Posted by: Mm | September 2, 2008

Wellness Orientalism of the Lotophagi

After a month long travel through South-East Asia my belongings changed colour and appearance: my backpack turned gray with the dirt from travelling on the top of buses amidst chicken and bags of rice, the sandals, previously violet, obtained the rich red-brownish colour of the earth, and after trekking through a patch of jungle forest the pants got a pattern of brown splashes that wouldn’t wash away. With hair and skin dirty to match, despite my endless enthusiasm about the whole trip, “wellness” was probably the last expression that came to mind.

Coming back to Europe, however, I started to discover a new side to Asia that I had never really noticed before. For the cosmetic industry, “Asia” seems to be a symbol for a new trend in wellness craze. The idea that (after Mediterranean imagery was too worn out) Asia is the next terra incognita where the elixirs of beauty are found has spread from the luxury “Asian Spa” phenomena to the humblest level of cheap cosmetic products on the shelves of supermarkets. There are “Sunlit Siam Brown” and “Singapore Purple Skies” hair-dyes and nail polishes with bamboo (bends but doesn’t break), soy milk soaps and lotus lotions.

Today, for example, I had shower with something called “Asia Spa Soy milk and Cherry Blossoms Shower Gel” (sic).

The new orientalist construction of “Asian wellness” or “Asian beauty”, from the five-stars down to the budget level, seems to display a similar set of motives and ideas:

  1. Asia is a far-away place, perhaps even a single country, where Thai masseurs, Japanese sakura, Sichuan bamboo forests and Hong Kong urban chic live side to side.
  2. Asian women are all beautiful.
  3. Asia is ancient, along with the spiritual mysteries the “Asian” sages must have also discovered a remedy to erase the wrinkles and smooth the hair.
  4. In Asia, there are forests of bamboo, plantations of green tea (yes, it’s an antioxidant!), kilometers of silk, heaps of rice and (of course) millions of lotuses.
  5. These things look beautiful and they are painted in “Asian” paintings, so if we put them on our skin, we will become more beautiful as well.

Needless to say, this type of thinking has its inconsistencies. We could ask heretic questions such as: How do you put silk in a shampoo? Why do pandas have black circles under their eyes, if they only eat bamboo? … and so on.

But it is, however, much more interesting to see what role the “Orientals” get to play in this imagery. On the “Asia Looks” hair-dye boxes, there are photos of beautiful women in “Asian” haircuts who represent “asia looks”, but they are obviously not Asian themselves. In the commercials the local Asians are reduced to rice-field workers (with an obligatory sunset) and buddhist monks. In the Asian spa imagery the orientalist undertone is even more obvious. Asians are there to provide the “Asian wellness”, do gentle massages, sprinkle saunas with lotus blossoms etc.

It is after all called Asian Spa, not Spa for the Asians.

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