Beauty From Abroad

Skincare made from tea, brightening treatments, and oud; these are just a few things you might find on bathroom vanities around the world. Fashion is a means to communicate a culture, whether it’s through exuberant patterns, statement Harajuku ensembles, or intricately crafted jewelry.

In the United States, many immigrant groups have shaped and influenced the country. Beauty and style fluctuate from person and place, cultures bleed together, and trends are picked up from around the world. With such an influx of cultures, many of the deeper aspects and context get lost in translation.

To get a more profound look at global beauty and style, I reached out to a few of Fontbonne’s students from other nations and cultures to sit down and talk about their individual perspectives of their home countries. For context, I conducted these interviews back in late February. Looking back to these conversations makes me nostalgic of a time–not so long ago, but which now feels so far away–where I was attending school as usual, unknowing of the events that soon follow from COVID-19. I am so grateful to have been able to conduct these interviews face to face and really immerse myself in their stories.


With such a rise in popularity of Asian skincare and fashion here in the U.S., I was really drawn to sit down with someone who could tell me more about those trends on a deeper level. I was given the opportunity to interview Aki Kato, a Fontbonne student from Japan and a Communication Studies major.

Japan has a collectivist culture, meaning it puts group harmony first over individual expression. Aki informed me that people in Japan mostly stick to neutral colors, soft floral prints, and natural themes because it is part of the social norm to blend together and not stand out too much.

She says, “The social norm we have is that everyone should have the same beliefs, perspective, and way of thinking, so it’s hard to express yourself in Japan… It doesn’t mean we have no free will, it’s just the culture we have.”

She went on to say, “Here [in the U.S.] being different is usually seen as good, like you are more unique.”

Aki then asked me if I had heard of Harajuku, and as a fashion student, I perked up at the mention. When I think of Japanese fashion, I think of FRUiTS magazine, the publication that showcased the bold and eccentric Harajuku street style, so learning about Japan’s overall collective culture was eye opening to me.

Harajuku is a neighborhood in Japan that once was the most famous Hokoten in Tokyo. According to BBC’s Harajuku article, Hokotens are areas that are closed to traffic so that pedestrians are able to socialize and interact with ease; the term literally translates to “pedestrian heaven.” In the 1990s and 2000s, Harajuku’s youth used fashion to rebel against Japan’s conformist society with bright colors, cartoonish styles, and lots of layering. FRUiTS magazine started up in 1997 to photograph the individualistic street style in the neighborhood and record the growing fashion subcultures that were appearing there. However, the magazine finally closed shop in 2017 saying, “there are no more cool kids to photograph.”

Once traffic was allowed into Harajuku, the neighborhood faced a large decline in participants. I brought up the decline in Harajuku street style to Aki. Aki commented, “Harajuku style is really only a particular group of people who like to do it. Five to seven years ago, it was still a trend, but it’s not as popular now.”

Aki and I talked about a few of the subcultures found in Harajuku such as kawaii and lolita styles. According to Aki, you will still see it, but not often anymore.

When it comes to beauty trends, the origins are similar to how American trends are established: through celebrities. Aki describes that celebrities, magazine models, and television impact the trends the most in Japan.

Aki says, “In Japan, when the trend changes, you have to spend a lot of money on clothes so that you are like your classmates. You want to have the same style in Japan. Trends change fast there, so there is a constant pressure to spend money and show others that you have it [the current trend].”

I was curious on how rural and urban style differed from each other in Japan. Aki touched on urban areas being more fashion forward. She says how you dress up is a little different because there is more access to shops and malls in the cities than in the country. Trends are important in Japan, but in rural areas there is less of an importance put on them due to less access.

The standards of beauty in Japan are much stricter in comparison to American standards. When I brought up tattoos, Aki was quick to say, “Tattoos are a no-no.”

She explained that in Japan there are public baths and most deny entry to guests if they have tattoos. She informed me that tattoos are often seen as bad in Japan because they represent the Japanese gangs, and in Japan, they hold much more old-fashioned and traditional beliefs. The opposition to tattoos in Japan is so strong that you will even be denied a job if you have one.

Aki explained that the beauty restrictions extend further than just tattoos.

She says, “When I was a high school student, we couldn’t have bangs below our eyebrows because it gives others a bad impression. It’s also not uncommon to see people who couldn’t pass a job interview just because the first button of their shirt was open.”

She motioned to her outfit that consisted of a sweatshirt and comfortable pants when she mentioned that in America people don’t really care about the way you dress too much and that you’re allowed to be much more relaxed. She expressed that there is a strong importance placed on appearance in Japan, and you are judged a lot more.

She went on to say, “We can’t go outside without any makeup. Every day we curl our hair and dress nice. Both girls and guys cannot go out without being dressed nicely.”

In Japan, makeup is a must. However, it is expected to be natural and minimal. It’s what, in the U.S., we would call the “no-makeup makeup.” Other J-beauty trends I found in an Allure article were that lips tend to be in red hues and applied with a blurred effect technique, and makeup is light and breathable enough to withstand the hot summer temperatures. In Japan, over-lining the lips, carving out brows, and contouring are almost non-existent.

The fresh and radiant makeup style in Japan goes hand-in-hand with their skincare. Skincare is a priority in Japan. It is not uncommon to see Japanese people carrying umbrellas on sunny days to protect their skin from the sun. While here in the U.S. tan skin is to die for, in Japan it’s the opposite. According to Vox, “Since SPF only refers to UVB protection, the Japanese even developed their own rating system for UVA-blocking effectiveness: from the lowest PA+ to the highest PA++++.” Japanese sunscreens are formulated to be much more wearable than most of our western sunscreens because in Japan, daily sunscreen is expected.

Skincare is designed to be gentle in Japan, so harsh scrubs and face washing brushes are few and far between; instead, exfoliating gels and facial massaging tools are used. Lotions in Japan are vastly different than what we’d consider a lotion. Both are used to moisturize the skin, but Japanese lotions are watery in consistency similar to what our skin toners are like.

South Africa

When I sat down with Gina Bates, a Fontbonne student from South Africa and an Early Elementary Education major, we were able to connect on the concept of coming from an incredibly diverse country. The United States is a country built up of immigrants and different cultures, and South Africa is literally known as the “Rainbow Nation” due to its incredibly diverse population. Even though the U.S. and South Africa share that commonality, South Africa has its own unique flare to it that is unlike the rest.

Gina, who comes from a Grecian family, grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to Cape Town, South Africa, later on. When comparing fashion in the two cities, she said Johannesburg especially was an extremely materialistic province that focuses on high end brands more so than Cape Town.

“Johannesburg is the it place where you wanna be seen. Even if it’s just a coffee shop, you gotta dress up for it. It’s all about ‘who am I going to see there?.’ [Johannesburg] is all about making connections with people,” Gina remarked.

She said that Johannesburg is so fashion-centric that you don’t even have to tell people where you bought something: “They would look at it and already know.”

When talking about the fashion climate of South Africa, she said, “It’s very different in South Africa. Everyone values fashion quite a bit. I think it’s because there are so many cultures and nationalities in South Africa and culture is what influences fashion the most.”

Echoing a comment from Aki Kato’s interview, Gina agreed that fashion is significantly more lax here than in her home country. She humorously mentioned if her friends back home heard she was wearing leggings out, they would be shocked.

“In South Africa, you wear heels to go out to dinner. It’s very high fashion. Everyone researches trends and are very fashion-forward,” Gina commented.

When I asked Gina where South Africa typically gets their trend influence from, she said instead of following South African celebrities, they follow American celebrities. She mentioned that if there is a South African celebrity people are following, that celebrity is following American celebrities. Since South Africa was a British colony, I was curious to see if there was a strong  British influence in the South African fashion. To my surprise, Gina said there wasn’t.

“I think it’s because we have so much history within our country. There’s a lot of African culture influence. Also, a lot of people travel in South Africa–it’s like a norm there–so people pick up the trends they experienced from overseas and bring them back,” Gina explained.

She also mentioned that there is a lot of Australian influence in South Africa, including several big Australian brands like Country Roads and Woolworth.

Gina explained that when you would see women dressed with African culture influences, they were wearing bold patterns, hair scarves, bead work, and bright makeup. Other times, you’d see people dressed head to toe in luxury brands and sporting natural makeup.

Gina brought up that South Africa is such a melting pot for cultures that they end up bleeding together: “It doesn’t even matter if you’re African or not. We all wear braids, patterns, etc. It all trickles over.”

She made it a point that you see many different styles of dress in South Africa, but regardless of which style is chosen, everyone is fashion conscious.

One of the biggest controversies around South Africa would be the country’s racism. In 1948, “apartheid” was an ideology backed by the National Party government which called for the separation of racial groups. Explained by South African History Online, “Apartheid laws forced the different racial groups to live separately and develop separately, and grossly unequally too. It tried to stop all inter-marriage and social integration between racial groups.” Apartheid laws lasted up until the mid-1990s after Nelson Mandela won the election.

Post-apartheid, the country has still been called out for lack of diversity in media. A big turning point for diversity happened in 2018 during the Miss Universe competition. Miss South Africa, Zozibini Tunzi, was the first Black Miss Universe winner to have natural hair. This event had a huge impact on the media when it happened a few years ago and elicited a positive response.

 I asked Gina if she noticed present day racism in her country and lack of diversity in the beauty and fashion industries. She replied, “I would say so. Not to the extent we used to back when we had apartheid, but I would still say it is an issue. Now companies have to follow the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, which makes sure each company has a certain amount of Black people employed. I think in recent years our representation has changed and we are showing more diversity [in beauty and fashion]”.

Despite South Africa’s history, the country is actually an extremely liberal country. This goes for South Africa’s dress standards as well. For example, most tattoo parlors don’t even have an age requirement there.

Gina said there aren’t really any standards to dress in South Africa: “We’ve been through so much as a country, people use their dress as a way to show who they are. Young, old, no one really cares as long as you look good.”

When it comes to beauty, South Africa is very home-remedy-like with their products. According to an Allure magazine article on Cape Town beauty, the rooibos plant, ocher paste, and oils are all popular in beauty regimens. Gina informed me, “The huge thing in South Africa is rooibos. It’s a tea but it has a lot of anti-aging properties and more. Especially in Cape Town and Durban, everyone is very natural. If you go more Johannesburg, everyone is into the brand Kiehl’s, getting facials, that sort of skin care, but still are very natural.”

When I asked Gina what her go-to South African beauty product was she said, “The SBR repair cream. It literally works for absolutely everything.”

Since coming here, Gina explains it has definitely been an adjustment. She laughs about how her friends make fun of her for dressing up so much for parties and dinners, but that’s what is normal in South Africa. She spoke to me about how she appreciates fashion, but here she finds it hard to show that without looking “extra” because things are so much more relaxed here. She said when she first came here she thought, “Where’s the patterns? Where are the beads?” because she was so used to seeing those things in South Africa.

To conclude my interview with Gina, I want to leave it on one comment she made that really stuck with me in regards to South African culture.

She said, “Everything is so split because everyone comes from different cultures, nationalities, and backgrounds, [which is] why we’re called the ‘Rainbow Nation.’ It all depends on who you’re asking. My perspective on South Africa is going to be completely different than if you were to interview one or two more people from South Africa; we’d all give you a completely different response.”

Saudi Arabia

After a much-anticipated arrival, Saudi Arabia hosted its first official fashion week in 2018. This was groundbreaking for Saudi women because so commonly the world gets the wrong idea of their dress and culture. Even I am guilty of this disconnect. Meeting up and chatting with Jumanah Aljohani, a Fontbonne student from Saudi Arabia and a Communication Studies major, granted me an entirely new perspective on Arab beauty and fashion.

I started off asking Jumanah the major differences she noticed when coming here from Saudi Arabia. She, too, made note of the casualness here. She honed in a little further, though, and brought up Fontbonne’s dress specifically, calling it very “casual” and “sporty.” She mentioned that coming to class wearing makeup everyday and wearing different styles made her feel a little different. In Saudi Arabia, it’s normal to wear makeup every day and dress nicely when going out.

My first thoughts when it came to Saudi Arabia fashion were the modest, fully covered outfits the women wore. When asking Jumanah about this, she shed light on the reality of the modest fashions.

She said, “Fully covered is usually just in the public. Because of our religion, we can’t show our body in public, especially in front of the men. But, if we are in private or just with other women, we can dress normally.”

Jumanah explained that the older generation are the ones who mostly cover the whole body. “The younger generation is more trendy. They are more open to being shown off. We cover our hair usually in public in front of the men, but the younger generation is more open… We’re not really required.”

The schools in Saudi Arabia have uniforms until high school. Jumanah explained the uniforms for females consist of covered hair, a skirt, and a normal shirt for private schools, but for public schools, the students wear more of a full dress.

“A black niqab covering the entire face is often a part of the school uniform for Saudi girls in elementary school,” Allure magazine wrote.

When it comes to trends, instead of trends coming from celebrities, Jumunah said there are a lot of social media influencers in Saudi Arabia.

“We adopt our trends from them,” Jumanah commented.

As far as color trends go, according to Jumanah, popular colors change with each season: “Winters we like to wear dark colors, and summers we like to wear bright colors.”

She spoke about how Saudi Arabian fashion is very fluid to the trends. Some years more patterns are worn, other years more solid colors. According to Jumanah, the past couple years, animal prints have risen in popularity due to the trends there.

One thing that is always apparent in Saudi Arabia fashion is the jewelry.

“We are really obsessed with jewelry,” Jumanah notes. “Here, women prefer to buy expensive bags and those expensive bags stay with the woman forever. In Saudi Arabia, we do that with the jewelry,” she explained.

She says being here in America, she chooses not to wear as much jewelry because women here tend to be more conservative with how much jewelry they wear. Saudi Arabian jewelry is mostly made from real gold, but costume jewelry is also bought sometimes.

When describing the jewelry she said, “The older people, especially, wear several gold bracelets and gold rings.”

When I asked about makeup in Saudi Arabia, Jumanah made me laugh with how she initially responded: “We used to be so terrible.”

She said they used to use way too much: “We’d use bright greens and blues; you can see it in pictures. It used to be terrible. Now it’s much more soft. Now it’s a lot like here with the highlighters, basic eyeshadows, false lashes, and putting all the attention on the lips.”

She also noticed, “I feel like here they don’t pay too much attention to the eyebrows as much as the Saudi women. Some people [in Saudi Arabia] do the eyebrow tattoos. They like [their eyebrows] to be very organized, similar to each other, and are kept thicker than eyebrows here.”

A piece in Allure  gave an interesting cosmetic statistic, noting that “[s]pending on cosmetics in Saudi Arabia has nearly doubled over the last ten years, from $280 million in 2005 to $535 million in 2015.”

Skincare differs from person to person in Saudi Arabia, but Jumanah told me that a natural skincare regimen is typically preferred. She explained that they use a lot of oils in their skincare, especially coconut oil. For their hair, they use almond oil.

Perfumes and colognes are extremely popular in Saudi Arabia.

“We used to import perfumes from other countries but now we make it there in Saudi Arabia. Companies come make perfumes for us because we have the ingredients oud and amber that can’t be found anywhere else,” Jumanah shared.

Jumanah asked me if I had ever heard of henna. I told her I was familiar with henna tattoos, to which she responded that there are actually two types of henna: “There’s a type of henna used for the hair. It’s a dye for your hair, but it also has a lot of benefits that will treat your hair.”

She expressed her disappointment about not being able to find it here, and that she’s been dying to try it.

Henna being on the topic, I asked if tattooing is popular in Saudi Arabia. Jumanah informed me that as of recently, tattooing and body modification have become popular. She said ear piercings are popular, but facial piercings are not.

My Learning Experience

Interviewing Aki, Gina, and Jumanah was an extremely eye-opening experience that I am grateful for. I didn’t realize how influenced by media stereotypes I was when it comes to fashion until I sat down and had these interviews. Each interview painted for me a new perspective of what each country was actually like.

Prior to this project, I had never learned about Japan’s collectivist culture. Since a lot of the Japanese fashion trends we see here in America stem from the Harajuku street style, there is a lot of miscommunication on what everyday Japanese style looks like. Without having sat down to discuss present-day South Africa with Gina, I would still have the idea that South Africa was a heavily white-washed country when it came to representation in the beauty and fashion industry. Prior to my interview with Jumanah, my idea of Saudi Arabian fashion was that it was extremely limited to women and that all women dressed modestly.

The entirety of this project has given me a better understanding of the world and expanded my knowledge as a fashion merchandising student. I think my biggest takeaway from this project is that it’s important as people, especially students, to broaden our horizons and search for deeper perspectives that go beyond the information presented to us in our daily lives.

Fashion Merchandising student at Fontbonne University.

1 comment on “Beauty From Abroad

  1. What an awesome article! I read every line of this – you kept me intrigued to read and learn of all the different countries. Thank YOU for this as I too learned new things.

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