07 November 2018

Media Portrayal of an Ideal Beauty Image

In Indonesia, there is one image of ideal beauty that is portrayed in all media, from magazines, advertisement billboards to commercials, especially of beauty products. This image portrays woman with almost white-light skin tone, long-straight lustrous silky black hair, big rounded eyes with double eyelid and long eyelashes, pointed nose, and slim yet curvy figure. This image can be seen in almost every beauty commercials in Indonesia and it immediately raises question because most native Indonesians, except in small areas of Indonesia, is naturally dark-skinned.
As a multiracial and multiethnic country, Indonesia has 1128 races and over 1000 ethnicities with different physical characteristics. Some ethnicities, such as Asmat people or Ambonese, have dark brown skin tone and naturally curly hair resembling Melanesian people and yet it is still rare to see commercials that featured Indonesian women with curly hair and tanned or dark skin. Despite of this contradictory fact, women in Indonesia considered having white skin as a symbol of beauty. The popularity of skin-whitening product in Indonesia shows that Indonesian women desires light skin color and sees having white skin as one aspect in measuring beauty. Other apparent aspect of beauty is having lustrous silky black hair, with middle-parted style, as can be seen from the Indonesian commercial clip below.


Thanks to technology and globalization, foreign media is being widely spread and consumed by Indonesians through social media, leading to increased exposure of a variety of ideal beauty images from different parts of the world. Young generations become exposed to wider definition of ideal image of beauty, not only Indonesian definition of ideal beauty. Other than Indonesian ideal beauty image described above, there are two other prominent ideal image of beauty in Indonesia, which styles are often adopted by young Indonesian women. They are the East Asian image of beauty and Western image of beauty. These two ideal beauty images are popular in Indonesia because of the popularity of Hollywood movies and western medias, and growing popularity of Korean and Japanese dramas in Indonesia.

Other than the two popular ideal images of beauty, according to Indonesian women, the current ideal beauty image of Indonesia is Raisa, a celebrated young singer. Raisa's physical features, slim yet curvy body, long black hair with no bangs, thick eyebrows, round double eyelid eyes, fair skin, pointed nose and sharp jawline, are adored by Indonesian women as the portrayal of ideal beauty in Indonesia. Moreover, her ladylike images made her seen by Indonesians as the ideal beauty image.


Despite all media portrayal of ideal beauty, what exactly is ideal beauty image according to women? This essay tries to explain ideal beauty image according to Indonesian women and the influences of media portrayal towards their opinion of ideal beauty image. To learn about ideal image of beauty for Indonesian women, I conducted 10 individual interviews with Indonesian students at an international university in Japan.

Ideal beauty image according to these women is something relative and subjective, and it differs from one individual's perception and others. To describe ideal beauty, one need to look beyond physical appearances and despite media portrayal of ideal beauty image, Indonesian women think that ideal beauty is defined by attitude and inner characteristics rather than physical appearances. There are several attributes that define ideal beauty image for them.
First, ideal beautiful woman is someone with positive aura and charms. This positive and charming aura is seen by how the person behaves, acts, and carries herself in public. How she carry herself in public, such as the way she talks that shows intelligence and good nature, her good manners, and the positive influences that she has over people around her. This is the main attribute that Indonesian women think when talking about ideal beauty.
Second attribute that define ideal beauty according to Indonesian woman is inner beauty, which are good personality, nice  attitude, self-respect, self-confidence, independence, be one own self (sono mama in Japanese), or intelligence. Inner beauty has different meanings and interpretations but Indonesian women think that having good heart is what make someone beautiful. These varied interpretations of inner beauty show the values each woman cherished in their life.

Third, physical appearance such as good fashion style or facial expression is also mentioned by several women as ideal beauty criteria, although it is not the main criteria for defining ideal beauty. Physical appearances reflected inner characteristic or personality. Facial expressions, such as a smile or a pout, also reflected what is inside and became the characteristics of that person. Fashion style or how someone dressed up also reflected someone's personality and character. Physical beauty is considered important too, as it would bring some advantages and benefits in finding jobs or getting acceptance from societies. Rather than bringing rewards from society, good physical appearances are seen as important because it will give self-confidence and boost self-esteem, and therefore is believed to lead to appreciation and positive image. In describing ideal beauty image, these women do not describe in detail what kind of physical or facial features, such as hairstyle or shape of nose, but rather they emphasized on body size.

These attributes are characteristics of ideal beauty image according to Indonesian women. Media portrayal of ideal beauty, on the other hand, does not necessarily mean ideal beauty for these Indonesian women. Media portrayal does affect how society thinks of ideal women’s body image and appearances, and it sometimes made women feel dissatisfied with their looks due to comments from family or peers. Society's expectation on women's physical appearances gives suggestion that only women whose appearances look as portrayed in mass media were allowed to wear any style of clothes. While for the others whose body do not look "ideal," society will often criticize what they wear because they think that clothing style should only be worn by women with "ideal" body. Indonesian women in this research expressed criticism towards media’s focus on slim body and think that beauty should not be associated with slim body because beauty comes in all size and beauty is something subjective. They also give examples of foreign celebrities and often refer to social media such as Instagram, Youtube channel, or fashion blogger in talking about media portrayal on women. Not only focusing on body image, but the mass media also shapes beauty trends and fashion styles. Celebrities' fashion styles are often mentioned as part of what makes them look beautiful and to provide examples of different types of beauty.

Physical appearances are not the main attribute in describing ideal beauty. To these Indonesian women, media portrayal of women affect how society thinks about ideal beauty image of women, but do not define what ideal beauty is for them. Physical appearances are considered important because it would be the first thing people will judge before knowing someone's personality and it reflects inner quality of the person. Although physical appearance is not the main attributes in determining beauty, physical appearances are important as it shows how someone value herself and reflect her inner qualities.

Although media does not define ideal image of beauty according to these Indonesian women, media affects society's expectation on how women should look like. That is one of the reasons of why society often criticize women's appearances. Indonesian women in this research oppose the narrow definition of the pursuit of beauty, which pursue beauty from only physical appearances, to the extent that someone was willing to do anything to resemble the ideal beauty image internalized in media by doing extreme diet or performing plastic surgery. The most important factor in defining ideal beauty is inner beauty, and Indonesians women express their opinion on how women should improve their inner quality instead of pursuing physical beauty. The various characteristics of ideal beauty that were mentioned in the discussion showed the value that each woman cherished in their life. Even though there were a lot of different characteristics mentioned in the discussion, Indonesian female women value positive characteristics such as independence, self-respect, self-acceptance, and good personality. Media does not define their concept of ideal beauty, yet media affects the way they think what society expects women to look like.

[This essay is by Rebekha Adriana, a 2014 graduate in Culture, Society and Media of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. She has published on female migrant workers in Indonesia and terrorism in Asia, and recently completed a graduate program at Leiden University.]

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