Beauty Ideals: An Emerging Global Norm?

With our third workshop on the homogenisation and globalisation of beauty norms taking place next week, our project lead, Heather Widdows, considers whether beauty ideals constitute an emerging global norm.

I have argued previously that the current beauty ideal is becoming more dominant and narrower and that this makes it harder to resist and reject. This makes it difficult to regard the ‘choices’ we make with regard to beauty as ‘free choice’
(for further discussion, see here). To use just one example, the norms around body-hair have changed dramatically in the last few decades and what is required is more demanding in terms of time and money and pain (see here). Moreover, non-compliance is less possible, as expectations of conformity increase (refusing to remove body-hair becomes almost a political choice rather than a beauty preference). Taken together I argue that the norm demands more, it applies to more types of women, and it starts younger (as young as 3) and continues older (into post-menopause). This is most important for the next Beauty Demands workshop (upcoming 14-15 October) on the ‘Globalisation of Beauty’. I am also suggesting in my current book that the norm is becoming global.

There are lots of (good) arguments for the current beauty ideal being regarded as ‘Western’, and certainly there are some aspects of current global beauty trends which could be read as supporting these claims. For instance, the increasing African preference for thinness and the spread of eating disorders amongst African college students “might indicate a shift to a new African body ideal closely aligned to Western ideals”[1]. And certainly if one considers changes over the last 30 years in Asian and African beauty queens, actors and singers there is a very obvious move towards a preference for thinness and light-skin which could be considered as emulating white women. But could it also be read as an emerging global norm, where what is ideal is not ‘white’ or ‘western’, but rather ‘a global mean’? Is it something which all women, from all races, can aspire to, but which none have ‘naturally’.

If we consider some of the features of the emerging ideal (thinness, hairlessness and skin colour) we can ask whether or not these are emerging as global norms:

1.   A primary feature of the beauty ideal is thinness and firmness (so curves are OK, but only if they are not wobbly or lumpy). So large backsides are good, but only below a skinny waist (and bum lifts and implants is a growing trend with the American Society for Plastic Surgery reporting buttock augmentation, lifts and implants to be among the fastest growing procedures)[2]. So the trend to thinness/firmness seems to be generally emerging as global, and in places where this was not always the case.[3]

2.    Second, the beauty ideal is relatively hairless, with regard to visible body hair (and increasingly pubic hair). This trend for smooth and hairless skin is certainly global and applies across racial and ethnic groups.

3.    And third, the beauty ideal is golden-skinned. This looks like it is global (as long as the trend is for ‘golden’ rather than ever paler skin). Given the focus on tanning and fake tanning amongst white-skinned women the ‘golden’ seems likely. Moreover both darkening white skin and lightening black skin has significant health risks (sun-bathing and tanning booths have long documented serious consequences and skin lightening cream is full of toxic chemicals – including mercury – and is considered a growing ‘public health risk’ in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America[4]).

So a brief look at key features of the ideal suggests that there might be an emerging global ideal. Other evidence for an emerging global norm is arguably found in surgery trends. Breast enhancement remains the most frequently performed surgery, something which isn't surprising given that most of us (across ethnicities) require implants if we are to be both thin (or firm) and large breasted. Some surgeries apply only to certain ethnic types, such as the facial surgery which is on the rise across Asia and is in some instances extensive. For instance, a popular surgery is the double eye lift (which is estimated to be used by at least a third of women in South Korea and some estimate as many as half), and this is often accompanied by facial surgery to enhance cheek bones and to make the face less ‘flat’.[5] However, while some forms of surgery are ‘required’ of only some racial groups and the ideal is more demanding of some racial groups than others this does not (I think) make it automatically a ‘Western’ ideal. In the current context, I argue, no race is ‘good enough’ without ‘help’. White women are just as unable to attain the beauty ideal without intervention as Asian and Black woman are. Large lips are not ‘natural’ for most white women and require fillers and lifts, and large breasts (often) and large buttocks (nearly always) require intervention for white women. Asian women require intervention in faces (eyes, lips and face shape), and (nearly always) for pert bums and breasts. Black women (sometimes) have the bums required, but (often) require surgery for large breasts and certainly require skin-lightening. And nearly everyone requires work to be (or to stay) thin, firm and young.

These are shameless stereotypes and caricatures – not all white women are thin-lipped any more than all black women are ‘bootylicious’ – but despite the crudeness of this analysis it is revealing of the nature of the emerging norm. This is not to say that there are no racial or cultural differences, there are, but they are less. If what is going on is global, then the results will be further demands on all women. The narrower and more homogenising the norm is then the more demanding and problematic it become. Less competing norms will be available to counter it making narratives of resistance harder to create and utilise.[6]  

Professor Widdows’ research is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and she holds a Major Research Fellowship (details here). Her book, Perfect Me!, is under contract with Princeton University Press.

[1] V. Coetzee, S.J. Faerber, JM Greef, CE Lefevre, D E Re, D I Perrett, “African Perceptions of Female Attractiveness”. PLOS One 7(10) (2013)
[2] In 2014 11, 505 buttock augmentation with fat grafting operations were performed in the U.S. and 1863 buttock implants, so rare were these in 2000 there are no comparator stats. In 2014 there were 3505 buttock lifts compared to 1356 in 2000 (which is up 158%). 2014 Plastic Surgery Report, American Society of Plastic Surgeons (Available at:
[3] For instance, African men now find attractive “younger, thinner women with a lighter, yellower skin colour and a more homogenous skin tone”; V. Coetzee, S.J. Faerber, JM Greef, CE Lefevre, D E Re, D I Perrett, “African Perceptions of Female Attractiveness”. PLOS One 7(10) (2013)
[4] WHO Mercury in Skin Lightening Products (
[5] Patricia Max About Face: Why is South Korea the World’s plastic-surgery capital? The New Yorker March 23, 2015
[6] Some argue that the claim that there is a single global norm emerging is challenged, for instance, by the body-modification movements or current moves to make plus-size models far more visible. However, while these challenge some aspects of the norm, I am less sure that they amount to full alternative norms, rather than being derivative on the emerging norm and in many ways derivative of it. See earlier footnote (no 9) for more on comparison to historically demanding norms.


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