After all I have written about nomad and countryside beauty, you might be wondering if Mongolian women have any real beauty image problems at all. I mean a Mongolian nomad woman is ostensibly totally appreciated! She’s told constantly that she is beautiful, that her internal qualities matter more than her external, she has tons and tons of songs written about how fantabulous she is, and the concept of beauty she lives up to is a totally realistic expectation.
So, if nomadism teaches women and men that being large, capable, and natural are positive and beautiful qualities, why are UB women some of the best-dressed, fanciest, thinnest and high-maintenanced women I have seen in my entire life? Going from the country to the city is like taking a leap through time and has left me contemplating what exactly it is about modernity, which has transformed fat-loving, custom-laden, internal beauty-focused nomadic women into fashionistas on high-heels.
What changed on the way from the steppe to the city?
So, my city interview phase has started. And last week, I had the opportunity to interview a woman who had been in a pretty famous Mongolian band the last ten years, who I thought could give me some insight into the intensity of body pressures inherent in Mongolian city life.
I asked her what is considered attractive, and she told me that for a man it didn’t matter how he looked in the slightest. If a man had a good heart and personality she would marry him. And the other woman in this conversation agreed completely with this statement.
So, I asked her if this also applies for women. Both women shook their heads. “Nope, definitely not,” she said. She told me that many people don’t even take a woman seriously if she doesn’t look attractive, and by ‘attractive’ I mean dressed to the nines. When a woman wears make-up, people treat her differently, she said, and there is a direct effect on her success. And when this singer personally goes out the door without make-up and expensive clothes on, everyone she encounters on the street gapes in horror and then the media start talking about her “fall from grace.” Like, OMG what happened to her? She was once so…. successful.
The extreme double-standard existent amongst Mongolian urban women is that to gain ‘success’ a woman has to not only be well-educated, well-mannered, sympathetic and friendly, she has to look incredibly good. She needs to have the newest and right brand of purse, cell-phone, a popular phone number (a phenomenon in many Asian countries), expensive jacket and high-heels, and she needs to show it. Her looks are her worth. A man’s is his mind.
A woman who is not physically beautiful can not be and is not considered successful, period.
So, how did this change happen? Who’s the culprit?
The capital city of Mongolia is not, like the countryside, largely affected by nomadism and tradition, but more so affected by the free-market and foreign cultural influences. The countryside and the city of Mongolia are really two completely different worlds, and the beauty and body maintenance of women are a representation of this divide.
A lot of urban Asian women are going through the unique congruence of stresses formed when the ‘traditional’ East meets the free-market West to create a uniquely precarious and dangerous body image security situation.
In the case of Mongolia: Even amongst Mongolian nomads, women were traditionally handed over to the husband’s family like an object of exchange and unable to maintain any public duties. Amongst the beauty ideals of shapely, natural, hard-working, and sympathetic women, were ones describing dutiful, well-behaved, traditional, and quiet Mongolian women. Mongolian nomadic women were traditionally confined to an incredibly rigid gender divide that made her domain almost exclusively the felt walls of the yurt and never expanded beyond that. Don’t get me wrong, that was her domain and her invaluable work was highly regarded amongst nomads (thus the tons and tons and TONS of songs about how amazing mom is), but this leaves NO room for dissent or divergence from this role.
The traditionally nomadic divided roles of female and male, private and public, respectively, have permeated Mongolian psyches so extensively that it makes it hard for city women, even though they are extensively better educated than men in Mongolia, to gain any type of recognition in the public sphere. The concept that men are naturally better equipped to handle public duties is so strong that women have to outdo men in almost every capacity to gain equal footing.
Furthermore, capitalism came… and the media.
The lovely ideals of meritocracy (that our success is directly dependent on how much we work at it) and consumerism inherent in free-market media displays lots of pictures in Mongolia (and around Asia) of thin, intensily body-focused, attractive white women buying, consuming and eating their way to happiness. The result is that the MORE access to modern forms of media (television, magazines, bill-boards, etc.) the LESS secure a Mongolian woman is about her own body image and the more she is pushed to consume along certain lines to increase physical attractiveness.
Here are some examples of how I came to this conclusion:
1) In the countryside, no woman gets plastic surgery nor considers it. Nomadic traditions are still very strong and she also has next to no access to computers, internet, magazines, and only T.V. exposure.
2) However, my first nomadic home-stay mother from the Gobi did tell me that she had never thought about make-up or beauty until she got T.V. Then, after realizing that according to T.V. she needed makeup, she drove the 35 km into the nearest town to order some beauty products. Her husband still thinks this is ridiculous and unnecessary as a nomadic woman and tells her to please take if off whenever she uses it.
3) In the shantytown-esque yurt districts around UB: The poorer a girl seemed to be (in my interviews) and thus the more unable she was to have a working television or able to access any form of media, the LESS insecure she was about her body and the more she loved her own beauty.
4) However, the city does provide them with some rising ‘luxeries’ and pressures: Some of the girls in my interviews told me that around 1/3 of all girls in the yurt districts (these are POOR women) also have had blepheroplasty, aka eyelid surgery to make the eyes bigger, and they get them done illegally for dirt cheap at district clinics.
5) And amongst middle to upper class urban city women: There are no statistics about this, but from my interviews and general impressions I would say that about one-third of all women graduating from high-school in UB right now have had the double eyelid surgery or nose bridge restructuring to make the nose more prominent.
6) When I went to interview a plastic surgeon nurse last week who works exclusively with wealthier women, she told me that the most popular surgeries are blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery to make the eyes bigger), rhinoplasty (the elevation of the nose-bridge) and the shaving off of extra jaw bone to give the jaw a pointier look (not round). Besides larger eyes, none of these beauty ideals have any root in Mongolian traditional culture.
7) Furthermore, if you look at a Cosmopolitan Mongolia or Goodali or some other prominent Mongolian women’s magazine around 70 percent of the models are Caucasian – a media form only city women have access to.
In the city, female physical attractiveness = success.
So, a Mongolian city woman, who is inherently disadvantaged through traditional society in public roles, needs to not only outdo men in intelligence and education, she needs to consume, consume, consume to maximize her physical (Western-influenced) attractiveness, and by default, success. Women are left with the belief that they are only worth as much as their appearance gives others the impression they are worth.
Note: I am also not trying to say that women who get plastic surgery are trying to look white. No, they all say they are trying to look more beautiful and increase self-confidence. Yes, 30 percent of Asian women naturally have a double-lidded bigger eye, but this is more than that: This is Western brand clothing and chins and eyes and face shape and blue contact lenses and heightening surgery and intense body fixation. WHERE did these ideals of beauty come from and WHAT makes some Mongolian city women have a lack of self-confidence in the first place?
This is a quote from a blog I found recently on gender, feminism and pop culture in Korea that discusses the issue of the plastic surgery amongst Korean women and why they have the highest rates of plastic surgery per capita in the world:
“Why did those certain aspects become what was “Beautiful?” when it wasn’t before? Although Korean women may not know that they are changing their eyes based on white standards of beauty, (in fact many wholeheartedly believe the double eyelid surgery is tailored to make Asian eyes more beautiful) single-lidded eyes were problematized because of confrontations with the West and now it has become so commonplace in Korea that these origins have been forgotten and it is now a natural thing to think. That single lidded small eyes are ugly and big dopey eyes are pretty and that is just the way it is because they are told that and they consume that every day of their lives.”
And thus… you are left with chin, nose and/or eyelid operated-on Mongolian urbanite fashionistas on high-heels.
We are trying to combat this.
So, we have a plan. Before I went to Hovsgol, I had the opportunity of drafting and implementing the first “Love Yourself: Women’s Body and Beauty Image Workshop” together with the women at the Young Women’s Club.
The point behind this workshop is to give urban women in UB and in other areas in Mongolia knowledge regarding the new stresses they are facing, including increasing their media literacy, see body and beauty as inextricably linked to culture (and thus not universal and pre-determined), and increase their health knowledge and personal self-confidence. And we are also going to try to create a mini-movie about Mongolian medial portrayals of women, because all of the information available on this issue pretty much comes from the States or from Britain and thus hard for Asian women to relate to.
If all goes according to plan and the funding proposal we are currently working on goes through, I will be spending the next months training women to give this workshop. *cross my fingers*
And doing this workshop with the girls at YWC was very successful and fun, but also shows how much work we need to do… At the beginning of the workshop, we ask the girls to describe what a beautiful woman looks like (to compare their ideal to reality) and they described every SINGLE aspect of the female body (I mean ears, toe-nails, fingers, eye-lids, skin color on face and body, ankle bones, neck EVERYTHING) in such excrutiating detail that I had to wince listening to it.
and i’ll leave you with this fine thang: