Why are Asian women aspiring to Western ideals of beauty?

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Asian and African women are aspiring to Western ideals of physical perfection – and the results are far from pretty

Five years ago, Kareena Kapoor, a top young actress in Bollywood, was a typical Punjabi girl, buxom and shapely, luscious like sweet kulfi ice-cream. Today, I imagine, kulfi would make her heave and biryani is never on her plate. For, you see, Kareena saw the light, and today she is svelte and sinewy enough to jog on the streets of LA and wear the tightest of designer jeans. Her millions of fans have gone crazy, they speculate on the web about her amazing diet and want to copy her example. Size zero has arrived in India.

The singer Katy Perry went trad Indian for her wedding to the comedian Russell Brand last month, but sophisticated Indian women want to be like her before the makeover. Reena, a Mumbai make-up artist I spoke to is scathing. "Silly girl, Katy, going for retro like that. Elephants and garish colours - really, how low class! Makes us look so backward. Really, don't they know we are modernising? Our designers and models could be on catwalks in Paris and Milan now. We got the message." And how.

Student Mika Bhatia, 21, a Californian of Indian origin says urban India is cutting off from its own history and ways of life recklessly and hastily: "Fifteen years ago the American influence was absent and women would dress in their traditional clothes, look great. Now it is all about Western clothes. It's sad. It's happening so fast. I notice it every time I go back." You can see similar trends in other developing nations and emerging markets. Globalisation shrinks the world in more ways than we think.

Sophie Kafeero was my roommate at university in Uganda, a wonderfully vivacious African woman with a curvy body, pursued by male students. "It wouldn't happen today she tells me. Young women who want to be popular 'showcase' girlfriends are skinny, have to be." One young woman at a local internet café so didn't want to be like her large mother, she has become anorexic. Quacks offer Chinese potions to get weight off. Business is booming.

Ugandan British solicitor Jennifer Nyeko Jones confirms these trends: "The old posters are slowly fading – when large women were admired because it meant they were living well. Western men who go to Africa looking for girls are bringing this idea too. African men are not asking for it. Gyms are now everywhere, taking the place of popular local beauty parlours."

Until 2000, no African woman had ever won Miss World, mainly because the nations selected big lovelies with sassy walks, like the fictional lady detective, Precious Ramotswe, of Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana novels. Then in 2001, a Western scout found the Nigerian Agbani Darego, tall, slim, small nose, large eyes, shiny skin. She was duly crowned and became the new ideal beauty. AIDS is known as the 'slim disease' across the continent. Now another slim disease has arrived.

Elsewhere the demand is for altered features. South Korean women have their eyes de-orientalised for $800. In Singapore the men too opt for surgery, like the stylist Alvin Goh, who says he now fits better into the fashion industry. More nose jobs are done in Iran than any other country on earth. In his project 'Love Me', about the global beauty industry, the British photographer Zed Nelson last year raised the spectre of a "eerily homogenised" world, dull and samey like a prairie.

Along with goods and services, neuroses are also being exported, from us in the West to them in the rest of the world. In the age of exploration Europeans unknowingly introduced their diseases into populations which had no immunity to protect them. The viruses now transmitted abroad are carried on the backs of unbridled consumerism and free enterprise.

We need to face up to what that has done to our own societies and debate the ethics of the economic model that creates misery and dissatisfaction and cashes in on it. And then ask ourselves by what right we inflict the same and worse on other civilizations.

Western women are programmed and controlled by the peddlers of physical perfection even though from time to time we like to imagine we have pulled ourselves free. Take Christina Hendricks, the stupendously voluptuous Joan Holloway in Mad Men, apparently the nemesis of zealous body regulators who only exalt females with lovely bones and small, pert, boobs. Hers are prodigious knockers, and then there's the door-sized bum and that animal walk, inviting and yet mean. Propping her up and out, though, are engineering miracles and feminine suffering we can but imagine. Fashionistas are ordering corsets with padded seats from Rio; Prada frocks pay homage to her shape and Esquire crowns her the 'best looking woman in America.' The equalities minister Lynne Featherstone believes the actress is a 'fabulous' role model and is setting up discussions with people from the fashion and media industries to get them to change models from little to large and boost female confidence. But for these merchants small is bountiful, brings in mega profits. Women with meat on them are unsightly, no good as bait. True, public effusion breaks out seasonally when, on TV, Nigella invites millions to drool over her puddings. Beth Ditto and Ruth Jones from the popular series Gavin and Stacy, and dear old Anne Widdicombe are fat and proud but the appeal for most is freakish. The idolatry of Hendricks too is more hope than expectation. Like a modern day Botticelli maiden, she rises out of the sea, briefly, before going under again.

Upholders of beauty exploit the inadequacies of a weak and needy post-modern society that must be told what to be. The exceptions above can't overturn the rules. Smart, successful, aspirational people are lean or must try to be.

The scale and penetration of such messaging in modern times is unprecedented. Academic Kate Fox of the Social Issues Research Centre warned way back in 1998: "Advances in technology has caused normal concerns about how we look to become obsessions... we have become accustomed to rigid and uniform standards of beauty...on TV billboards and magazines, we see 'beautiful people' all the time, more often than members of our own family, making exceptional good looks seem real, normal and attainable."

For the comedian and writer Arabella Weir this trickery leads to perpetual dissatisfaction: "The celeb culture holds up the thin look, rarefied and glamorous women and at the same time it invites us to see them as ordinary - we can have a life just like them. See Cheryl Cole? We can buy copies of her shoes and be her." Except we can't.

You could argue that every age has beauty prototypes and evanescence is the handmaiden of capitalism. Women have been made to conform to templates within all social systems. The horrendous corsets of the Victorian era broke their bodies and girdles of the Fifties severely controlled the feminine form. Then the corsets became mental. Weir's poignant new book, The Real Me Is Thin describes how her parents, both academics, believed girls had to be thin, "to please men, to be fantasised about." The child was forbidden pudding, the extra potato. Her mother said watching Arabella eat was like having hot knives poked into her eyes. Most young woman interviewed for her book confessed they would not have dessert on a first date. Gluttony puts men off, they fear.

However, even until the late Nineties, the idea of beauty was not squeezed into one thin tube. Stars could still came in different shapes and sizes. The supermodels of the 1980s were strong-looking and broad-shouldered. Before that, Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy were thought stunning, so too Ava Gardener, Liz Taylor, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. In 2010, even the shapely Liz Hurley seems too fleshy; model Lara Stone (size 8) is thought daringly "curvy" and dream girl Cheryl Cole has melted down to size zero, the official size for the young, female and lionized. Kareena Kapoor is only following the new cosmopolitan aesthetics.

Thousands of years ago, Plato tried to codify facial attractiveness and, since then, researchers into beauty have found that symmetry and certain features have universal appeal. But to offset homogeneity is that other evolutionary imperative - variety. In his Descent of Man, Darwin asserted: "It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body. It is, however, possible that certain tastes, in the course of time, become inherited."

Anorexic chic has gone way beyond inherited taste; it ensnares millions, imperils the future itself. Intelligent women feel caught in the vice. As Mika Bhatia says: "There's such an obsession with being skinny. I wish I could say that I am removed from all of that but I don't think I am. I have always felt I had to work on my appearance and stay thin even though I know what can happen. A close female relative who was at UCLA has developed a eating disorder." Bhatia's family are the new globetrotters, with the gain that brings and tragic losses too.

Dutch literature undergraduate Mia De Graf, 19, grapples with the same dilemmas: "It's so mundane, having this single idea of beauty across the world, also so detrimental to our mental health. I am never repulsed when I see old paintings of women with larger figures, but it is weird because now, you think, someone like that should go Weightwatchers. Take the Rossetti painting Lillith, she is absolutely beautiful but today her figure is too full to be beautiful."

Maria, 20, a nursery school assistant, daughter of Greek Cypriot migrants, who looks like Bridget Jones, is so sick of being on diets she is on anti-depressants instead: "How does Renee Zellweger get all that weight off and I can't? I have even written to her to ask. I hate myself, just a fucking failure. Look! Even my hands are fat. I can't wear a thong - my tush is too fat." Her nails are bitten right down and bleeding. Such deep misery in one fresh and lovely as a pink peach. A poet might once have written about her bloom, but such beauty has no place in our times.

These distorted values are dysphoric for all women. For British Asians, these images had not, until recently, infected our eyes, nor narrowed our tastes. There is among us an abhorrent acceptance of skin colour hierarchies in which light is best. But on the whole, we managed to avoid the brainwashing. The models and actresses didn't look like us so we could ignore them. Not any more.

Soni, a teenage British Asian girl, whose name means lovely, can't bear to look at herself. Alexa Chung struts through her dreams. Her mother fears her daughter is going mad. Only as mad as most other girls of her age: "Why can't she like herself? At 48 I think I look good, little fat maybe, but so what? Even my mother likes her face. But not Soni, my rose, born here. In my village back home, I looked in the rivers and thought my face was so pretty. Soni says she will have operations one day." Many of our daughters are in similar crises.

These are momentous and dangerous cultural shifts, warns psychotherapist Gabrielle Rifkind: "Pressure on women as to how they should look came from different forms - from family, partners and friends. Now, it is the constant bombardment from the media and beauty industry, and this leads to a reduction in their ability to be independent of thought and creative in their own forms of self expression - the autonomy of the mind. The sexualisation of their image, expressed by very tight clothes and exposure of the body has accentuated a deep experience of alienation from the body, as expressed in rapid increase of anorexia and obesity."

A decade ago, writer Naomi Wolf foresaw the coming blight in her seminal book, The Beauty Myth. She was subjected to extraordinary vitriol for exposing the dark side of the beauty business. She lost; they won. The most unachievable image of pulchritude are pressed it into female psyches so they spend and cry. Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls, a book on young women today, admits feminists should have been more vigilant: "I used to be blasé about beauty myths. It was the concrete stuff that mattered - jobs equality and all that. Now I can see how these industries fed into insecurities, spread a punishing view of what it means to be aspirational, the idea of failure. Its impact is huge." Especially, she says, among bright, ambitious girls in sixth form colleges. When she was young, "You could choose your persona and style. It was cool to look as if you weren't trying too hard, to be eccentric." She did find that contemporary black women were happier with their bodies and own individual choices. (Good hair for them, though, as Chris Rock's 2009 candid film of the same name showed, is straight and light, and many go through hell to get that look)

Similarly, a study carried out in 2002 (Maya Poran, Sex Roles, Vol 47) compared the self images of Latin, black and white women. Although all groups agreed on what is thought to be perfect – white, slim, tall, straight noses - black women did not let that affect their self esteem. White and Latino women in contrast felt they did not match up.

Some emerging economies seem frightfully keen on those manufactured images of perfection. Nonita Karla, editor-in-chief of Elle India is delighted that her readers want to join the dubious club: "Indians have a more international concept of beauty," she says, "And we are now more in sync with global views and values, now it is an established fact. There is a global standard of beauty which is very western influenced, but local ideals live on, side by side."

Geoffrey Jones, author of The History of the Global Beauty Industry is less blasé: "The globalisation of mega-, celebrity- and luxury brands provides compelling evidence of the 'flattening' of the world. These brands are the carriers of the latest trends, which companies now seem to be able to spread around the world, regardless of cultural traditions, ethnicity or income levels." This latest rush carries on from the periods of industrialisation and empire when white beauty norms were transplanted to colonised lands. Before then, says Jones, "Human societies had their own beauty ideals which differed sharply from one another."

A scientist who asked to remain anonymouse tells me his famous cosmetic firm has a grand plan: "Like tobacco companies they are going hard for third world markets, creating a dependent consumer class, gullible enough to believe the slick campaigns and polished lies. It makes me sick." Old tastes cannot survive such determined onslaughts.

I loved the old Bollywood actresses, graceful, bosomy and wide with soft bellies. With saris you cannot corset or hide much, nor did they try. Age did not bother them either, stars like Meena Kumari, Rakhi, Waheeda Rehman. To many young British women interviewed for this article the actresses are 'gross', 'overweight', 'outdated'. Most urban Indians would concur. Such a terrible shame that, especially in an old land which we know, from cave sculptures, paintings and the erotic Kama Sutra, celebrated the infinite diversity of the Indian female form.

In her book Images of the Modern Women in Asia, Shoma Munshi writes: "Up until the 1980s it was fine to be well rounded and voluptuous and films and advertisements of the time reflect this. ...[now] the Indian cinema and adverts reflect the arrival of the perfectly sculpted body to meet exacting international standards." It is, she believes, to do with a vast and growing middle class (125 million so far) who "swing between their Indian traditions and an internalised transnational identity more in keeping with global lifestyles".

And as with Starbucks, the reach is infinite, though some are managing to resist the lure of the west. Just. In parts of Africa and Arabia female beauties can have big hips, bellies and breasts. The pernicious word 'perfect' has not yet entered their lexicon. I asked Jemima Khan if she saw middle class Pakistan succumbing: "The country is more conservative than India, particularly in terms of fashion and dress. The shalwar khameez is designed to conceal a woman's figure. My sister-in-law, for example, hid her pregnancy until a week before giving birth. I couldn't tell even though I was living with her. Having said that, I interviewed a top model/actress there recently and yes she was minute, the Western ideal." Jemima's friend Suhair Khan believes change is unavoidable: "India is much more affected by globalisation but girls in Pakistan are now becoming conscious of being the 'right' size, everyone from my own friends to the manicure girl in Karachi. Those curvy film actresses are quite obviously a dying breed."

The only rebellion against this hegemony, believes Rifkind, is: "the rise of enveloped clothing expressed through the burkha, hijab, niqab- veiling- which could be seen as protection against the power of the beauty industry." For us feminists that response also negates selfhood and exerts conformity, pain without real gain.

More encouraging is how China manages modernity, says Livia Wang, an Anglo-Chinese teenager : "There was definitely a time when students dyed their hair and wore blue contact lenses, but as China opens up economically, I feel the richer classes are returning to more traditional ideas of beauty – maybe pre-communist imperial times. China is quite proud - they have their own movie and pop stars they look up to. So no I don't think the anxieties of western women are being imported." But they may in the end not be able to hold out.

"There is an explicit correlation between the emergence of so-called 'international looks' and the opening up of the economy to multinational corporations from the west," says Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal believes. "Two Indian women won world beauty titles in the N ineties - Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen. Their arrival on the pageant stage symbolised the arrival of India on the world stage as an economic power to be reckoned with. It's what some scholars call the 'economy of sameness' yoking all cultures to the same idea of beauty which is linked to assimilating all countries into the same economic model".

And the same mental disintegration. Young Soni is now self harming and starving herself. On her wall she has posters of Keira Knightley and Karina Kapoor, the beautiful looked up to by a new generation of the damned in the globalised world.

With additional reporting by Hannah Ellis-Peterson

spoke to is scathing: "Silly girl, Katy, going for retro like that. Elephants and garish colours – really, how low-class! Makes us look so backward. Really, don't they know we are modernising? Our designers and models could be on catwalks in Paris and Milan now. We got the message." And how.

Mika Bhatia, a 21-year-old student and a Californian of Indian origin, says urban India is ruthlessly cutting the ties from its history and way of life: "Fifteen years ago, the American influence was absent and women would dress in their traditional clothes and look great. Now, it's all about Western clothes. It's sad. It's happening so fast." You can see similar trends in other developing nations and emerging markets. Globalisation shrinks the world in more ways than we think.

Sophie Kafeero was my roommate at university in Uganda. She was a wonderfully vivacious African woman with a curvy body, pursued by male students. "It wouldn't happen today," she tells me. "Young women who want to be popular, 'showcase' girlfriends are skinny – they have to be." One young woman I spoke to said she so didn't want to be like her large mother that she has become anorexic. Quacks offer Chinese potions to get weight off. Business is booming.

Ugandan British solicitor, Jennifer Nyeko Jones, confirms these trends. "The old posters are slowly fading – when large women were admired because it meant they were living well," she says. "Western men who go to Africa looking for girls are bringing this idea, too. African men are not asking for it. Gyms are now everywhere, taking the place of popular local beauty parlours."

Until 2001, no black African woman had ever won the Miss World competition, mainly because the nations selected big lovelies with sassy walks. Then, a Western scout found the Nigerian, Agbani Darego: tall, slim, small nose, large eyes, shiny skin. She was duly crowned and became the new ideal beauty. Aids is known as the "slim disease" across the continent. Now, another slim disease has arrived.

Elsewhere in the world, the demand is for altered features. South Korean women can have their eyes de-orientalised for $800. More nose jobs are done in Iran than any other country on earth. In his project Love Me, about the global beauty industry, British photographer Zed Nelson last year raised the spectre of an "eerily homogenised" world, dull and samey like a prairie.

Along with goods and services, neuroses are also being exported, from us in the West to them in the rest of the world. In the age of exploration, Europeans unknowingly introduced their diseases into populations which had no immunity to protect them. The viruses now transmitted abroad are carried on the backs of consumerism and free enterprise.

We need to face up to what that has done to our own societies and debate the ethics of the economic model that creates misery and dissatisfaction – and cashes in on it. And then ask ourselves, by what right do we inflict the same and worse on other civilisations?

Western women are programmed and controlled by the peddlers of physical perfection, even though from time to time we like to imagine we have pulled ourselves free. Take Christina Hendricks, the stupendously voluptuous Joan Holloway in the TV series Mad Men, apparently the nemesis of zealous body regulators who only exalt females with lovely bones and small, pert boobs. The MP Lynne Featherstone believes the actress is a "fabulous" role model and is setting up discussions with people from the fashion and media industries to get them to change models from little to large and boost female confidence. But for these merchants, small is bountiful – it brings in mega-profits. Women with meat on them are unsightly; they're no good as bait.

True, public effusion breaks out seasonally when, on TV, Nigella invites millions to drool over her puddings. Beth Ditto, the singer, Ruth Jones from the popular series Gavin and Stacey, and dear old Ann Widdecombe are big and proud, but the appeal for most is freakish. The idolatry of Hendricks, too, is more hope than expectation. Like a modern-day Botticelli maiden, she rises out of the sea, briefly, before going under again. The exceptions above can't overturn the rules. Smart, successful, aspirational people are lean or must try to be.

The scale and penetration of such messaging in modern times is unprecedented. Academic Kate Fox, of the Social Issues Research Centre, warned back in 1998: "Advances in technology have caused normal concerns about how we look to become obsessions ... we have become accustomed to rigid and uniform standards of beauty ... on TV billboards and magazines, we see 'beautiful people' all the time, making exceptional good looks seem real, normal and attainable".

For the comedian and writer, Arabella Weir, this trickery leads to perpetual dissatisfaction: "The celeb culture holds up the thin look, and at the same time it invites us to see this as ordinary – we can have a life just like these people. See Cheryl Cole? We can buy copies of her shoes and be her." Except we can't.

You could argue that every age has beauty prototypes and evanescence is the handmaiden of capitalism. Women have been made to conform to templates within all social systems. The horrendous corsets of the Victorian era broke women's bodies and the girdles of the Fifties severely controlled the feminine form.

Then the corsets became psychological. Weir's poignant new book, The Real Me is Thin, describes how her parents, both academics, believed girls had to be thin, "to please men, to be fantasised about". The child was forbidden pudding or the extra potato. Her mother said that watching Arabella eat was like having hot knives poked into her eyes. Most young women interviewed for Weir's book confessed that they would not have dessert on a first date. Gluttony puts men off, they fear.

However, even until the late Nineties, the Western idea of beauty was not squeezed into one thin tube. Stars could still come in different shapes and sizes. The supermodels of the 1980s were strong-looking and broad-shouldered. Before that, Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy were thought stunning, but so, too, Ava Gardner, Liz Taylor, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. In 2010, even the shapely Liz Hurley seems too fleshy; model Lara Stone (a size eight) is thought daringly "curvy" and dream girl Cheryl Cole has melted down to size zero, the official size for the young, female and lionised. Kareena Kapoor is only following the new cosmopolitan aesthetics.

Thousands of years ago, Plato tried to codify facial attractiveness and, since then, researchers into beauty have found that symmetry and certain features have universal appeal. But to offset homogeneity is that other evolutionary imperative – variety. In his Descent of Man, Darwin asserted: "It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body. It is, however, possible that certain tastes, in the course of time, become inherited."

Anorexic chic has gone way beyond inherited taste; it ensnares millions, imperils the future itself. Intelligent women feel caught in the vice. As Mika Bhatia says: "There's such an obsession with being skinny. I wish I could say that I am removed from all of that but I don't think I am. I have always felt I had to work on my appearance and stay thin, even though I know what can happen. A close female relative who was at UCLA has developed an eating disorder." Bhatia's family are the new globetrotters, with the gain – and tragic losses – that brings. Maria is 20, a nursery school assistant and the daughter of Greek-Cypriot migrants. She is so sick of being on diets that she is on anti-depressants instead: "How does Renée Zellweger get all that weight off and I can't? I have even written to her to ask. I hate myself, just a fucking failure. Look! Even my hands are fat. I can't wear a thong – my tush is too fat." A poet might once have written about her bloom, but such beauty has no place in our times.

These distorted values are dysphoric for all women, but for British-Asians, these images had not, until recently, infected our eyes, nor narrowed our tastes. There is among us an abhorrent acceptance of skin colour hierarchies in which light is best. But on the whole, we managed to avoid the brainwashing. The models and actresses didn't look like us so we could ignore them. Not any more.

Soni, a teenage British-Asian girl, whose name means "lovely", can't bear to look at herself. The model and TV presenter Alexa Chung struts through her dreams. Her mother fears her daughter is going mad. Only as mad as other girls of her age. "Why can't she like herself? At 48, I think I look good, a little fat maybe, but so what? Even my mother likes her face. But not Soni, my rose, born here. In my village back home, I looked in the rivers and thought my face was so pretty. Soni says she will have operations one day." Many of our daughters are in similar crises.

These are momentous and dangerous cultural shifts, warns the psychotherapist Gabrielle Rifkind: "Pressure on women as to how they should look came from different forms – from family, partners and friends. Now, it is the constant bombardment from the media and beauty industry, and this leads to a reduction in their ability to be independent of thought and creative in their own forms of self-expression – the autonomy of the mind. The sexualisation of their image, expressed by very tight clothes and exposure of the body has accentuated a deep experience of alienation from the body, as expressed in rapid increase of anorexia and obesity."

Almost two decades ago, the writer Naomi Wolf foresaw the coming blight in her seminal book, The Beauty Myth. She was subjected to extraordinary vitriol for exposing the dark side of the beauty business. She lost; they won. The most unachievable image of pulchritude is pressed into female psyches so that women spend and cry. Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls, a book on young women today, admits feminists should have been more vigilant: "I used to be blasé about beauty myths. It was the concrete stuff that mattered – jobs, equality and all that. Now I can see how these industries fed into insecurities, spread a punishing view of what it means to be aspirational, the idea of failure. Its impact is huge." Especially, she says, among bright, ambitious girls in sixth-form colleges. When she was young, "you could choose your persona and style. It was cool to look as if you weren't trying too hard, to be eccentric."

Walter did find that contemporary black women were happier with their bodies and own individual choices. Similarly, a study carried out in 2002 (Maya Poran, Sex Roles, Vol 47) compared the self-images of Latin, black and white women. Although all groups agreed on what is thought to be perfect – white, slim, tall, straight noses – black women did not let that affect their self-esteem. White and Latino women, in contrast, felt they did not match up.

Some emerging economies seem frightfully keen on those manufactured images of perfection. Nonita Karla, editor-in-chief of Elle India, is delighted that her readers want to join the dubious club. "Indians have a more international concept of beauty," she says. "And we are now more in sync with global views and values, now it is an established fact. There is a global standard of beauty which is very Western-influenced, but local ideals live on, side by side."

Geoffrey Jones, author of The History of the Global Beauty Industry, is less sanguine: "The globalisation of mega, celebrity and luxury brands provides compelling evidence of the 'flattening' of the world. These brands are the carriers of the latest trends, which companies now seem to be able to spread around the world, regardless of cultural traditions, ethnicity or income levels." This latest rush carries on from the periods of industrialisation and empire when white beauty norms were transplanted to colonised lands. Before then, says Jones, "human societies had their own beauty ideals which differed sharply from one another."

i loved the old Bollywood actresses: graceful, bosomy and wide with soft bellies. With saris you cannot corset or hide much, nor did they try. Age did not bother stars such as Meena Kumari, Rakhi, Waheeda Rehman. To many young British women interviewed for this article, the actresses are "gross", "overweight", "outdated". Most urban Indians would concur. Such a terrible shame, especially in an old land which we know – from cave paintings and the erotic Kama Sutra – celebrated the infinite diversity of the Indian female form.

In her book, Images of the Modern Woman in Asia, Shoma Munshi writes: "Until the 1980s, it was fine to be well-rounded and voluptuous and films and advertisements of the time reflected this ... [now] the Indian cinema and adverts reflect the arrival of the perfectly sculpted body to meet exacting international standards." It is, Munshi believes, to do with a vast and growing middle-class in that country (125 million so far) who "swing between their Indian traditions and an internalised trans-national identity more in keeping with global lifestyles".

As with Starbucks, the reach is infinite, though some are managing to resist the lure of the West. Just. In parts of Africa and Arabia, female beauties can have big hips, bellies and breasts. The pernicious word "perfect" has not yet entered their lexicon. I asked Jemima Khan if she saw middle-class Pakistan succumbing to Western tastes. "The country is more conservative than India," she explains, "particularly in terms of fashion and dress. The salwar kameez is designed to conceal a woman's figure. My sister-in-law, for example, hid her pregnancy until a week before giving birth. Having said that, I interviewed a top model/actress there recently and, yes she was minute – the Western ideal."

The only rebellion against this hegemony, believes Rifkind, is "the rise of enveloped clothing expressed through the burka, hijab and niqab – veiling, which could be seen as protection against the power of the beauty industry". For us feminists, that response also negates selfhood and exerts conformity, pain without real gain.

More encouraging is how China manages modernity, says Livia Wang, an Anglo-Chinese teenager I spoke to. "There was definitely a time when students dyed their hair and wore blue contact lenses, but as China opens up economically, I feel the richer classes are returning to more traditional ideas of beauty – maybe pre-Communist, imperial times. China is quite proud – they have their own movie and pop stars they look up to." But they may, in the end, not be able to hold out.

"There is an explicit correlation between the emergence of so-called 'international looks' and the opening up of the economy to multinational corporations from the West," says the Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal. "Two Indian women won world beauty titles in the Nineties – Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen. Their arrival on the pageant stage symbolised the arrival of India on the world stage as an economic power to be reckoned with. It's what some scholars call the 'economy of sameness', yoking all cultures to the same idea of beauty, which is linked to assimilating all countries into the same economic model."

And the same mental disintegration. Young Soni is now self-harming and starving herself. On her wall she has posters of Keira Knightley and Karina Kapoor, the beautiful looked up to by a new generation of the damned in the globalised world.

Additional reporting by Hannah Ellis-Peterson

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    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015