize” the population. When Japan sought to “modernize” in the late 1800’s, hand washing and hair washing became popular among the elites and face “whitening,” shaving of eyebrows, and teeth blackening (all traditional practices) were banned. The use of traditional white face creams for women became a practice only used on special occasions, such as weddings. So not only the products, but their use in general became globalized.

In the U.S., the 1950’s solidified the image of the tall, shapely, blond woman as the ideal beauty, popularized by Marilyn Monroe and the Barbie doll. Television played a major role through beauty advertisements and sponsored game shows (used to brand corporations and products lines).

Increased disposable income led to mass consumption of beauty products during this period. Other Western countries learned about American hygiene and beauty products through Hollywood and the movie industry. Outside the U.S., restrictions on media advertisements and sponsored games shows slowed the diffusion of these products. Government regulations abroad posed challenges as well.

Beauty pageants, such as Miss World (started in 1951 by the UK) and Miss Universe (started in 1952 in the US), became globalized, with local contests being held all over the world. The Miss World’s first dark-skinned winner was Miss India in 1966, and the first visible winner of African descent was Miss Grenada in 1970. Miss Universe developed its own “international standard of beauty,” based on face, figure, proportions, and posture. Local contests began using that standard to choose representatives. US cosmetic industries co-opted the winners to become international ambassadors of their beauty products, further branding a certain image as beautiful.

By the 1980’s, local and ethnic identities in beauty ideals were being re-asserted and the market became more segmented by ethnicity, gender, and age. Yet lack of body odor, white natural teeth, slim figures, pale skins and round eyes were considered “international standards of beauty” and were being diffused all over the world. The trends and marketing practices mentioned in this historical analysis are still be used today, with even more success, as barriers (such as media advertising, government regulations, and technology) are further decreasing.

Beauty Ideals in the Non-Western Cultures: Case Study China and India
Both China and India are being influenced by Western beauty ideals and both have a large middle class with a disposable income. Advertisements plaster urban areas and Western television shows and movies are heavily distributed in both countries. Whitening face masks, soaps, and lotions are widely available in both countries. Men and women in both countries buy products to lighten their skin with hopes to achieve a better life, higher paying jobs, and higher class mates.

Much as has been written about the impact of beauty pageants in India. Beauty pageants start in high school, take place again in college, and then happen nationwide for Miss India. Commercial sponsors use the pageants to raise awareness of their products. While at the local level, girls are measured by local standards, but as the pageants get larger, international beauty standards are put in place. The first Miss World held in India, took place in 1996. Feminist groups protested, but were co-opted by right-wing, Hindu nationalists who protested economic liberalization and transnational corporations. The protestors succeeded in forcing the swimsuit competition to be moved to Seychelles, but Miss World was still held.3

In China, the first ever Miss Artificial Beauty was held in 2003 for Chinese contestants who had cosmetic surgery, and were not eligible for Miss World or Miss Universe. The competition still continues. Urban Chinese women in their 20’s and 30’s are increasingly getting cosmetic surgery to improve their chances for economic success, while older women in their 40’s are getting cosmetic surgery to look younger. Popular surgeries include adding a crease into eyelids to make the eyes look rounder, narrowing the nose, liposuction, and breast implants. Some women even lengthen their legs.4

Women’s groups have been mainly silent in China. Some believe this is due to the size of the “beauty industry.” In 2005, in China, the beauty industry was the 5th largest industry in the country, behind property, cars, tourism, and IT. The industry is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year.5 With the Chinese economy growing so rapidly, the beauty industries will continue to grow as well.

Multi-culturalism was a buzz phrase used in the last decade to promote awareness and appreciation of different cultures within the United States. Yet despite movement toward greater appreciation of diversity within the US, beauty pageants, movies, television shows, and commercials still idealize tall, thin, large-busted women. There are exceptions, such as Dove’s Self-Esteem campaign or movies such as Little Miss Sunshine.

In 2008, women and men around the world are still buying skin whitening creams and still associate whiteness with success. International modeling agents still use the same formula to find and promote talent. Lighter skinned Indians and Africans with more Caucasian features still find more success in the modeling and beauty pageant world. Changing norms to idealize Western features took nearly a hundred years; hopefully it will not take another hundred to appreciate the beauty present in all people.

1 Wax, Emily. “In India, Fairness is Growth Industry.” Washington Post. May 4, 2008.
2 Jones, Geoffrey. “Blonde and Blue-Eyed? The Globalization of the Beauty Industry 1945-1980.” July 11th, 2006.
3 Kumar, Shanti. “Globalisation, Nationalism and Feminism in Indian Culture.” South Asian Journal. July –September 2004.
4 Jesus, Attilio. “That Global Look.” Le Monde Diplomatique. June 2005.
5 Ibid.


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