TITLE: Asian Beauty Secrets: Ancient and Modern Tips from the Far East
AUTHOR: Marie Jhin, M.D.
PUBLICATION DATE: July 2011
FORMAT: Paperback and Kindle e-book, available from Amazon
GENRE: Health, fitness & dieting, beauty
SOURCE: Paperback purchased from the Korea Society, New York City
Drawing on her experience as a Cornell University-trained dermatologist, combined with a knowledge of Asian beauty remedies, both ancient and modern, Dr. Marie Jhin delivers an East-West guide to vibrant skin and beauty. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Jhin emigrated to Hawaii with her family when she was six (they settled eventually in New York City). She now lives in San Francisco, where she runs her own practice, Premier Dermatology. She has been rated as one of America’s top doctors for the past three years.
The first time I visited Seoul, my husband, who is Japanese, insisted that I try a spa treatment, as Koreans do this sort of thing better than other Asians, he said. Before I knew it, I was lying naked on a table with an older Korean lady scrubbing every inch of my body. Eventually, she took my hand and put it on my stomach. At first I thought I was touching a piece of terry cloth but no, it was my skin — it had come off in shreds!
I lay there thinking, “Can this be healthy?”
Having pondered these issues quite a lot — also during my years of living in Japan, where I could hardly fail to note how obsessed Japanese women are with skincare — I was intrigued to come across a new book on Asian beauty methods, by San Francisco-based dermatologist Marie Jhin.
Born in Seoul, Jhin is now settled in California. She is not an expat, which makes the title of this post a little misleading; but is she “displaced”? Yesterday she told me in an email exchange that while she doesn’t think of Korea as “home” any more, her birth country remains something of a lodestar. She specializes in Asian skincare, lived in Seoul for two years after college to teach ESL, and has been going to Korea on business of late.
But what really convinced me of Jhin’s “displacedness” is that like me, she was uncertain of the benefits of Korean skin scrubbing but unlike me, let it get under her skin, so to speak:
I grew up doing certain things beauty-wise that I wanted know the truth of. For example, … my mother used to take me to get my skin scrubbed at a Korean sauna. Back then I didn’t understand what the point was, but now, as a dermatologist, I realize that it was basically whole body microdermabrasion that they have been doing for centuries that is great for the skin.
(Good to know!)
Jhin called her book “Asian Beauty Secrets” because it covers the beauty habits of not only Korean but also Chinese and Japanese women. Her key finding is that while women in all three countries have been caught up in the quest to look more Western, they have plenty to be proud of in their native beauty traditions.
The influence of Western beauty ideals
The last time I visited Tokyo, I couldn’t always tell who was a foreigner and who wasn’t since so many Japanese youth had dyed their hair a reddish blonde (I no longer stood out in the crowd!).
Thus I was glad to see Jhin tackle the issue of Western beauty ideals. In addition to dying and streaking their hair, many Asians are getting plastic surgery in the quest to look more Western.
Jhin notes the popularity — especially in Korea, cosmetic surgery capital of Asia (and the world?) — of procedures such as blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery), rhinoplasty (nose jobs) and surgery to correct what Japanese call daikon-ashi (radish-shaped calves).
And when Asian women do Botox, she says, it’s not to reduce wrinkles but to soften square jaw lines and/or to atrophy cheek muscles and thereby shrink a too-round face.
Jhin draws a line, however, between these procedures and the value traditionally placed by women in all three cultures — Chinese, Japanese and Korean — on having white skin. She cites Chinese Canadian consumer research professor Eric Li in stating that the preoccupation with whiteness predates colonialism and Western notions of beauty. In fact, the Japanese see their own version of whiteness as superior to the Western one!
What Asian women bring to the vanity table
We Westerners are notorious for mistaking one Asian culture for another. Jhin helps us negotiate this sometimes-fraught territory by listing some of their distinguishing elements when it comes to notions of beauty:
- Who’s the fairest of them all? In the Far East, it’s Korean women, by common consensus.
- Korean women like to exfoliate the skin to keep it glowing and healthy.
- Koreans have long revered the ginseng plant, a vital ingredient in health and beauty potions.
- Going back at least to the Heian period, Japanese have celebrated long tresses — the record of that era being 23 feet! Their favorite conditioning treatment is camellia oil, thought to promote glossy hair growth without making it greasy.
- Japan spa culture, which dates back thousands of years, favors the use of natural ingredients for cleansing the skin: eg, volcanic mud, wakame seaweed and even nightingale droppings(!).
- Though Japanese are known for rushing around, they in fact have a tradition of enjoying “empty moments.” Such meditative practices contribute to well-being and bring out a woman’s natural beauty.
- In ancient China, pearls were a girl’s best friend: ground pearl powder was taken internally and applied topically. (Hmmm…did they get that habit from Cleopatra, or vice versa?)
- Chinese have a saying that “a woman’s second face is in her hands” — to this day, Chinese women are meticulous about moisturizing their hands and feet.
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) emphasizes certain foods for balancing yin and yang within the body. This inner harmony is thought to contribute to outer radiance.
There is also, of course, much overlap among the three cultures.. All subscribe to the belief that by eating healthy foods, releasing stress (e.g., by getting an accu-massage), and pursuing nature-based healing (TCM) on a regular basis, a woman can enhance her best assets.
The “skinny” on beauty tips and secrets
One of the reasons to pick up a book with the word “secrets” in the title is to find out what one is missing out on. On this score, Jhin’s book is a bit of a mixed beauty bag. Some of her suggestions struck me as being far fetched — and I have a reasonably high tolerance for Asian cultural quirks.
Bird’s nest soup or soup containing hasma (frog fallopian tubes), anyone? Both are ancient Chinese foods thought to nurture glowing skin (Jhin provides recipes). Um, thanks, but no thanks. I’d almost rather eat fugu (which likewise has stimulating properties).
Even more offputting is the Chinese custom of spreading sheep’s placenta on one’s face. (It’s a mercy they’ve moved on from ingesting human placenta, that’s all I can say…)
As for V-steaming one’s chai-york (Korean for vaginal tract) with medicinal herbs such as mugwort (common wormwood) — it will take more than a reassurance by a Beverly Hills doctor to convince me that such a practice doesn’t lead to other problems such as UTIs.
On the other hand, I might actually consider soothing my skin with a high-quality ginseng cream. That sounds nice. Or perhaps I’ll try facial acupuncture. It’s noninvasive and, according to Jhin, can have the effect of a mini-facelift.
Note: More secrets can be found on Jhin’s book site.
For me, the most interesting portion of Asian Beauty Secrets is when Jhin addresses her area of specialization: the conditions peculiar to Asian skin, such as eczema (they are more prone to it than we are) or sun damage that manifests itself not in wrinkles but in brown spots. I also found fascinating the chapter on the latest skin renewal techniques being pioneered by Korean doctors. Acupuncture meets nanotechnology with the “INTRAcel laser” treatment! (The laser reaches “deeper into the dermis for more lasting collagen production and overall skin rejuvenation,” Jhin explains.)
That said, I’d hesitate about recommending Jhin’s book to anyone who isn’t yet oriented (no pun intended!) to beauty practices in this part of the world. Instead you might try experimenting with some of the brands Jhin recommends — e.g., Sulwhasoo cosmetics (now being carried at Bergdorf Goodman here in New York) — by way of familiarizing yourself with Asian skincare methods. As it happens, I got some Sulwhasoo samples when I bought the book — and would be more than happy to report back on the effects, if anyone’s curious! :)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.).
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