I’ve been wondering about this for a while – this fascination with youth, innocence and submissiveness both in American beauty culture and in other countries across the globe. And of course there is no consistent answer because, as Laura Miller points out in her book Beauty Up, not all culture’s standards of beauty are constructed for a desire to obtain Western features or ideals. But the correlation of transnational youthful desires is undeniable. Big eyes, small statures, lack of body hair, flat chests, smooth skin it all point to an ageless feminine aesthetic and I just don’t get it.
The contradiction that most women exist in is epitomized in a line from the 80s classic The Breakfast Club
Miller acknowledges the depth of this pull in Japanese beauty culture particularly after the US occupation of Japan during and immediately following World War II. Miller states that during the occupation beauty standards, particularly those of women in the gaze of the foreign soldiers, shifted to meet a more Americanized preferences—large breasts and small waists. In addition to these beauty standards, relationships with bodies changed—breast bearing in public became crude and indecent so rather than continue a practice that could garner negative attention from the occupiers, women stopped breastfeeding in public.
Not only did specific practices shrink into obscurity during this occupied state, people themselves shrunk out of the public eye to avoid confrontation. In war, civilians hide to avoid torment so it makes sense that people, particularly women whose bodies have historically been used as collateral in wartime would try to become smaller and stand out even less.
After the occupation, I believe that the combination of this habitual fear and also an aesthetic backlash to the American standards of large-breasted, sexually developed women brought about the “cute aesthetic” in the 1960s and 70s. This idolized immaturity was supported by Japan’s traditional view of body hair being barbaric and the view of white men and women as uncivilized because of their excessive body hair as it would have glorified the image of a hairless pre-pubescent female body. In addition the Japanese view of the white man as barbaric would have helped the Japanese “etiquette” rules to distance all Western beauty standards as uncivilized.
But there has since been another backlash since the “cute aesthetic” found its foot hole into a more individualized Japanese style. Japanese street style is well know for juxtaposing images of innocence with sexual potency and for the women who take advantage of these aesthetics see them as an avenue of expression rather than oppression.
But in some cases these images continue to be fetishized in the West, take for example Maid Café in China town, where the waitresses are all dressed in pint-sized outfits and call the patrons, “master”.
The obsession with child-like femininity is, I believe, a culmination of distinct culture fears and conditioning specific each region it is found in. In Japanese culture, according to Miller, it is possible that the cultivation of youthful aesthetics could be yet another incarnation of what it means to be Japanese and how that heritage is put out into the public eye.