Jun 26, 2015

    Where to draw the line on 'beauty'

    WHEN I was in Myanmar with my family last year, I could not help but notice that most of the women and children had odd-looking yellow patches on their cheeks.

    We reckoned that it was probably their version of the Malaysian bedak sejuk (cooling rice powder) and it was amusing to see that even some men had smeared the yellow stuff on their cheeks and forehead.

    Later, we found out that this was called "thanaka", a distinctive part of Myanmarese culture dating back some 2,000 years. The bark or root of the thanaka tree is ground into powder, which is then mixed with a measured amount of water to form a paste. The scent reminds one of sandalwood, and it supposedly provides a cooling effect and protection from the sun.

    Some even go as far as to say it thwarts acne and promotes smooth skin. Come to think of it, I hardly saw any Myanmarese with bad skin, so there may be some truth to it for all we know.

    Sometimes, the thanaka is drawn on the face in designs such as stripes or a leaf. Apparently, this practice of applying thanaka has spread to Thailand as well.

    While I get how this cultural practice is viewed as cosmetic by the locals, I found it a little comical that there was a huge billboard with a model fronting some product, with the distinctive yellow patches on her cheeks.

    We all have our own perception of what is appropriate for home use and what is for public consumption. And obviously, the Myanmarese thought this was perfectly acceptable and even attractive. Bet you will never see any ads with pretty women sporting bedak sejuk on their faces in Malaysia!

    We also saw another extreme - long-necked Padaung women wearing brass rings and belonging to the indigenous Karen people. Story has it that they consider the extra-long neck a sign of great beauty and wealth, and that it will attract a better husband.

    Of course, this bizarre practice is not about to take off any time soon in the modern world, as most people probably do not share their idea of beauty.

    This got me thinking about how people view beauty: How do you define what is acceptable and what is not; why are some practices just fads while others become mainstream?

    For instance, most of us would not think twice about going under the knife to get rid of one's eyebags. A little nip and tuck to lift sagging skin or a nose job to enhance your features are seen as positive steps to boost self-confidence and feed our unquenchable thirst for eternal youth.

    In fact, plastic surgery has become so common that statistics in 2012 suggest that one in five women in South Korea has done it. Most girls would have done something to their faces once they hit 19, as they did not want to be left behind by their peers.

    According to Newyorker.com, remarks such as "you would be a lot prettier if you just had your jaw tapered" are no more insulting than "you'd get a lot more for your apartment if you redid the kitchen".

    That is mind-boggling and it makes me wonder: Where does one draw the line on what is enough modification to our God-given features before it goes too far?

    The current trend in South Korea that is spreading to other Asian countries, including Malaysia and Singapore, calls for women to have large eyes and narrow thin noses, all contained within a small V-shaped jawline. In 2013, a picture of aspiring Korean beauty queens went viral as netizens complained that plastic surgery made them all look like clones of each other.

    While I baulk at how these girls brave painful procedures just to conform to what society thinks is pretty, there are others who think the look is quite cool and trendy. My friend May, for instance, felt the girls looked beautiful and that the fad was current, different and interesting.

    The latest was a case in China, where a 15-year-old underwent major surgery to achieve this coveted look.

    I find all this worrying because, as this trend catches on here and young women get caught up in the pursuit of superficial beauty, they will no longer recognise the value of self-worth and other positive life skills.

    Aesthetics practitioner Anna Hoo made a very pertinent point when I interviewed her recently. She said that it was important for one's outlook and inner self to be aligned. If someone changes her entire face just to fit the image of what other people consider beautiful, it may not be truly what she wants for herself. And what is worse, there is no guarantee that one will be happy after that either.

    We are all in search of that elusive bluebird of happiness. But I reckon it is going to take a long journey of discovery, and not just plastic surgery, to get there.


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