Where Have All The Asian Faces Gone?

Why fashion imagery and advertising, even in magazines published in Asia, are still overwhelmingly conservative — in other words, white.

Where Have All The Asian Faces Gone?

The fashion industry is never far from fuss when it comes to representing “real people”. For a long time, criticism centred on unrealistically skinny models, but today’s problem in relation to race is just as relevant.

Because let’s face it: Flip through most magazines published in Asia, be it Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan or Thailand, and you’ll likely find an over-representation of Caucasian models in fashion adverts and spreads. In Singapore, it is estimated that Western models feature in more than 70 percent of women’s magazine advertisements. Sharp-nosed, fair-skinned and always with double eyelids, these conventional standards of beauty are something we are very familiar with.

A prominent scholar on the subject of Asian portrayals in magazine advertising and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Advertising, Charles R. Taylor, concurs: “I do believe that based on years of relatively few Asian models in fashion advertising, it has become a type of norm. Aspirational beauty has, for a long time, been linked to Western stars even though most of the world sees Asian women as beautiful. Still, I think historical norms of modesty for Asian women play a role [in the lack of representation in fashion] — looking too overtly sexualised has not been traditional.”

Countless researchers have also established how Western models are used in ad campaigns in Asia when the underlying marketing strategy is that “sex sells”. A 2004 study on race and beauty in women’s magazine advertisements, with samples from magazines published in Singapore, Taiwan and US, show that Western models were shown more frequently than Asian models in seductive dresses. This stigma rings true today, seeing how Vietnamese model Ngoc Trinh’s barely-there dress at Cannes 2019 aroused strong opinions among her countrymen. “Sexually explicit”, “weird” and “gross” were some of the terms used to describe her outfit. Product categories also differed. Asian models were used more frequently in ads for hair and skincare products while Western models conquered the clothing category, which is still evident today.

There’s also an ongoing debate between standardising and localising editorial strategies. Due to an increase in multinational publishers and global fashion magazines available across Asia (think Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle), standardising advertising and fashion spreads are deemed necessary to maximise consumer reach. Advocates of standardisation argue that, thanks to globalisation, consumers in different countries are likely to have similar tastes and preferences, given their exposure to Western cultural values.

Models Mathilde Henning and Maike Inga pose backstage during the Alberta Ferretti Spring/Summer 2020 fashion show.
(Photo by Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images)

Therefore, does the ethnicity of the faces that greets us on local glossies even matter? Contributing editor of Vogue India Anjana Gosai thinks so, believing as she does that a homogeneous standard of beauty has a corrosive effect.

“The pleasure of magazines has always been about a certain deluded aspiration — the “you, but better” — mantra. If we are finally moving away from “you, but white”, that really will give people a cause for celebration.”

And there is definitely a rising trend of magazines choosing to use more racially diverse faces, which may signal a change. For one, the fashion spread Everybody Can Be a Rock Star in this issue of A magazine paints a narrative depicted by both Asian and Caucasian models. Steve Thio, contributing editor for a bridal magazine in Singapore, says: “I actually think there are more Asian and pan-Asian models used for locally produced ads and commercials now as compared to previous decades. In Thailand, they have always championed local models. That’s why their models are considered celebrities in their own right. The same goes for Korea, especially for beauty ads.

“Consumers are now embracing more Asian beauty standards, led initially by Korean celebrities, and now, more and more, by China models and celebs. I believe the rise of social media in the later half of the 2000s contributed to the awareness and popularising of Asian beauty, and that effect has pervaded most of popular culture.”

Still, Thio cautions that we must not exclude white models from our editorial pages just yet. “There should be an array of races featured in every issue,” he says. “Sometimes, white models are used more often mainly because samples from international fashion brands are tailored according to Western body measurements — outfits just don’t look as good on an Asian model as on a Caucasian model. There are also other considerations like colour, which goes better with particular skin tones.”

A part-time academic staff at Lasalle College of the Arts, Thio often highlights to students how fashion images can produce unintended and negative consequences, hence in-depth discussion and research into topics and themes of a shoot is always important.

He adds: “It would be strange, for example, to feature a Chinese model in a princess gown shot on the ramparts of an English castle, yes? There have been instances where Caucasian or black models were photographed in a Chinese theme or setting. Look at what Chinese photographer Chen Man did with Rihanna [for Harper’s Bazaar China] — but even those images ignited controversy! So, there’s a thin line between creative licence and being culturally and socially responsible with the images you create. And most of the time, the talents producing such images would tread the safe path rather than risk a backlash.”

So while it’s encouraging to see Asian faces becoming more mainstream, it’s safe to say that we have a long way to go before this becomes a “type of norm”.

This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of A.

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