Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of skincare knows that sun protection is the key to beautiful skin. While the rest of us endlessly research for the perfect high SPF sunscreen, some people are utilizing some more creative tactics. Enter the facekini.
Essentially the swimsuit’s equivalent to the balaclava, the facekini has caught on at beaches in China, much to the amusement of the Western world. Whether it be a floral-patterned head covering or a full-body suit, they’re a far cry from most American beachgoers’ attires. Stateside sun lovers would much rather forgo perfect porcelain skin in exchange for a visage that’s sun-kissed in their youth and potentially sun-ravaged as they get older.
These ensembles are not only a reminder of how far some people will go for their appearance, but how differently each culture interprets beauty.
Christopher Santo Domingo Chan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. He also helps create Cut’s “100 Years of Beauty” videos.
“My teaching interests involve the anthropology of pop culture,” he says, “getting students to think about their favorite TV shows, their Insta feeds, and their beauty tutorials as all embedded in a political and visual economy, and that pop culture hides the political in plain sight.”
Early anthropologists collected artifacts and symbols of a different world for their museums and collections, Chan notes. He says that these items, particularly those that reflected the fashion and aesthetics of non-Western cultures, shaped the idea of what it meant to be a part of Western society—they learned what they were by defining what they were not. This trend continues today—by looking at beauty in other cultures, we can further understand what we consider beautiful, too.
Chan argues that there’s no one thing that connects every culture, though we still search for “universal master narratives to describe something like beauty.”
“…we have relied on particular scientific strategies to calculate our perception of beauty—using big data, optical tracking, facial measurements, and the like,” he says. “But ultimately, beauty is always in withdrawal—when we think we know definitively what beauty is, we are inevitably surprised by its emergence elsewhere.”
Yes, we’ve all seen those Photoshop experiments where retouchers all over the world are asked to reveal their idea of beauty. Unfortunately, the only lesson that could be gleaned from that was why you should never hire the cheapest retoucher you can find. Want to see some real examples of beauty around the world? Check out these unconventional practices.
Arm Covers—South Korea
South Korea is famous for its skincare obsession. Much like the facekini enthusiasts of China, they’re well aware of how damaging the sun is. The solution? A stocking-like sleeve that rolls over the arm to protect it from the sun.
While they are reminiscent of those cringe-worthy fake tattoo sleeves you’d find in a carnival showbag, these accessories are actually super effective at deflecting UV and, in some cases, keeping the arms cool. They’re particularly favored by athletes and truck drivers.
For those of us who aren’t South Korean, the look might be a little hard to warm up to. But guess who’s going to have discolored, wrinkled arms covered in moles in a couple of decades? Not South Korean truck drivers!
Quite possibly the most controversial beauty product in existence, skin lightening cream is something that never fails to stir up debate in countries where it isn’t all that common. Companies like Dove and Nivea have been accused of peddling a pro-white skin agenda to countries where darker complexions are the norm.
It goes without saying that this is an incredibly problematic message. However, there are some forms of skin creams don’t lighten the skin so much as brighten it. The aim is to create a more even glow to the skin. Of course, this is dependent on the ingredients in the product. Some of them really are straight up bleaching the skin.
The Kayan women of Myanmar know all too well the mantra of “beauty is pain.” They enclose their necks in shiny golden coils from childhood, gradually adding more to push down the collarbones. This creates the illusion of a neck much longer than natural.
It’s a painful process and one that’s still practiced to this day. It’s not quite as common as it once was, but some Kayan women still hold on to this ancient beauty custom.
In a country as poor as Mauritiania, a fuller figure is a much-coveted sign of health and beauty. Unfortunately, this is taken to the extreme with leblouh. Young girls are taken and force fed a calorie-dense diet at “fattening farms” in order to bulk up. As they rapidly gain weight, they become more attractive in the eyes of a potential future husband.
Far from a marker of body positivity, it’s a dangerous return to old tradition following a military coup in the West African country.
Plastic Surgery—The World
Plastic surgery isn’t unique to one culture, but its popularity certainly varies from culture to culture. For example, Brazil—a country already obsessed with attaining and maintaining perfectly round behinds—also happens to be the birthplace of the Brazillian Butt Lift. Also known as a buttock augmentation or lift, it’s a way to achieve a Kim K booty without all that gym work.
South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world, so it’s no surprise that going under the knife is a fairly normal thing for those who can afford it. In fact, one K-pop group, Six Bomb, celebrated their surgical makeovers in a music video where they debuted their new faces. Plastic surgery clauses have long been rumored to be part of the K-pop industry’s infamous “slave contracts”.
Plenty of us have had to endure those awkward braces years as teenagers, or perhaps forked out a lot of money (and endured a lot of pain) to fix crooked teeth as an adult. But in Japan, one trend has seen people going to the dentist to correct their overly-straight teeth.
The Yaeba procedure involves creating snaggleteeth with the front canines that some people find cute. Granted, the procedure involves plastic fronts rather than a permanent de-straightening.
Stretched Piercings—Various African and Asian Countries
Though popular in Western culture today, many cultures have practiced stretching for generations. For example, the Dayak women of borneo use weights to stretch their lobes. The Apatani tribe of India even stretch their nostrils.
Some remote African villages, such as the Mursi in Ethiopia, wear lip plates as a sign of beauty. Other African peoples, such as the Nuba, wear a plug in their stretched labret piercing just below the lip. T
Particularly popular in Japan, circle lenses create the illusion of big, cartoon-like eyes, much like an anime character.
YouTuber Taylor R made a video about her damaging circle lens addiction. She would apparently wear the lenses for so long that her dry eyes would be unable to “breathe” and now suffers from vision problems.
These international beauty trends may be considered shocking to us, but our own concept of beauty has its own uncomfortable history.
Women once wore tightly-laced corsets that were as important as any other piece of underwear. Lead and arsenic makeup was toxic enough to be lethal. Some even dropped deadly nightshade into their eyes to dilate their pupils.
In fact, if you look at modern Western beauty trends, they’re really not all that different to those from other cultures. Women once starved themselves to achieve the gaunt 1990s model look but are now going to extreme lengths to achieve that Kim Kardashian booty. And there’s no denying that alternative subcultures have drawn inspiration from far away tribes with their much-loved gauged ears and plug earrings.
“I like to trouble the idea that there is somehow a purely ‘Western’ beauty tradition,” says Chan. “Even in the 15th century, European nobility and the emerging bourgeoisie were constantly influenced by the circulation of images, practices, techniques, and styles from travelers, scholars, intermarriage, and migration from around the world. Thus, ‘Western beauty’ has always been global and vice versa; Western beauty and fashion … constantly needs new input and new stimulus from visual reserves around the world.”
But you don’t have to look to these subcultures to see examples of our society’s unconventional beauty standards. We age our skin and expose ourselves to risk of cancer by sun tanning. We tattoo makeup, eyebrows, and even freckles onto our skin. We fill out lips with foreign substances that “plump” them. We even remove and inject our own blood into our face and call it a “facial.”
While these practices may seem the norm to us, they may very well be quite the shock to other cultures—proving that “shocking,” just like beauty, is subjective.
“When we talk about beauty, we are really condensing all the complex realities of a person’s identity into an image,” says Chan. “Thus, all the work we must put into producing this image, we are endeavoring to communicate the internal self to the external world.”