I've sketched and photographed a lot of Asian girls and every time, there is this sort of slow, almost ritualistic unravelling of themselves, which comes across as an unsettling hesitancy to unveil not just their bodies but their selves. I've always found it hard to explain. Then, today, when I came across this passage in a short story. The woman described is a late-20-something, 21st century Japanese, but it conveys very beautifully what I have glimpsed in Koreans, Chinese and Thais.
"She sheds her soiled clothes in front of a mirror in the windowless bathroom, and surveys her body with forensic detachment. It is still brown and thin but to her eyes, it looks, somehow, amorphous. She pokes the unblemished skin on her arms and legs to test its tautness, and pinches her narrow hips and concave pelvis to check for fat. Her palms heft her small breasts and flat buttocks to gauge their subsidence, and her fingertips trace the shallow fissures at the corners of her eyes’ epicanthic folds. Like many Japanese, her lower front teeth are crooked, yellowed by nicotine. She pretends a smile that exposes only the straighter, less damaged enamel of her upper teeth and reminds herself to visit a dentist."Her body is the only object of the few disordered rituals she observes. As a child, her grandmother took her to the local public baths and, with an almost spiritual rigour, ensured that she learned not only to bathe with an abrasive efficiency but to look no further than the surface of things, to respect the efficacy of veneer. It was always implicit that her appearance was an asset, and even before she could possibly understand why, she was encouraged to put every effort into improving its longevity and value – a value to be determined later, by others, most of them men."She still senses her grandmother’s stern grey eyes every time she bathes. If she were still alive, she would be fretting about her grand-daughter who had failed – she would use that word with bitterness – to find a husband by the time she was 25. Marriage for her grandmother’s and mother’s generations was not about love; it was a practical transaction in which a husband provided a reasonable level of security, comfort and status and, in return, a dutiful wife raised their children, cooked, cleaned and from time to time, serviced his sexual needs. Affection was a happy accident, not a necessary part of the deal."