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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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Guest Post: The Politics of Tibetan “Plateau Redness”

the-beheld_tibetan_plateau_redness_kehoe“Plateau redness” of Tibetan faces is so notable that it’s inspired songs—so what is the significance of its potential disappearance?
Image © Bbbar | Dreamstime.com

 

“I remember when I was young, during my first trip to Chengdu, standing amid the hustle and bustle of crowds on Chunxi Road, where, no matter what clothes you were wearing or whether you opened your mouth to speak, from the wisps of natural rouge upon one’s face everyone could immediately identify a Tibetan girl.” So goes this piece, initially published on WeChat (a messaging platform popular in Tibet) by a young Tibetan student, which introduced me to “plateau redness,” the characteristic bright red cheeks of Tibetan people. It’s a feature I’d not known that I’d noticed, but when I stopped to think of iconic images of Tibetans, red cheeks were indeed an unmistakable feature.

That might not be the case much longer. The conditions that prompt plateau redness haven’t changed, of course; the cold, windy, elevated plateau continues to dilate the blood vessels of Tibetan faces. But Tibetan women are subject to the same beauty ideals of women in China, where pale, unmarked skin has become the standard-bearer of beauty. Products that promise to erase or camouflage plateau redness line the shelves of cosmetics stores in Lhasa. People are also more likely to protect their skin from the sun now (sun damage in and of itself doesn’t cause the redness, but it exaggerates its effect). Add in the unique political concerns of Tibet and the ways state-run Chinese media examines the issue, and plateau redness becomes a case study of how beauty, identity, policy, and culture are inextricably entwined.

I urge you to read the original essay here; the writer cannot be identified for safety reasons. Tricia Kehoe, an Irish scholar of Tibet, translated the essay—and penned a follow-up, which is adapted below. You can read Kehoe’s original post here, and you can follow her on Twitter here. Many thanks to reader Willa who pointed me toward this essay coupling in the first place.


 

Reading through a few articles from Xinhua, China News, and other major news outlets, I noticed that state media have been quite consistent in their discussions of plateau redness. Like most reportage on Tibet in state media, the plateau redness coverage was framed by discourses of science, progress, development, and increasing integration with interior China and the world, often juxtaposing “old Tibet” and “new Tibet.” 

In 2013 a piece from state mouthpiece Xinhua entitled “Tibet’s ‘Plateau Redness’ is Becoming Rarer explained that the disappearance of plateau redness is simply a case of Tibetans coming to “understand more of scientific culture (kexue wenhua)” and “how better to protect themselves.” In a bizarre attempt to put a positive spin on climate change, the same piece, quoting a professor of medicine at Tibet University, also made the argument that:

Global warming is leading to an increase in Tibet’s vegetation, more rainfall, more moisture, and an increase in the amount of oxygen in the air. These changes are making peoples’ skin better able to retain moisture, thus lessening the occurrence of dry, cracked skin, and plateau redness.

More typically, state media tends to dismiss plateau redness as an illness of bygone times before health awareness took hold. Citing Nyima Tsering, director of the Tibetan Medicine Institute in the Tibet Autonomous Region, a China News article in 2015 entitled “The Plateau Redness that is now Disappearing” stated “actually plateau redness is really not as beautiful as imagined, it is a type of plateau illness.” Similarly, in 2013 Xinhua ran a piece entitled “Tibetans Hope to Get Rid of Red Cheeks” that discussed Tibetan women’s increasing sense of “irritation” with plateau redness and Lhasa’s bustling cosmetics market. Degyi, a cosmetics saleswoman in Lhasa, was quoted as saying “we used to bask in the sun for warmth and had no knowledge of the harm the exposure could do. Today, we have a better understanding of how to protect ourselves.”

A quick search on Chinese search engine Baidu turns up no end of articles and forum threads discussing how to get rid of plateau redness. The advertisement below for Victoria Plastic and Cosmetic Hospital in Lhasa offers a “plateau redness removal” service for 8,800 RMB.

the-beheld_removal_plateau_redness

Keeping the above in mind, let’s get back to the essay that’s prompting discussion here. The piece, titled “Tibetan Girls, We Are in the Process of Losing Tibetan Redness” exhorted Tibetan women to reconsider their redness as a symbol of national pride: 

 

The plateau bestows upon us a superior physicality, stronger lungs and heart, and a bright red face. These natural gifts leave us with nothing to feel embarrassed about. Within this information explosion that characterizes our present, so much is demanded, particularly of women. From being a perfect 50kg to the endless whitening brainwashing, we feel completely as though we ourselves are imperfect and are in need to change. In fact, there really is no need to live by the expectations of others.

Keeping a natural heart, and a natural appearance is also a manifestation of beauty.

 

On the Wechat platform where it was originally posted, it quickly generated discussion, garnered thousands of views, and was shared around the Tibetan blogosphere. The piece resonated with many women: Several posted comments expressing their agreement and praise. One comment praised the piece for allowing Tibetan women to “accept and even like our plateau redness. You wrote so well!” Another read “many people ask me why there is no plateau redness upon my face. I can only remain silent.”

Others, however, were critical of what they saw as an implicit suggestion in the piece that those without plateau redness were somehow less Tibetan. As one commenter remarked, “So only if you have plateau redness do you count as Tibetan?” Others joined in, arguing that this attempt to make plateau redness a compulsory feature of Tibetan women simply constituted another “a form of social violence.” Some were also irked by the burdens and limitations the piece placed on Tibetan women’s personal freedoms. One commenter wrote, “whether people decide to wear makeup or whiten their skin is really a matter of personal choice and determination, and we should not talk about it on the level of ethnicity.” Similarly, another commenter responded:

I am a Tibetan who was born and brought up in Tibet, but since I was a kid I have never had any kind of plateau redness. If outsiders think that people who live on the plateau must have plateau redness, that just tells you that they’re too narrow-minded.

 

While the essay certainly stirred up debate around questions of identity and authenticity, others were much more concerned about thinking about the reasons behind the disappearance of plateau redness. 

 

Upon the plateau redness that exists on our face, we smear stuff, taking Han whiteness as beauty. We hardly realize that doing things like this, in this society of counterfeits, will harm our very own original skin and original form, and this is what is making plateau redness disappear…

 

Perhaps the most divisive point of the discussion was the degree to which Tibetans felt the loss of plateau redness was of their own making. Many argued that the disappearance of plateau redness goes far beyond being simply a matter of beauty trends and tastes. As one commenter wrote, “one of the main reasons plateau redness is disappearing has to do with the natural environment, rather than personal choice”; others wrote that “plateau redness follows the trends of changes in the environment and climate, and disappears” and that “I think Lhasa’s weather is less and less that of before, climate change should really be an influence in this.”

Others identifed an interrelated third factor, namely China’s inland schooling programs for Tibetans (xizang ban). Since 1985, as part of its “intellectual aid scheme” (zhili yuanzang), the Chinese government has been sending large numbers of Tibetan primary school graduates to inland secondary schools outside Tibetan regions. The cultural impact of inland schooling continues to be a very contentious subject of discussion among Tibetan netizens, and was also reflected in the comments on the loss of plateau redness. 

Nowadays from a very young age many young Tibetans study in interior China and then their plateau redness slowly disappears. Also, before our diet was mainly tsampa but these days it’s basically rice and so on. These are just external changes, but the saddest part is that many have already begun forgetting their language and faith.

Because “plateau redness” will follow climatic and environmental change and transformation, and disappear. Following the upsurge in inland schooling classes so many students from the plateau study in interior China from a very young age. Once they go, that’s four years. They initially take their plateau redness with them to interior China and when they return to the plateau it has disappeared, and their skin has become white.

While the majority acknowledged the role that climate change, education, mainstream beauty standards, etc. play in the loss of plateau redness, not everyone viewed this as necessarily a negative development. As one commenter argued, the development of new beauty standards constitutes a sign of Tibetan development, openness, and greater integration in the world:

Pursuing what is fashionable does not mean not having a deep love for one’s own ethnicity. We are in the process of integrating into modern society, and this demonstrates our openness but we cannot lose our essential things. We study English, Mandarin, wear modern clothes, but this does not represent a lack of ethnic identification. This is the process of Tibetans moving towards the world.

Yet, there were plenty of others who took a far less rosy view of the situation:

The times are changing. Some things, we really haven’t intended to change but they change anyway. Just like some traditions that have already disappeared without a trace. If you want someone or something to blame, blame this nasty era.

To others, no matter the status of plateau redness, whether in the process of disappearing or not, “the blood that flows in our veins will never change.” Or, as another poster asked, “as long as there is a grain of love for Tibetans in your heart what does outwards appearance matter?”

Meanwhile, while Tibetans debated over the many fraught issues of identity, climate change, and inland schooling, plateau redness was being mobilized elsewhere in a fashion shoot the photographer dubbed “Nomads in the City.” The photography collection featured two Han Chinese female models ostensibly posing as Tibetan nomads on a stroll around the high streets of one of China’s sprawling urban centers (looks like Chengdu to me). I found the following spiel on the photographer’s Weibo page about what the photo collection is supposed to represent:

From today’s perspectives, the nomadic lifestyle is pretty bohemian. They are of no fixed abode, they take their tent this way and that, settling wherever there is water and grass. They have no home. Wherever they pitch their tent is home, not unlike gypsies. This life of unrestrained freedom remains the fantasy of so many modern urbanites who perhaps walk and walk, not knowing where they will pick up a girl of their liking.

the-beheld_plateau-redness_han_appropriation_kehoeFor full images, please visit the photographer’s Weibo page.

 

A bizarre pantomime mimicry of Tibetan attire and clownish attempt at plateau redness, the photos were eventually picked up by Taobao, a Chinese shopping site, and used to promote “Gegu Heavenly,” a new online store inspired by “ethnic culture” and specializing in necklaces, bracelets, earrings, antiques, and other ornaments. Gegu Heavenly has certainly been working hard to market their products by leveraging the many tired stereotypes of Tibetan nomads as wild, mysterious, exotic, romantic, and unrestrained bodies. Mobilizing an amplified plateau redness must have been considered as lending their brand an heightened charm of je n’ai sais quoi. Tibetans, however, were left cold; the few comments I read had little more to say than that the representations of urban nomads were a “complete sham” and “terribly ugly.”

Not that it’s only Chinese media that romanticizes plateau redness. As the woman who wrote the original essay points out, tourists come to Tibet expecting to see this mark of “true” Tibetan life, and are disappointed by what they don’t find: “[T]hey see the great Potala Palace that they have longed to see and snap shots of devout pilgrims to Jokhang Temple they have longed to snap, but they rarely see the ‘plateau redness’ of Tibetan girls. They suddenly see the difference between the Tibet they have learned about from propaganda and that of reality.”

Like so much of the socio-cultural landscape in contemporary Tibet, the politics of plateau redness are deeply embedded in wider ongoing debates concerning identity, cultural assimilation, migration, education, climate change, and so on. “Tibetan Girls, We are in the Process Losing Tibetan Redness” and the many comments it generated reflect so many of internal dilemmas and conflicts experienced by Tibetans living in the shadows of the dominant Han culture and state. Yet unlike so many debates and discussions of this kind, the politics of plateau redness was dominated by Tibetan women. Across state media and the essay comments I saw no references to Tibetan men’s relationship to plateau redness. Does plateau redness not concern Tibetan men? Where is the male gaze in all this? I briefly posed the question to the woman who penned the essay I translated. She responded that it was something she had not considered when writing the piece, but suspected the issue would resonate with many men.

In many colonial and postcolonial contexts, the struggle for cultural preservation, recognition, and respect is often a notably gendered phenomenon. Not merely the biological reproducers of the nation, women are also seen as cultural reproducers. Exploring the intersection of gender and nationalism, scholar Nira Yuval-Davis writes, “Women are often constructed as the cultural symbols of the collectivity, of its boundaries, as carriers of the collectivity’s ‘honour’ and its intergenerational reproducers of culture” (Gender and Nation, 1997). From India to Ireland, situating women’s bodies at the center of the struggle against colonialization has been and continues to be a very common motif, and the plateau redness debates suggest a similar narrative at work among Tibetans. Caught between pressures to conform to Han and Tibetan beauty ideals, both Tibetan women and plateau redness stand on precarious ground.

 

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The Worst Hair Dryer in the World

U.S. Patent US416489 A, "Toilet Appliance," filed 1899

U.S. Patent US416489 A, “Toilet Appliance,” filed 1899

A quick dip into the history of hair-drying, pre-blow-dryers: My blow dryer stopped working a few weeks ago. I usually air-dry anyway, except for the front part, which I blow-dry because it’s tricky to get it to air-dry just so. But in dawdling to replace my dryer—a process that will likely take at least six more weeks, because I’m lazy about the stupidest things—it got me thinking about how people might’ve tried to commodify hair before blow-dryers were around. (The first actual blow-dryer was invented the year before, though the device wasn’t really wieldy for home use until the 1970s.)

There was Parrish’s design, above, as well as Anna Kellogg’s design, also patented in 1899, both of which worked by lifting the hair off the back, which allowed for more air circulation and also protected clothes:

U.S. Patent US649608 A, filed 1899

U.S. Patent US649608 A, filed 1899

 

Then there were the comb-dryer hybrids—which is pretty much how I air-dry my hair now, running a brush through it periodically as it dries in order to keep it from drying too…I dunno, stiffly? The ends just don’t look right if I don’t brush it as it dries.

U.S. Patent US701673 A, filed 1901

U.S. Patent US701673 A, filed 1901

U.S. Patent US697743 A, filed 1900

U.S. Patent US697743 A, filed 1900

It’s hard to tell if any of these particular models made it to market, but it’s interesting to see how patents from that era are still cited in more modern patents—shampooing aids for bed-bound people, stowaway shelves, and my favorite, a template patented in 1974 for cutting long hair.

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Labor and Looking “Professional”


the-beheld_professional

This is what a professional looks like (if you’re Getty Images).
 

 

For my last haircut, I went to a fancier place than usual, a sleek joint where they bring you herbal tea. The reason for my upgrade was that I wanted to look more professional. Except for my decade of short hair, I’ve had exactly the same haircut since ninth grade: long, gentle layers, some tapering to frame the face, never bangs. It’s a fine, low-maintenance haircut that suits me, but as I approach age 40 I wanted something a little less collegiate. Professional was the exact word I used to the stylist. He proceeded to ask the most logical question possible in this scenario: What is your profession? In other words: What on earth do you mean by wanting to look professional?

The thing is, I hadn’t taken it further than the word in my mind. I didn’t know how I wanted to look more professional, or how looking professional would translate to my hair. Better? Yes, but in a particular way. More polished somehow, more finished. I kept using these words to tell him what I wanted—polished, finished, professional—and we came up with the cut I wanted. During the cut itself, our small talk deepened, and I told him about my upcoming book. When I mentioned that there was a chapter on the language of beauty—“on the words we use to describe how we look”—he stopped me. “You said you wanted to look professional, and I had no idea what that meant. One person’s professional isn’t going to be another person’s—did you want to look like a news anchor? a stockbroker? a photographer? What doesprofessional mean?” 

His questions stuck with me. What I meant by professional was actually polished, something a little more “done” than my usual preferred style. But even that: What does polished mean? That I wanted to look like I spend time styling my hair? Indeed, that might well be it: I’ve stayed freelance for most of my career in part because I love the freedom of being able to work wearing whatever I want, styled only if I choose, a luxury I didn’t have when I had an office job. But I got a fancier cut in an effort to look more like an Author—whatever that might mean—the idea being that if I look less like someone who churns out blog posts crammed in coffeeshop corners and more like someone who writes from a proper office (even if that office is from home, which it is), it might translate into people taking the book just that much more seriously. Looking professional meant, in my head, looking like I didn’t have to scramble as hard as I actually do. Looking professional meant looking less like a writer and editor who lives entirely off the “gig economy,” and more like someone with the luxury to style my hair every morning.

Looking professional means sending a set of signals that amount to looking like one belongs in the professional class: not laborers, but people who can buy expensive styling creams, get frequent trims, and spend time and money to do things like minimize frizz. It means looking like you require the labor of other people to begin with (it all begins with a good cut, right?), and then requires our own unpaid labor to maintain. Looking professional revolves around labor.

I’m reading The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century, an essay collection from millennial radicals and socialists (and edited by The New Inquiry‘s Sarah Leonard, with Bhaskar Sunkara) that serves as a sort of manifesto for an alternative future that would actually serve young Americans, and the rest of us too. My ideology is far too muddled for me to convincingly call myself a socialist (and don’t mistake this post for me feeling the Bern; I feel it just fine, but Hillary 4-eva), but in reading the book, I kept coming back to this: I had assumed that a good haircut would help me look more professional, which, under the rubric I’d lined up, is a good thing. But I’d assumed it was a good thing because we’re living under capitalist strictures that assume being a member of the professional class is a goal for the working class. Looking professional would help others see me as a good producer: as someone who knows that spending her time in the production of goods—”creative” goods, sure, but goods nonetheless—is what forms her value in society.

I often mention in an almost offhanded way how beauty is presumed to be so much of a woman’s worth in society, which it is. Looking professional isn’t necessarily about being beautiful per se; it’s a set of signals that can be created or purchased by anyone. It appears to democratize beauty, or at least one form of beauty. But this particular form of self-presentation gets to the root of what socialists might finger as the beauty problem: As long as we tie a woman’s looks to her worth, beauty is a good, not a concept, and as long as we live under capitalism, beauty will not be something that can be fully enjoyed or used directly by its creators. As long as we treat beauty as a good, women are not going to be able to enjoy it as fully as we might otherwise—as a place of joy and pleasure. We still do that, for sure. But if you squint, you can see a world where the value part of the beauty equation is removed. And isn’t that lovely?

I’m wondering what other people envision when they think of a “professional” look, for women and men. I’m still picturing a 1980s-style vibe: men in suits, women with helmet hair and shoulder pads, even as I wanted neither helmet hair nor shoulder pads for my own “professional” look. What does professional mean to you when applied to a look? And how does that compare with how you view your profession, or the idea of yourself as a worker or laborer? 

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