At times Japan can be trying for a Western woman. It’s hard not to feel slightly unattractive as the makeup slides off your face in the blistering heat while immaculately made-up Japanese women breeze past on their way to work. By 8:30 a.m., there are sweat patches under my arms, my hair has morphed into a Tina Turner frizz-bomb and any remnant of dignity and poise becomes a glimmering memory.
These feelings of insignificance perpetuated themselves when I befriended my first Japanese girlfriend -- an utterly beautiful girl with cascading locks, perfect skin and a face so pleasing I would stare for far too long -- all the while berating myself for being a creep. On our first visit to an onsen, I floundered in self-consciousness as she casually dropped her dress to reveal her alarmingly beautiful body. Cowering behind an unforgivably small towel, I was struck with a thought: “It’s just not fair.”
As we eased ourselves into the soothing warm waters of the bath, I told my beautiful friend of my aesthetic jealousy. She simply frowned and told me she would rather be like me because of my small face. Small face? What was this? Was she so stuck for a compliment that she randomly plucked two words from thin air and concocted the oddest compliment ever? I know she definitely wasn’t saying “small thighs.”
As time passed, I heard this term more often and began to wonder what it was all about. Men and women would click their tongues in approval and say, “kogao…” (“Such a lovely small face…”), all the while standing much too close and comparing my head to the size of their hands, a dinner plate, and one time — a baby pumpkin.
After some Internet research and real-time consultation with my Japanese lady friends, I learned that the head-body-ratio for the Japanese is slightly askew with a proportionately larger head, compared to those of their Western counterparts. The result here seems to be a rather alarming complex about the size of one’s head. I asked men and women alike and they both agreed—the smaller the face, the better. “It’s cute… sexy. Much more beautiful,” I was told.
Where there is demand, there is supply. Solutions have been created to make any head appear smaller. These vary in extremity. There are features in beauty magazines focusing on hairstyles that will specifically hide “excess” face. Such looks include a heavy fringe, layering and pushing glasses over the hair.
Then there are the beauty products. A guided tour down the neon isles of the cosmetic section at my local department store opened my eyes to products I didn’t even know existed, such as chinstraps, creams and face masks all dedicated to minimizing the face—even a product called “Lostalot” (as in “she lost a lot of face”). Before Japan my make-up vocabulary was limited to “moisturizer” and “foundation.”
Ultimately, one can choose the most extreme measure, jaw reduction surgery—a shaving away of the jaw to create a softer, more rounded line and a prominent chin. No doubt painful and pricey, it is the final frontier of facial reduction. Though like in all surgery there is no turning back, the appeal is great for women with hopes of a teeny-tiny face and the jaw reduction is currently booming throughout Asia and America.
When I first learnt about the desire for a small face, I was perplexed and amused. It presented beauty in terms I had never considered. I couldn’t help think it was a bit ludicrous to place an aesthetic value on the size of one’s head. Why must everything be so cute and childlike? Then I thought about some of the popular beauty practices that have become the new norm: tanning, Botox, bleaching, waxing, whitening… and I realized, who am I to judge?
So for now, I am trying to put aside my jealousy of so many Japanese women, with their petite figures, shiny hair and nonchalant sweat glands. Instead, I am embracing my small head. I shall jut my face forward when standing next to baby pumpkins at the supermarket and awkwardly prop plates next to my head at dinner parties, all in the hopes that someone will notice how alarmingly small my head is and think, “it’s just not fair.”
Gemma Rasmussen is a teacher, writer and purikura enthusiast who can be found at www.tenderloveandaseedywink.blogspot.com
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today