Beauty has been chronically difficult to define. Nebulous by nature, its form floats adrift like clouds across a capricious sky, lacking clear borders, resisting prediction. For three months now, I have lived in a climate of aesthetic standards that is far removed from the ambience and vistas to which I was acclimatized in my youth. Here, beauty is a tumult.
To anyone vaguely familiar with modern Japan, often the first aspect of this country that comes to mind is the pronounced disparity in the methodology of commercials, music videos, anime and TV game shows, which are sometimes seen as exaggerated, absurdist or simply eccentric. Many of these are designed with humorous intent, and our disconnected presumption is within the fault of the cultural divide. But living in Tokyo, one distinction that remains both jarring and overt is the advertising. Surely, there are typical ads, the kind routine to my capitalism-reared consciousness, but too exists a new ilk that is much more cloying.
With advertisements pasted on walls, pillars, doors, handrails, floors and ceilings, anywhere my vision might flicker or cross is another whisper that, “you need this new product.” They are desperately thirsty for my attention, and forcibly assertive in their pitch. A typical person would not consider full-body hair removal necessary, until every hour-long train ride in the morning and evening begins suggesting how much more modern, beautiful and convenient their life might be, not to mention how cheap it is, and how painless — or so they say.
It is in these instances that I spy a beauty culture manufactured, and I turn within myself to ask what it means to me to find pleasure in aesthetics, both in my own appearance, and in others.
Arguably, we are not completely sovereign in deciding what is attractive. The surface representations of our aesthetic preferences are an amalgam of experiences and connotations of what we individually come to view as either meaningful or visually pleasing, but included in that chemistry is an implicit understanding of cultural standards. Serving as a framework upon which individual preference is built, our range of aesthetic appropriation is ultimately fettered by surrounding convention.
I sense that my own scaffolds of understanding proper self-presentation are somewhat distorted by the ambient culture around me. Time spent in an atmosphere humid with steadfast gender distinction has prompted a slew of subtle changes in my choice of wardrobe, and though the substitutions are minute, they are nevertheless manifest. Though I would like to consider myself impervious to the advertising pressure I have thus far witnessed in Japan, my peers, who have been steeped in it for a lifetime, are not. More than just talking through a screen, when the influence is in front of me, making eye contact, I must admit I am easier to buckle.
Certainly, though, the search for beauty does not necessitate struggle. To many, aesthetic expression is cathartic, allowing us to share what we find representative of our disposition and our preference. There will remain an aspect of this medium which is public domain, at once owned by none of us, and by all of us: It is the etiquette of presentation that binds us together, yet not malignantly so.
The tempest of today is churned by the attempt for widespread control of our understanding of beauty. When incessantly presented with a corrupt aesthetic standard of photoshopped ideals, expectations are sure to become warped past realistic recognition. Even if maybe I would, in fact, be more beautiful if devoid of body hair, or with porcelain skin, I would like to live somewhere it doesn’t feel so necessary.