19 February 2015

Beauty in Jakarta

Miles Tycho Hugh is a current student at the University of Sydney Business School and participant in the 2015 New Combo Plan (Jakarta), an Australian Government initiative which aims to expand knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia and strengthen institutional relationships through study and internships undertaken by Australian undergraduates in the region.  

In 2002 Dove attempted to redefine the notion of beauty in their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. Dove claimed society’s concept of beauty was informed by highly unrealistic images of supermodel size zeros who showcased the world’s leading beauty brands. They featured high cheekbones, toothpick legs and chins so sharp they could cut through steal. Recognising this, Dove released a series of campaigns featuring more realistic representations of the womanly figure, communicating that beauty was natural and accessible.

Most importantly, Dove recognised that powerful brands were symbolic resources of meaning, which individuals use to construct or extend the self. Thus, consumers who agreed in the morality of Dove’s attempt to liberalise society’s perception of beauty would express or confirm their morality by purchasing Dove products, empowering the consumer. The consumer was engaged in a social movement where Dove formed the connective tissue.

Yet, this unitive outcome did not emerge when Unilever brought the US campaign to Jakarta.

According to Unilever Indonesia’s prior head of Sunsilk, the Indonesian consumer wouldn’t have a bar of Dove's safe and accepting proposal of what the beauty-world was like. She said, “in Asia, appearance is everything.” Extrapolating from this, the Jakartan consumer seems to subscribe to a notion of beauty shaped by the physical exterior. The Jakartan concept of beauty seems exacting in its application, focused on what can be confirmed easily (skin, bones, hair), rather than seeking to somehow divine the individual’s inner, 'spiritual' qualities and detect the glowing radiance which miraculously emanates from the models presented in Dove’s Real Beauty campaigns. There seems to be very little room for shades of grey in Jakarta’s definition of beauty.

I can’t pretend to know what cultural undercurrents contributed to this viewpoint. However, I can’t help but think that Dove’s presentation of beauty is born out of luxury. To be able to take the time to get to know someone, to see through a lens that is not on guard, and instead embracive of the outside world. To be able to feel comfortable engaging with anyone without judgment or concern for how they might react (potentially dangerously) towards you. These are all indulgences attributed to a gaze from a position of power.

In Jakarta, many are not provided with such luxury. Without wanting to seem melodramatic, the city is dangerous. I witnessed multiple motorcycle crashes, and just driving in the haphazard and uncoordinated traffic keeps one constantly on edge. While aboard the TransJakarta bus we were all searched after claims of pick pocketing, and women I spoke to only began catching the bus after womens' carriages were installed, citing previous experiences of physical abuse.

Moreover, the State seems to have limited capacity, or willingness, to enforce the rules and regulations designed to protect its citizens. The police and other law enforcement agencies seem to have little presence in Jakarta, contributing to a perception that one can commit offences without consequence. Moreover, the application of the law seems to be flexible depending on the status and wealth of the offender's family. This is indicative of a corruption systemic within the state’s bureaucracy, and thus its opacity and unpredictability. This also gives reason for Jakarta's citizenry to be ‘eternally vigilant’ and mistrusting of the state's internal workings (promises), and to only deal with outcome: the physically visible. Could these factors derive ways of thinking, and of seeing the world, which spill over into the way individuals conceive beauty?

Though Jakarta's physical-centric image of beauty may seem superficial compared to the ‘real beauty’ image Dove stands for, I’d argue that Dove’s previous campaigns have promulgated an image of beauty based on physical appearance. Disguising it has been their genius. Yes, their advertisements feature diversely proportioned women posing without make up, but they look stunning regardless! Most are naturally beautiful. Yet most people aren’t blessed with the ‘Yes, I-woke-up-like-this’ look.

Thus, Dove seems to have only re-framed beauty as: physically attractive without the help of makeup. I would posit Dove has actually raised the bar higher, implying beauty forbids cosmetic assistance. Ironically, this means Dove’s differentiating position depends on the cosmetic industry to continually enforce this ‘fake’ perception of beauty. It seems then, that perhaps the pragmatic and guarded perception of the Indonesian consumer may have saved them from becoming subservient to an even more demanding and commercially lucrative version of beauty. To let one’s guard down is a luxurious state of being, taken for granted by the world’s elite.

This blog was originially published on Sydney Life: Student experiences at the University of Sydney.

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