We Need to Talk About Ethnic Body Trends

Media provided by Gazette Media Staff.

Since the beginning of time, the ideal body type for women has changed multiple times, revealing the volatile, pervasive nature of body trends. There has always been one body type that is praised over others, whether that be the plump, curvy figures of Ancient Greek sculptures to the thin, cinched torsos portrayed in Victorian portraits. 

Currently, nearly all of the trending American body parts are a mixture of ethnic features. Think the Kardashians: big lips, tan skin, and fox eyes. In the past, women used corsets, padding, plastic surgery, and makeup to achieve the in-style body type. Women absolutely reserve the right to alter their bodies but it is also important to point out the hypocrisy in society’s treatment of women of color compared to white women. In what ways are women of color ridiculed for their ethnic features while white women are praised for adopting them? 

In order to answer this question, readers need to understand the history of body trends in America and the extent to which they change. During the 1920s, flappers were the paragon of fashion: embodying the trend of loose, short dresses. According to a report released by The Greatist, a wellness newsletter, the flapper style was intended to highlight the small chests and boxy figures that were “in fashion” and ultimately became symbolic of the time. A decade later, fashion and body trends shifted again, from the boyish silhouette of the 20s to the large chest and dramatic hourglass figure that peaked during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield quickly became sex symbols, glorified on and off of the screen for their bodies. 

According to the Hourglass Express website, a retailer that promotes “waist training,” the 60s re-popularized the slim, dainty figure that mirrored the silhouettes of the 20s (a drastic change from the body type that was idealized in the decades prior). Toned and “sporty” bodies accompanied the fitness craze of the 80s, which saw an influx of workout programs that played on TVs across America. Over the next two decades, long and skinny torsos were “in fashion,” with size 0 quickly becoming the “standard” body type. All of these trends were intended to appeal to white women, as throughout American history, body trends circulated around Eurocentric features before ethnic characteristics became the focal point of beauty standards.

Today, the ideal body type is an accumulation of past trends. A flat stomach, curves, and a big chest and butt are characteristic of a standard that is unattainable for women who were not born with these features or who refuse to undergo plastic surgery. Furthermore, it is ironic how the majority of the trending features are stolen from women of color, considering the fact that they have historically been bullied and targeted for the exact same characteristics. 

The fox eye trend is a clear example of this contradiction as false eyelashes and expertly-placed eyeshadow can imitate a slanted, upturned eye shape that East Asians are often ridiculed for. Interestingly, Teen Vogue reported that some East Asian women are not offended by the eye shape but rather by the hand gesture that influencers use to accentuate these fox eyes. According to a CNN style report published in 2020, the motion of pulling one’s eyes back reminds some East Asian women of past racist experiences in which strangers or classmates mocked their eye shape. Speaking from the perspective of a Chinese woman, it is very frustrating to see strangers on the internet gaslight East Asian women into minimizing their feelings towards this offensive pose and makeup style. 

Similarly, the media’s portrayal of tan skin as the pinnacle of beauty leads many women to take tanning to the extreme, raising labels such as “blackfishing.” In essence, blackfishing is when white women adopt Black features using methods such as darkening their skin and wearing traditional Black women’s hairstyles. Before and after pictures of women, such as Addison Rae, Bebe Rexha, and the Kardashian family, who have been accused of blackfishing are plastered all over TikTok and Instagram, showing just how common it is for influencers to make themselves appear Black. Starting in the late 1800s, Black slaves became a source of entertainment for white people, leading to the formation of minstrel shows. Minstrel shows not only stole music from Black people, but also caricatured them by dressing up in blackface, mimicking an accent, and using exaggerated mannerisms. Today, Black people may still be treated as if their dark skin makes them inferior while there also exists a widespread beauty standard in which darker skin is the ideal. While people discriminate against Black women for their skin tones, white women are often praised for having darker skin, whether it is achieved naturally or not. 

Another example of the media making Black characteristics in-trend is full lips, another feature that has historical ties. During minstrel shows, white performers in blackface mocked Black people’s lips by drawing bold, red lines around their mouths. Over the past couple of years, full lips have become a prominent body trend with white celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, the Kardashians, and Julia Roberts receiving immense praise for them. After Kylie Jenner publicly admitted to receiving lip fillers, she pioneered a wave of filler and cosmetic surgery, thereby opening up another option for people looking to enhance parts of their bodies. At the same time, Black women are put down for their features but, unlike Jenner, the size of their lips is not a choice. The modeling industry, in particular, has discriminated against Black models for their features (Jezebel).

 In 2018, Jenner announced that she dissolved the filler in her lips, inciting questions on the internet about whether fuller lips were “out of fashion.” A Glamour article argues that this reaction embodies the problematic, exclusive nature of body trends; while some people are able to modify their bodies according to each trend, others find themselves with permanent, natural features that are not perceived as desirable or beautiful.

Money is an additional factor that gives select people access to cosmetic surgery and forces others to risk unsafe procedures abroad. Filler, Botox, and facelifts are all procedures that do not guarantee long term results and, therefore, require touch-ups over time; in other words, they are an investment for consumers. People who cannot afford cosmetic surgery often travel to foreign countries, where there are cheaper options and surgeons who are willing to perform dangerous procedures.  

 In a world where body trends have existed for centuries, the cycle of shaming and uplifting different bodies seems never-ending. Nevertheless, powerful female figures such as Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B are using their music to reclaim their bodies, fight against objectification, and empower women. As Harper’s Bazaar discusses, the collaborative song “WAP” is not only a popular audio on TikTok, but also a means of breaking musical boundaries and reclaiming women’s sexualities and bodies. Their work, along with those of other artists, goes beyond the likes of a catchy song and offers a glimpse of how women might empower themselves to boldly defy the exploitative notion of body trends, as industries continue to profit off of diminishing women’s’ bodies.