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Asia's obsession with all things beautiful

Originally published in Mint.

Shilpa Madan

Research shows that being attractive helps in life and career, additional reasons why the beauty industry is so focused on Asia

Being the first Asian to walk down the ramp as a Victoria Secret Angel, Liu Wen certainly knows a thing or two about beauty. In a recent interview with the New York Magazine, she said the Chinese have a rather “set" definition of what is considered beautiful. With their focus on exacting standards such as double eyelids, large eyes, v-line jaw and fair skin, this statement definitely rings a bell.

In a clear testament to this preoccupation with a specific notion of beauty, the opening ceremony director of the much-acclaimed 2008 Beijing Olympics said it was in the “national interest" to use a super cute, pretty nine-year old girl to lip sync to the original voice of a less attractive child who had a better voice but with crooked baby teeth and chubby face.

While the event drew flak from all over the world, it is just one of the countless examples that underscore Asia’s unhealthy obsession with beauty.

There is no denying the politically incorrect truth that being beautiful opens doors in today’s world, positively influencing quality of life in numerous tangible and intangible ways. Added to which, we are hardwired to appreciate beauty.

In a series of studies carried out by psychologist Judith Langlois and colleagues at University of Texas, infants as young as a few days old were found to prefer looking at attractive faces, and their preference matched that of adults. No wonder then that the prospect of looking more beautiful is endlessly appealing to people.

Whether it’s American girls spending on make-up and tanning instead of college tuition, British women running marathons in full make-up, Indian women yearning for that elusive “fair" complexion or Chinese parents gifting their children plastic surgery upon graduation, the obsession with beauty is all consuming, all over the world.

However, evidence suggests that this obsession with beauty is even more deep-rooted in Asian cultures. Japanese and Korean skin-care routines are painstakingly elaborate, with 10 or more products used in succession.

The Philippines has supposedly over 40,000 beauty pageants, and one beauty queen for each local district. And figures from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons show that Asia has the highest concentration of plastic surgeons. According to TrendMonitor, one in five Korean women has undergone cosmetic surgery, compared to about one in 20 in the US.

In a move that reflects the strategic importance of Asia, Procter & Gamble recently moved its headquarters for skin care, cosmetics and personal care to Singapore.

The high-margin, immensely profitable business of beauty and personal care is projected to touch $530 billion by 2019, according to Euromonitor, and Asia will account for a significant one-third of this number.

Characterized by cutthroat competition and constant innovation, it is one of the few recession-proof product categories. Popularly known as the “Lipstick Effect", research shows that even while general consumer spending declines in an economic downturn, women’s spending on beauty products increases.

This relentless pursuit of beauty is unsurprising given that research over the last several decades highlights the “beautiful-is-good" stereotype. Beautiful people score over their not-so-attractive counterparts in almost every aspect through their life course.

In a research programme dedicated to understanding this phenomenon (referred to as “Physical Attractiveness Stereotyping"), Professor Karen Dion at the University of Toronto found that beautiful people are perceived to be more intelligent, more decisive, informed, and logical, and more persuasive. The benefits of looks are not just limited to social currency; her studies also revealed that beautiful people are even expected to achieve greater mental happiness and career success.

However, the benefits of beauty don’t just end with social perception. In a comprehensive economic analysis, Daniel Hamermesh and colleagues at University of London found that beauty begets tangible rewards in the labour market, with more attractive people more likely to be hired, be considered more talented, command higher salaries, elicit greater cooperation and be rewarded more often.

In separate field studies conducted in Hong Kong and India, hiring managers were not only more likely to shortlist attractive applicants, they were also perceived to be more qualified.

In an interesting experimental study in France by psychologist Nicolas Gueguen, waitresses were asked to wear different coloured wigs (red, blond, dark and brown) on different days. Amazingly, waitresses received significantly greater tips from men when they wore blonde wigs.

Hiring attractive employees seems to bode well for organizations too. An analysis of Dutch advertising firms by economist Gerard Pfann and colleagues found that those with better-looking executives had higher revenues.

In a recent related series of studies conducted in Hungary, Adam Putz and colleagues show that even after being cheated, people are more forgiving towards attractive cheaters and award them less punishment.

It’s not surprising then that the indisputable halo of beauty even extends to close others—with the partners of attractive women being evaluated more favourably than their less-attractive counterparts.

It is fascinating that this attractiveness halo effect is pervasive across the world, but the traits that are esteemed and valued differ across cultures.

Research by psychologists Ladd Wheeler and Youngmee Kim found that people from collectivistic, Eastern cultures believe that attractive people have a higher concern for others, and are more empathetic and generous. On the other hand, people in individualistic, Western cultures believe that attractive people are more assertive and dominant.

Yet, recent research shows that there are important exceptions and boundary conditions to the beautiful-is-good stereotype.

In a study conducted in the US, economics professor Bradley Ruffle and his colleague sent out over 5,000 resumes with pictures to potential employers. They found that employer callbacks to attractive men were significantly higher but the same was not true for women. Interestingly, women with no picture had a considerably higher callback rate than either attractive or plain-looking women.

Among a handful of studies highlighting the dark side of beauty, recent research by Peter Belmi and Margaret Neale at Stanford University found that physically attractive people were more likely to support social inequality. In a nut-shell, beautiful people ascribed themselves to a higher social class.

While this has fascinating implications for both diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and marketing and targeting to an attractive populace, it also raises a pertinent point about a future where hierarchies will be defined based on looks and not competence.

Current pop culture trends in Asia are a testament to the harsh reality that the one who looks good wins. Be it in reality shows or movies, being beautiful is the ticket to success—so much so that parents are gifting plastic surgery to children when they graduate in China and Korea so they don’t lose out in the cutthroat race to the top of the corporate ladder.

As a society, our positive bias towards beauty is not just pervasive, but deeply ingrained in our psyche. While popular culture examples are replete with the (positive) after-effects of beauty, little research investigates the downstream consequences of looking beautiful for the protagonist.

In other words, do physically attractive people “feel" more intelligent, socially competent, and persuasive? Is this a fleeting feeling or is it chronic? Can this be achieved by using the multitude of skin-care and cosmetic products that marketers hope the populace will succumb to?

To quote Bobbi Brown, founder of the eponymous make-up brand, “I believe all women are pretty without make-up—but with the right make-up can be pretty powerful." Recent research indeed shows that feeling physically attractive confers feelings of power. But is this a good thing?

While the researchers did not explore this effect further, power (in other contexts), has been shown to lead to increased risk-taking, higher competitiveness and a decreased willingness to consider advice. So while increased risk-taking may encourage women to aim high in work and personal life, it may also translate into more reckless decisions.

Further research is needed to understand the extent of power that feeling beautiful bestows on women across the world. That said, Asian women are definitely not losing their beauty sleep over this lack of research—as the magical allure of hope keeps them opening their wallets and filling their vanity cases with new and improved lotions and potions every season.

Being a marketer’s dream (due to the potential) and nightmare (thanks to competition) at the same time, one thing is certain, Asia will continue to be the hotbed of innovation and intense activity in the beauty space for several decades to come.

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