Kimono are a good place to start
As a Christian woman who went to a (very liberal) liberal arts school, I often feel oddly sandwiched between the two, though both inspire the internal debate: is it ok to try to be beautiful? On the one hand, I shouldn't be overly concerned with my physical appearance because as Scripture tells us we should be using our hearts and attitudes to make ourselves beautiful, rather than pretty clothes and jewelry. On the other hand, the zeitgiest of America that says a woman should be free to look and do however she wants--but to be too feminine might mean we're still trapped in a patriarchal view and nobody wants that, neither should we ever be 100% satisfied with our bodies, Pinterest and the magazine racks remind us.
In Japan, there is a such a different dynamic going on. Western men come here and seem blown away by the abundance of "beautiful women" because in general, Japanese women have been taught to care more about their appearance than American women have. There is also a greater distinction between "masculine" and "feminine" things and behaviors here. Many products are marketed smaller and pinker "for women". I'll never forget the ad I saw for a new laptop, "So clean, light and simple, even women enjoy using it!" America has traveled into a brave new world with feminism, one that Japan so far doesn't seem so interested in.
How do I fit in? Just like in America, there are some cultural elements that pull me towards comfort with my femininity and physical appearance. Just like in America, there are also elements that remind me to never be completely ok with how I look. They are just slightly different than back home.
Here are things that encourage me:
-for the first time in my life my body shape is close to the cultural ideal. In America all the songs are about big butts and boobs, things I'll never have, but in Japan the prettiest shape is stick-thin and the aforementioned body parts are not so necessary. Think wearing kimono. Kimono fit best on rectangular people with flat bodies and no big curves sticking out.
-I have a "small face." Japanese people love small (I think they mean delicate? As opposed to the typical round moon-face many Asians have) faces. Also big eyes and a pointy nose, go figure. Basically the Japanese ideal is a thin Western person's face.
-Public bathing. It's interesting going to a public bath where all the women bathe naked together. People in onsen don't care if their bodies are fit to be seen or not. And it's all there. Saggy parts, extra weight, scars, stretch marks...everyone's just human and enjoying the hot water. No shame and no showing off. Refreshing in more ways than one!
And now the things that discourage me:
-the pressure to always look good in public. Makeup, hair, clothes, must all be perfectly in order. And by clothes I mean many more dresses/skirts and heels in everyday life than this American is used to. I'm not very good at makeup, and I've never even tried to have trendy hair.
-My skin is not clear and there is a big obsession here with 美白、beautiful pale flawless skin.
-My mannerisms, gestures, way of walking, talking, and carrying myself are not feminine by Japanese standards. In Japan the most feminine girls are the ones who seem to be trying to take up as little space in the world as possible.
There is an expression in Japanese, 女子力 "girl power" and no it doesn't mean at all what you think it means. It means the power to be feminine. 女子力 is a woman's attention to detail about her looks, a gentleness towards herself and others, an effort to look like a lady, long smooth silky hair, manicured nails, pearls, lace, a tiny high voice, small gestures, a charming lack of (the display of) self-confidence, and a hand placed demurely over the mouth when laughing.
And dear me, I ain't got it. At first it made me feel like a life-form from another planet...American friends might think I'm feminine but to the average Japanese, I barely even count as female. I'll never forget the comment from one of my husband's co-workers: "I just can't see American women as female."
When I was dating my husband, I did worry sometimes...I would never be as (apparently) flawless or cute as a Japanese girl, and I hoped he wasn't disappointed...a silly thing to worry about, because if he'd wanted to be with a Japanese girl he wouldn't have dated me. At the same time, as a married woman I'm opening up to the idea of enjoying femininity and beauty, because now there is someone who legitimately appreciates it, who also loves me just the same in crazy bed hair and pajamas.
I want to navigate this social dynamic in a healthy way--I don't want to be materialistic or compare myself to others or let my confidence hang on something as transient as looks and "girl power"--totally not me--but even if I'll never be a "real woman" here I do love seeing my husband's face when I make a little effort. There is also some food for thought in the culture of femininity here. We have made so many efforts in the name of feminism in America. The rest of world can see it clearly: to them our women seem no different from men. A victory? Or a loss? I think we have definitely lost a part of our culture, for better or for worse: the ability, passed down from mother to daughter, to be feminine in an American way. I couldn't even describe it, because I have never seen it first-hand. But there must have been, years ago, a similar but uniquely American feminine side to our own culture. We got rid of it in the name of freedom and equality, so it is socially taboo now to try and rediscover it. It's at least fascinating to see the Japanese version of it alive and well here, in all its high-heeled glory.