Jazz played on the stereo, the notes mingling with nickel-sized snowflakes blowing in through the open windows. I was at a party, one of the first I’d ever attended. I knelt at the coffee table, an unexpected orange in my hands, while a Japanese girl I didn’t know knelt beside me. She was gazing at me so directly, studying me so intimately, that I felt uncomfortable and bared in a way I had never felt before.
I wasn’t even naked this time.
Today we’re going to talk about the standards of beauty, and how I came to a startling realization of how warped mine were after I moved to Japan for a short while.
A few days ago, a comedian named Louis CK had a scene on his TV show featuring an obese woman railing about standards of beauty. Blogger Melissa McEwan of Shakesville has written what I think is one of the best dissections of the scene, but there are plenty of others out there–some folks being happy that he took on the topic, others annoyed or angry or sad that he maybe missed some important points while doing it or that it took a white dude to put those things on the air, despite none of the things he said being new at all, before anybody finally listened a little. Whatever your position on the topic, and please know that I’m not going to tell anybody how to feel about it, one thing I can say is this: There absolutely is a standard of beauty applied to women whether they like it or not, and when a woman doesn’t fit that standard, society has a lot of ways of letting her know she doesn’t. A distressing number of men seem to think that when they develop an opinion about a woman’s body, even if that woman is a total stranger, that they are morally obligated to immediately share that opinion with her whether she wants to hear it or not. And even though that woman might never even consider having sex with them, these same men will get very offended if she is not a body type they think is sexually appealing.
Little wonder that women go to bizarre lengths sometimes to fit in with those standards as best they can. And yes, men face some unattainable standards too, but today we’re talking about how it works for women because I’m a woman and this happened to me; I don’t know how generalizable this particular situation is to men’s experience. Also, referencing the Louis CK episode above, please note, gentle friends, what a hunky, ripped, conventionally-gorgeous body the comedian himself possesses. Oh wait, no, he is actually about as heavy as the woman ranting at him. Even the pudgiest, shlubbiest, potato-bodied nerd considers himself a potential mate for a supermodel thanks to American media’s relentless message advising men of precisely this fact (plenty of people have already noted that in fact a previous episode of Louis CK’s show had him hooking up with a model). Looking across the landscape of standards, I’m willing to bet that while there are similarities for men and women, the experience isn’t identical. So let’s zoom back in time to 1994, to a snowy night in Sapporo and a fateful party at a new friend’s apartment.
The host’s name was Arlen. He was from a small town in the state of Georgia. He was incredibly handsome, a Bradley Cooper lookalike with a soft Georgia-peach accent and dark green eyes flecked with gold beneath thick brows and a shock of auburn hair. He was leaving Sapporo to go back home, having accomplished everything he’d wanted to accomplish, so he was selling his stuff to other foreigners. We’d seen his ad for a TV at the Foreigner’s Center, which had a formal name that I can no longer remember; suffice to say that it was a big office with a take-and-leave bookshelf and job postings and all the paperwork forms foreigners needed to get along in Sapporo. I went there about every week to get news. It was here that I learned, from a torn-out piece of English-language newspaper, the two current events about America that I ever learned while I was in Japan: that first, John Candy had died, which upset me greatly because I had always liked his work, and that second, Kurt Cobain, some famous American singer I’d barely even heard of, had overdosed while in Rome (Mr. Captain wants me to mention here that I apparently pronounce Mr. Cobain’s name incorrectly). So if you needed to totally pinpoint when I was there, that ought to get you moving in the right direction. The other side of the page talked about how bad an idea it was to overstay one’s visa, if you’re wondering, which is why I think it’d landed on the table at the Foreigner’s Center. But that’s beside the point, I guess. I met a few Americans through this place, and Arlen was one of them.
So Biff and I bought his television, and he invited us to his going-away party, which is how I landed there on his floor kneeling by his coffee table. His apartment was quite small, but it had the biggest bathtub I’d ever seen in a private residence, which is why he’d rented it. He proved to be a capable host with a great laugh and a way of making people feel at home; he spoke Japanese like a master of the language, but he never made me feel inferior for not knowing much at all of it. The music he played was old-school New Orleans jazz, and the snacks he’d made and offered were a strange fusion blend of Deep South and Japanese cuisine.
A Japanese guest had come with a huge box of oranges and these became the hit of the party; I had already learned that fruit is hugely expensive there, and this was probably one of the few bits of it I got. Even though I wasn’t even a huge citrus fan at the time, I was savoring every bite like it might be my last.
But now there was a young woman kneeling beside me staring at me. She looked about twenty, tops. She wasn’t drunk or stoned. She was just staring at my face. I met her eyes and dropped my gaze, but she didn’t look away.
Now, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’ve been told many times that my eyes can be striking; they are pale, steely blue and quite large. I have good cheekbones and though middle age is softening the angles somewhat, a very classically-shaped oval face. I was tall and though overweight, I was also favored with good hips, long legs, and a large bust. My hair is honey-colored and since I was Pentecostal, it was very long. I’d never have called myself beautiful, but I wasn’t ugly. And I sure looked different from the average Japanese woman. Children literally followed me around on the street and in stores, pointing at me and talking excitedly.
The young woman kneeling beside me was about my age, very slender, and built like most Japanese women are–which is to say, flat-chested, narrow-hipped, and short. Her eyes were gorgeous, dark and sooty, made up in a Western style to make her eyelids look more prominent. She wore a silky dress in a bright color and high heels, a huge contrast to my own Pentecostal burkha of denim jumper and white blouse and tennis shoes with socks. She was lovely, feminine, a riot of pleasing angles. And she’d been discreetly following me all night long, it seemed, until I sat down with my orange. She had one too, which she fiddled with, unpeeled.
Her brow knitted in faint worriment. Finally she spoke; her tentative English barely carried over the music. “You’re so beautiful,” she said in a soft, pained voice. It was the first thing she’d said to me all night.
I looked up at her in horror. Had she really said that? But she was still staring at me. “You’re so beautiful,” she repeated. She was upset. I could see that this admission hurt her. She reached up to touch my cheek, and with her other hand she touched her own.
I was the one who was supposed to be “godly.” I was “modest.” Modesty was supposed to be so beautiful. And I had always believed this to be true. I had always cheered when preachers said that in church. Biff smugly asserted it every chance he got and I had always felt pride in being thought beautiful in modesty. But right now, right now, right now, I knew better. I knew it wasn’t true. This young woman wasn’t flaunting herself; she wore the dress she wore because she clearly liked it; she hadn’t been flirting anybody up or drinking too much or behaving “immodestly” in any way. She was polite and kind, yes, but she wasn’t “godly.” And between us, she was definitely the looker.
I was hardly perfect physically. I had what L.M. Montgomery’s hero in The Blue Castle called “adorable beauty-spots,” but about all I really had going for me right then were the few high points I mentioned earlier–and that I’m Caucasian.
I had already seen that women in Sapporo went to worrying lengths to look more Western. This was well before plastic surgery became more common, but women there still went to weird lengths to achieve that standard of beauty. There were strips of sticky-tape they put along their eyelids to “train” them to fold a little more. There were head-bandages to wear at night to “train” their jawlines to become more pronounced. Hair dyes that purported to turn even the blackest hair pretty and blonde-ish. Bust and butt creams that promised a curvier and more Western shape to the body. At the pharmacy near my apartment, there was an entire wall shelf filled with these remedies and jars and straps and tapes and bandages, their packages printed with “before” and “after” photos and drawings meant to inspire purchase and use.
But I had never before been confronted so directly and so starkly with this unattainable standard. This young woman thought I was more beautiful than she was simply because I was much closer to that ideal than she ever would be, than she ever even could be.
My heart broke.
I wanted to shake my head; I wanted to deny her. I wanted to say that it wasn’t like that, that we could both be beautiful in our ways, that she didn’t have to feel bad. I’d also never been called beautiful by anybody before in my life, and while it felt really nice, I wasn’t sure I believed it–and I sure didn’t like that it’d been said with such pain.
Finally I said, “You’re beautiful too,” and I realized that I meant it. I offered her a smile. She dropped her gaze then and finally managed a faint smile of her own. We ate our oranges together, one juicy segment at a time, without speaking further. Biff came over to introduce me to someone, and–startled like a deer–my admirer bounded off to parts unknown. I didn’t see her again at the party, nor indeed again at all.
I never told Biff about the incident, I don’t think; it took me a while to process what had happened. I really began to look with new eyes at these impossible standards, and began to realize how sad and futile it was to go to weird lengths to meet those standards. Those walls of jars and beauty aids began to take on a much more sinister vibe as I began to see how Japanese women beat themselves up trying to achieve those standards, and how even Japanese men seemed to have internalized them; one of my Australian friends told me at the time that a great number of Japanese men she knew wanted white girlfriends for the status and because they were regarded as so beautiful–though at the same time these same men thought white women were sexually odd in some unspecified way and that they smelled bad at close quarters. I don’t know how widespread that attitude was and I’ve got no idea where the smelling-bad thing came from, but I did notice that Japanese men did seem to pay a lot of attention when a white woman was around and even a rather dumpy, frumpy one like me got that level of positive attention. I also noticed that people of all genders who were half-Japanese–especially if the other half happened to be something Caucasian–were generally regarded as especially beautiful; even while their ancestry was looked down on, their far-more-Western features were lauded. One of the most popular performers in local TV ads at the time was a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian fellow; I saw him pop up just about everywhere hawking everything from soft drinks to beauty products.
The tragic part of this hunger for unattainable standards was that while so many Japanese women were beating themselves up for not looking more Caucasian, they weren’t celebrating the very real beauty that they themselves possessed, a beauty that I, as a white woman, couldn’t imitate any more than they could magically make themselves look more like me.
Once I returned, I looked very askance at beauty standards that relied upon the achievement of impossible standards. I’m much more likely now to notice when a movie’s cast features women of identical body types, when an advertisement only features one type of woman as the ideal to reach, or when women who don’t conform to that ideal get relegated to the role of comic relief or asexual sidekick.
I was slowly moving toward a realization of my own white privilege, though I didn’t realize it yet. One last piece of the puzzle was about to fall into place for me about religion and how it fit into my worldview, and it was going to be a doozy: the idea that without Christianity, a society would fall apart (and on the micro level, that without Christianity, a person would fall apart). We’re just about done with the trip, and I hope you’ll join me for the last dance.