TIFFANY FONG | FEATURES
My mum is one of those badass, powerful women. She does her make up sitting on the floor in front of a full length mirror. In a pinch she can do a whole face of makeup with only her fingers, no sponges, no brushes, and you would be none the wiser. All of that with baby me sitting in her lap, watching her create art in the mirror.
However, despite having access to a vast range of colours and palettes, it wasn’t until I was 16 and in need of foundation for a school formal that my interest in experimenting with makeup was piqued. I did not want to go to a makeup artist, having seen friends who ended up with unblended contours or eye makeup that did not consider and adapt to the shape of monolids. I wanted to be in control of how I looked that night.
With makeup, the face becomes the canvas. I am both simultaneously the artist and the art — I choose the style, the colours and their placement. I am in control as an artist but also at the mercy of my brushes.
I joke with my friends that I draw my eyeliner, put on a bright coloured eye-shadow and forget how to act humble. However, that's not entirely true — the expressiveness of make-up and being able to draw attention to my eyes (which I've always liked, despite being asymmetrical) is a self-confidence boost. I stand straighter, look people in the eye, carry myself with a little more authority.
My mum often tells me, "makeup is for you to accentuate the features you like and cover your blemishes. You should still look like you, but enhanced, like something brought into focus." So putting on makeup, like fashion, became a way for me to express myself.
The ‘lipstick effect’ is a psychological phenomenon where wearing makeup gives individuals a confidence boost by making them feel more physically attractive. Thereby increasing their self-esteem, attitude and personality. Research conducted by the Harvard Medical School found that women who put on makeup before a test achieved marks that were 10-20% higher than their peers. It is hypothesised that the boost of self-esteem had a positive impact on memory, confidence and mental ability.
Dr Rajajeyakumar Manivel notes that "the majority of research on women and their self-esteem have historically been related to how they feel about their body shape and size. However, not much attention has been given to a particular action women can take to improve their self-confidence [by] applying cosmetics. Using different products and colours, women can use makeup to explore and portray their own individuality."
All of this before we even touch on the style of makeup that individuals choose. According to research conducted by Albertay University, women who wore heavier ‘night’ makeup were perceived as being frivolous with poor leadership skills compared to those with a ‘natural’ look. Yet, women who go to work barefaced are criticised for being unprofessional, so we really can’t win here.
On the one hand, makeup provides us with agency through self-expression, yet it is also a means for societal expectations to be upheld and conformed to. It is important to question, why do we perceive certain features as flaws? Why do people wish for fuller lips and bigger eyes? Who is wishing for those? And who imposed those standards?
Journalist Wanna Thompson coined the term Blackfishing, deriving the word from ‘catfishing.’ White individuals Blackfish when they try present themselves as racially ambiguous or Black, whether through excessive tanning, dark foundation, or wearing hairstyles and clothing styles that are pioneered by Black people. She states that "be it fashion, beauty or music. Black is cool, unless you're actually Black."
White people scrub off tans, wipe off dark foundation and unravel braids, taking Black aesthetics at their convenience to monetise and capitalise on. This is especially problematic when Black people continue to routinely face racial discrimination and disapproval when they embrace Black fashion and beauty as society continues to view it as unclean, untidy and unprofessional.
Yet, White people are quick to defend their appropriation, crying that it is their deep respect and appreciation of Black culture being expressed. Countless articles argue there is a “fine line” between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, but this argument detracts from the real issue. The rhetoric justifies and defends appropriation rather than acknowledging the status quo it maintains which continues to harm minority communities.
Jim Crow era caricatures of African American people often exaggerated dark skin tones and lips. Place this context against White influencers choosing to darken their skin tone through excessive tanning and injecting botox for fuller lips — it is easy to see how tone deaf their action is. The Coon caricature emerged just as American slavery was being abolished to perpetuate damaging stereotypes of African-Americans so that they would remain as a lower social class.
“But sweetie,” I hear you say, “that’s all history, as a society we have moved past slavery and racist stereotyping.”
Racist caricatures and colonialism are the origins and reason for the pervasiveness of racism and discrimination faced by Black and Indigenous people. Historical events like the Jim Crow laws or Darwin’s The Descent of Men which argued that White Europeans were ‘civilised’ cultures and everything Other was ‘savage,’ continue to underpin and influence negative stereotypes people have about Black people. Till this day in our 21st century, Black people continue to face systematic and societal discrimination due to the stronghold that these negative stereotype continue to have on our collective imagination and representation of Black people.
While historical stereotypes are obviously and blatantly racist, contemporary microaggressions are subtle. It’s important to note that Blackfishing is not the same as blackface, but it derives from it. Blackfishing is more subtle and it is part of a wider social and systemic form of discrimination. The reason why European haute couture continues to dominate the fashion industry is not because they are better or more creative — it is because historically other cultures have been undervalued and viewed as savage. Or the reason why French and Italian cuisine tends to be more expensive is not because it requires more skill or care, it is because European culture is viewed as more ‘high class’ and society is more willing to pay a premium for it.
Over the last 30 years, East Asia has also experienced an increasing interest from the West in their popular culture. With K-pop band BTS surpassing top American artists on the Billboard charts, Japanese anime and Chinese BL Fantasy dramas circulating, we are seeing the West consume Eastern culture as a commodity.
The West's fetishisation of the East can be understood through Orientalism, where Eastern culture is viewed as less than Western culture to justify imperialism and occupation. To this day, it is not uncommon for the West to view the East Asian countries of Japan, Korea and China as interchangeable. It particularly irked me when Lana Condor who is ethnically Vietnamese, was casted as Lara Jean who is meant to be half Korean and half American in Netflix's adaptation of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, as it reinforced the West’s idea that Asians are interchangeable despite vastly different and rich cultures.
Hollywood has a long history of yellowface starting in the mid 18th century, with White actors applying makeup to “exaggerate ‘racial’ features that have been designated ‘Oriental’ such as ‘slanted’ eyes, overbite and mustard-yellow skin colour” (Robert G. Lee). The industry established and perpetuated the West’s imagination of the East as exotic and Other. Thus, the rich history and complex culture of a whole continent not only became a costume, it was also reduced into a caricature.
Asianfishing takes many of the makeup techniques utilised in yellowface, most predominantly taping the eyes for a ‘slanted’ look. The fox eye trend saw influencers pulling their eyes back with their hands or taping, alongside Oriental fashion to fetishisie and sexualise Asian culture. TBH, the people who jumped on the fox eye trend are probably the same people who pulled their eyes back and yelled “ching chong” at an Asian kid in the playground.
Asian women have been eroticised, fetishized and raped following wars and colonisation. How far back? In 1875, Chinese women were restricted from immigrating to America as they were viewed as prostitutes. The White Australia Policy, which was only abolished in 1973, targeted Asian immigrants, characterising them as immoral and particularly susceptible to smoking opium (ironic since the British government strongly resisted efforts to ban the opium trade since the it financed the government in British India — once again, colonisers have created problems that POC clean up and pay the cost of).
In contemporary times, Asian women continue to be hypersexualised and fetishised — at once submissive and sexually alluring, they are objectified and viewed as something to be dominated. Miss Saigon is the perfect example to summarise Western Orientalism — Asian men are portrayed as villainous while Asian women exist to drive the White man’s heroic arc through their own self-sacrifice. All of this within the context of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war and the fact that many Asian women were forced into prostitution while American soldiers partook in the sex industry to assert their dominance.
Or, let’s talk about the infantilization and fetishisation of Asian men which is especially predominant among K-Pop fans. Where Asian women are hypersexualised, Asian men have historically been desexualised and emasculated by the West. This portrayal of Asian men as effeminate can be understood as a story about White male insecurity regarding masculinity.
What further complicates things is that in many contemporary films, Asian men’s masculinity often rely on their relationship or sexual attractiveness to White women. Thus, it’s no surprise that the fetishisation of Asian men by White people often leaves a sour taste — it continues to perpetuate the narrative that Asians are only attractive when they are desired by White people.
Notions and ideals of beauty are intertwined with racism, especially when ethnic features form the basis of aesthetics. The longstanding effects of colonisation mean that Eurocentric standards of beauty continue to dominate and the cosmetic industry has enabled individuals to dramatically alter their looks without addressing the systematic and institutionalised racism that people of colour continue to face. White influencers who use makeup to darken their skin tone or tape back their eyes transform ethnic features into a costume that can be worn and removed at their convenience.
Social media has enabled White influencers to profit off the creativity, culture and hardwork of ethnic creators. Rich cultures are reduced to trends through appropriation in Blackfishing and Asianfishing. It reinforces the idea that ethnic features are only desirable when the West deems it beautiful enough to adopt and appropriate. Rather than empowering people of colour, it cunningly upholds existing power relations and Western beauty standards.
Makeup is a double-edged sword; able to empower and to objectify. It can be a medium for self-expression, or a method of adhering to arbitrary beauty standards. If makeup is the medium, then you are the subject and the art. Our faces tell stories of our heritage, and makeup provides us with agency over the self we choose to present for the day. Unlike painters who start with a blank canvas, or ceramic artists who begin with a lump of clay — makeup artists accentuate existing features.
Sitting on the floor of my bedroom in front of a full length mirror, choosing between palettes with two dogs sitting in my lap. I draw my eyeliner, put on a bright coloured eye-shadow and I think of simultaneously being the art and the artist, wielding my brushes, creating art in the mirror.