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Fashion models and mannequins in East Asia
Following the international furor over Satoshi Kanazawa’s article on the physical attractiveness of blacks, Lee Ellis and Ping He published a study on whether “some racial or ethnic groups are considered on average more physically attractive than others even by members of other groups.” Here is their study.
Lee Ellis & Ping He. Race and Advertising: Ethnocentrism or “Real” Differences in Physical Attractiveness? Indirect Evidence from China, Malaysia, and the United States. Mankind Quarterly 2011;51(4):471-489.
Implicit in the concept of ethnocentrism is the idea that people will consider members of their own race or ethnic group to be more attractive than members of other groups. If so, one would expect advertisers to take advantage of such preferences by choosing “local” models when promoting clothing fashions and other products. A contrary view is that judgments of physical attractiveness are to a substantial degree neurologically “hard-wired” and evolved similarly throughout the world. With the assumption that fashion models and manikins are considered highly attractive, the present study recorded the race of models and manikins publically displayed in city malls in China, Malaysia, and the United States. Caucasian (white, European) models were found to be mainly utilized in all three countries, especially in regard to clothing fashion displays. Even advertisements for cosmetics and fashion accessories were “Caucasian-biased” in China and Malaysia although less so than in the U.S. and less so than advertisements for clothing fashions. Findings call into question the relevance of ethnocentrism in determining the choice of fashion models used in advertising, and are instead consistent with other evidence of universal standards of physical beauty that advertisers rely on to help promote their products.
The findings of Ellis and He are similar to those of two previous published studies by Frith, Shaw and Cheng (2004, 2005), that they cited, which assessed the ethnic background of female models in prominent fashion magazines published in Singapore, Taiwan and the United States; Ellis and He found that the same find also applies to male models and mannequins of either sex.
Ellis and He made note of a study by Feng and Frith (2008), which reported that 80% of the models used in women’s magazines with a limited regional circulation in China were East Asian, whereas Asian editions of two international women’s magazines with wide circulation in China featured 33% and 50% East Asian models. Feng and Frith’s data (2008) show, as can be expected, that there is no shortage of East Asians available as models, and that the most likely explanation of greater reliance on East Asian models by limited-circulation local women’s magazines is their limited budget, which mostly rules out paying for European models.
It is clear that to the extent the fashion modeling issue in the Ellis and He data is about physical appearance, it involves the face, not the body. With less exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics [men looking less masculine, women looking less feminine], more slender bones and a very large population, one would think that East Asia is a haven for fashion designers looking for male and female models resembling adolescent boys, but East Asian fashion models are a rarity internationally and disfavored even in East Asia. Similarly, the physiques of mannequins are not important because mannequins with either Asiatic or European faces can and usually will be made with similar physique proportions.
Ellis and He addressed three studies that challenge their interpretation. The first is a group of studies reporting that computer averages of European and East Asian faces are rated more attractive than the parent populations, such as Rhodes et al. (2005). This has gone uncommented by Ellis and He. This is a topic that I have not addressed at this site, but have in a different publication; the find is dubious because of methodological flaws. It is well documented that East Asians rated more attractive by East Asians have face shapes closer to European norms, and the pattern of facial cosmetic surgeries in East Asians is clearly a shift toward European norms. This is evident in pictures of attractive East Asians provided by enthusiasts. In contrast, no Asianization of attractiveness is seen among Europeans.
To illustrate, the masculinized European woman on the left below is not made more attractive by shifting the face toward Asiatic shapes (middle), but by retaining the European shape and simply enhancing femininity (right).
Left: below average femininity. Middle: below average femininity. Right: slightly below average femininity. The below average femininity of the woman shown in the middle, Frida Aasen, is clearer in this picture, where she is not even 18; the masculinity will better manifest in subsequent years. Aasen is a long-skulled, lightly pigmented European and her face may have nothing to do with any Asiatic genetic input, which may not be there in the first place, but the shape elements count for our discussion. Greater feminization than the example shown on the right, as in Britt Ekland, will continue to maintain a European shape if corresponding to greater attractiveness.
In two additional examples, the faces shown below can be made more attractive by making the facial features more Anglo/Jutish/Frisian/Saxonic (left, middle) or more feminine (right), not Asiatic in any case. In general, it has been systematically shown that attractiveness in European women corresponds to changes in face shape in a direction away from Asianization.
The second challenge to their interpretation, cited by Ellis and He, comes from Jankowiak, Gray and Hattman (2008). These authors reported that women, both European and East Asian, rated male and female European magazine models better looking than their East Asian counterparts, whereas male raters found European male models better looking than East Asian, rating female models of the two populations similarly. This is not a proper challenge. Female fashion models tend to have below average femininity; the majority of men will usually not familiarize themselves with female high-fashion models whereas more women are expected to browse fashion magazines and be used to the looks of female high-fashion models; and European women having more exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics, the below average femininity of European women fashion models will tend to be more noticeable to most men whose brains attune them to breasts, hips and related cues to femininity, very well causing them to more negatively evaluate European women models than East Asian women models for lacking femininity.
The third challenge cited by Ellis and He is by Honekopp (2006). African, European and East Asian students in a Western university were asked to rate the attractiveness of African, European and East Asian student faces. People tended to have a better opinion of the average attractiveness of members of their own ethnic group than others had. However, this does not reflect on whether people rated their own ethnic group better looking than other ethnic groups. And Honekopp’s find can fit within the possibility of Europeans universally seen as more attractive. For instance, people will be more comfortable rating the physical attractiveness of their own ethnic group because of the familiarity factor, and may more negatively evaluate alien facial features not perceived as attractive than the aliens who possess these features, which could explain the general trend except the evaluation of European attractiveness, where Europeans use norms among themselves as a comparison point whereas non-Europeans use attractive Europeans [because Europeans are supposed to be better looking] as a yardstick and penalize those who fall short. Note that the Honekopp study refers to the evaluation of ordinary individuals, whereas Ellis and He focus on models, including mannequins.
The more important find is about the model mannequin faces because when these are realistic, they tend to be idealized. In East Asia, two-thirds of the models used to sell cosmetics, hair products, shoes, jewelry, electronics, and household goods were European, but mannequins modeling high fashion rarely represented East Asian faces.
The idealistic elements of a mannequin are illustrated in the following instance of an East Asian who had nothing wrong or deficient in her nose but sought surgery to obtain the idealized nose depicted in the mannequin she brought to the doctor’s office.
The Asian wanted a European nose; see source and context.
Ellis and He are dependent on the assumption that fashion models are selected for a high level of attractiveness. This is correct if we add “to the dominant fashion designers.” But the below average femininity of typical female fashion models, which diminishes their attractiveness to the general public, does not weaken their argument.
In the following example, for instance, it is clear that the major differences between East Asian and European models involve ethnic features, even if the individuals are picked far apart along the masculinity-femininity distribution. Therefore, attractiveness as a function of femininity is not the issue.
A feminine albino East Asian fashion model, Connie Chiu, contrasted with a non-feminine, boyish non-albino European fashion model, Linn Arvidsson. It is not necessary to pick an albino European for comparison as the person shown will look like one without sun exposure.
The following painting contrasts realism with the garbage that passes for modern art.
Would the masters of realism in art, the only people worthy of the designation of great artists, draw inspiration from European or East Asian faces? This is the key to understanding the question examined by Ellis and He, and the key to understanding the mannequins data. The issue is not one of masculinity-femininity, nor is it of mere attractiveness as there is no difficulty in finding some East Asians that are more physically attractive than the majority of Europeans or very attractive by any standard, but whereas some European faces have artistic merit, East Asian faces are universally lacking in artistic merit.
Ellis and He quoted the director of a Chinese modeling agency saying, “The foreign models’ faces are much more three-dimensional…. They look nicer in pictures.” This is a reference most extensively to the mid-facial flattening of East Asian faces, where the resemblance to ancestral species is the greatest and unambiguous. It is for this reason that the pattern of cosmetic surgeries among East Asians is better understood in terms of looking less ethnic/more derived than one of Europeanization.
At this point it should also be considered whether the extensive use of European models and European-faced mannequins in East Asia is an imposition on the general population by the elite and not indicative of general preferences. Since the models and mannequins are selling things to the people, this elite is the business elite. The top concern of the business elite is profit, and if East Asian faces profitted them more, they would use more of them. This leaves the possibility that reduced profits are accepted in exchange for another goal, though what this could be I have no idea. Another possibility is that the desirability of the items marketed makes it largely irrelevant whether European or East Asian models are used, and the heavy use of European faces either reflects the atypical aesthetic preferences of the business elite or some other reason. If there are any persuasive arguments in this regard, then I am not aware of them.
Ellis and He discussed three alternative possibilities that may explain the European overrepresentation:
Higher perceived social status of Europeans
But features may be found more attractive or more desirable even if the social status is low, as in the example of Northern European slaves being admired for their looks in Rome, and features may be found less attractive or less desirable even if the social status is high, as in most people finding the below average femininity and thinness of high-fashion models less appealing notwithstanding their high status.
The clothes being marketed are Western
To this the authors responded that advertisers would want to minimize the suggestion that the clothes marketed are inappropriate for customers, that modern dresses are usually used internationally, and Western clothes are often made in China, Malaysia and other Asian nations.
Lighter hair and lighter skin is favored among East Asians
But untanned Northeast Asians tend to be fairly light, often lighter than tanned Europeans, models can dye their hair and mannequins can have hair of any color.
It seems that the evidence is most consistent with the majority of East Asians finding Europeans more physically attractive than themselves.