Image borrowed - please don't sue me! - from here
Yesterday I was sitting on the Taipei MRT in one of those sections where seats run along the walls rather than sticking out in pairs. Across from me there was a string of women - one dozing, one on her phone, one reading, one just sitting. They spanned several decades in (guesstimated) age and were for all intents and purposes, totally normal. Not a one of them looked much like any of these women:
(I had to google "asian women haircuts" to even get a search results page not full of softcore porn, but I suppose that'd be true for any search involving photos of women - we're objectified no matter our race).
I don't mean to say that a beautiful woman can not also be a normal woman, although I don't buy into the "everyone is (physically) beautiful" myth: everyone is beautiful in multidimensional ways, but some people do possess more physical beauty than others and most of us are just average. So those who are notably physically attractive are, in some sense, not normal. That's not a bad thing, or a good one - it just is.
There was nothing unusual about seeing this group of average women, who ranged from ponytail-sporting student to mom-with-kids to office worker to obasan. But it got me thinking about one tendency in male expat circles to fetishize Asian women (BIG IMPORTANT NOTE: that's not the same thing at all as dating an Asian woman or loving an Asian woman. I'm talking more about the way some expat men - and men back home, too, to be honest - talk about Asian women, and not touching at all anything having to do with relationships).
You know, the usual: they're all so beautiful, they're so cute, they're so slender, it seems like all of them are! You can't walk down the street without seeing a gaggle of Asian beauties! It's not like my home country, where most women are frumpy, fat or ugly and you only sometimes see ones who look okay. Asian women (all Asian women, apparently - this statement is never qualified) are just so lovely and slim and cute.
There's nothing wrong with seeing beauty and admiring it, but these statements, and the thoughts behind them, are pernicious in several ways.
First, there's a very strong tendency to use these statements to imply that all, or most, or a disproportionate number of women in Taiwan (or whatever country - I am talking about Taiwan because I live here) are somehow better or more beautiful than women in whatever your home country is. And I just don't think that's true. From my observation, anyway, every country has its attractive people, it's majority of average people, and its not-so-physically-attractive people, in roughly the same proportion. To insist that Taiwan has more gorgeous women is to imply a sort of fetishization or racialization: this race is better than that race. Taiwanese women are better than women in my home country...based on what? What's different, other than race?
I don't see them as all that different. I get on the New York subway, I see a string of average women and a Dr. Zizmor ad. I get on the Seoul metro, I see a string of average women and a plastic surgery ad. I get on the Taipei MRT and I see a string of average women and an overly-photoshopped ad.
So that attitude diminishes some women based on their race, and elevates other women based on their race, based on very little evidence.
What that does is imply that all you see are the beautiful ones - which may be true, and in fact probably is true - while not seeing the average ones at all. As though they don't exist. Of course a country would have lots of beautiful women if all you saw - the only ones who existed to you - were beautiful women.
Which leads me to my second point - it adds a layer of invisibility on any woman who does not fall within those magical parameters, if the thing you say most often about the people in your adopted country is how beautiful the women are. It means you don't see all the women who fall in the fat belly of the bell curve. They are quite literally invisible to you; they do not exist. That is a shitty thing to do to anyone. It comes very close to saying - if it does not say outright - that women who do not meet your standards for beauty don't get to be a part of the universe.
It means you don't notice the diversity of the society whose country you are living in - whose country took you in (perhaps grudgingly - we know how Immigration can be - but they did). It means you don't notice every grandma, every makeup-less office worker, every mom with kids, every manager in a power suit with pumps, every artsy type, every expat woman (not to mention every Taiwanese man - although that's a different post). Even when they're in your field of vision. Even when you are at the same event.
And don't think we haven't noticed how that manifests in real life. Have you ever had to lead a seminar while your horndog co-teacher salivates over the two pretty female students (and ignores the fortysomething female manager, and the makeup-free student in a plain singlet and ponytail)? Have you ever been walked right into by men and women who buy into the beauty myth, because they either don't see you, or don't think they should have to make space for you so that you can also have space in the world? Have you ever had a shoulder bump, when you saw someone coming and swerved your shoulder, figuring that was all you had to do to make space, while the other person moved not at all and whacked into you anyway - as though you were supposed to make all of the space and they were not required to make any? Have you ever felt unwelcome at an expat meetup because the demographics of the attendees were: average expat men, some above-average attractive Asian woman, one or two average Asian women, and you? And so you and the other average-looking women talk amongst yourselves because you are completely ignored by everyone else? Have you ever read expat blogs or Facebook posts and noticed how often they talk about "Taiwanese cuties" as though they are the only women who exist in Taiwan? As though the only people who exist in Taiwan are "Taiwanese cuties", white men (them - and they are almost entirely white), and maybe their boss? No average women, certainly no expat women, average or not, no older women, and no Taiwanese men of any age? Have you ever seen an older woman - an obasan - get seriously manhandly because yet another person has tried to claim her space on the sidewalk and she's had to literally push to get it back?
For me, it's a big fat "YEAH" on all of these. And the myth of "all the beautiful Asian ladies" perpetuates it. If it's all the beautiful Asian ladies, then the not-physically-beautiful ladies, of any race, simply don't exist.
I know I'm going to get some shitty comments like "well I think Taiwanese women are just so pretty, but that doesn't mean I ignore other women or Taiwanese men, I notice them too!". Sure. This doesn't mean that every guy who has this attitude towards women in Taiwan walks right into other people on the street - or expects them to move - or that they totally ignore any other people. Just that these attitudes run in tandem and one feeds the other.
Finally, but briefly - it perpetuates a sense of competition among women - women who have bought into the beauty myth, anyway. I don't blame them for buying into it: there are a lot of rewards to playing that game, if you win, or even if you rank. If I thought I could rank, there's a chance I'd take a hard dive into the shallow end too. If it's all the beautiful Asian ladies, then the average Asian ladies feel pressure to try harder to get into that world. Whether or not they give into that pressure, or take care with their physical appearance for their own reasons, is another blog post that I probably won't be making, because while I can talk about a woman's experience in Asia, I can only go so far in talking about Asian women. I'm not an Asian woman; I do not really have that experience. It's just not my turf.
It's what drives commentary that runs along the lines of: if you don't like how you are ignored in favor of Asian women (not a word about how other, less "cute" and "lovely" Asian women are also ignored), then try harder! Slim down, buy some cute clothes, put on makeup, try harder! Basically - don't like the game? Compete anyway! My approval must matter to you. (Fortunately, it doesn't). As though it doesn't matter if the game is valid or not - we all must play. Refusing to play is blasphemy.
It's also what commentary that assumes that everyone who mentions racial fetishization of Asian women - or the comparative non-existence of any person who is not an attractive Asian woman, feels either bitter or threatened. I would not say I'm bitter - annoyed, angry, yes, but not bitter. I do not need or want the approval of these people; but I will insist that I exist. I don't need flirty attention (not only do I not want it from them, but I get all I need at home with my husband, thanks), but I will insist that my race and my looks not demote me to someone who deserves less respect as a human being. I am not threatened: I neither need nor want these men to be attracted to me. I'm not even in the game - I'm married. I simply want to exist.
That's why it is simply not okay.
It's time to notice the grandmas. It's time to notice the women over thirty. It's time to notice the moms and the managers, the wrinkled and the portly, the plain-faced and bespectacled, the tired-eyed care workers, the makeupless and the (oh horror) Western. You don't have to be attracted to us, you just have to acknowledge that we exist and treat us accordingly. That means teaching a seminar rather than ogling students. That means giving us space on the sidewalk. That means listening to us without condescension. That means stopping with the whole "Asian women are all so gorgeous!" bullshit, because they're not. Some are. Some aren't. It means acknowledging that someone other than a fellow male expat or a pretty Asian woman might have something of worth to offer, and respecting that person accordingly.