Beauty remains an elusive notion across different cultures. What are the factors behind attractiveness?
Across the globe, few people have difficulty recognizing someone who is considered beautiful. Beauty is often sought after, revered, and sometimes interpreted as a personal virtue. Standards of beauty are usually social markers determining cultural status, social acceptance and suitability as a mate. However, beauty remains an elusive notion. Scientists continue to study the biological and anthropological factors behind physical attractiveness, while advertisers continue to employ ideals of beauty to sell products. Countless people continue their quests to become or remain beautiful to receive the benefits society offers for beauty. A physical aesthetic has remained constant over time throughout the diverse cultures of the world. In this sense, beauty has been regarded as a reflection of health, vitality, sexual allure and social appeal. Although the specifics of what makes someone beautiful can differ across countries, cultures and communities, the concept of beauty has existed for as long as there have been people.
Securing a mate, procreating and receiving support from a life partner were some of humanity’s earliest benefits of being beautiful. During the struggle to survive in antiquity, our ancestors needed to be part of a clan, sharing food, resources and shelter as they cared for offspring that would continue building their civilizations. In contemporary times, however, beauty has become a prized and helpful physical quality. Those who are beautiful, studies have shown, receive better pay for their work, more easily advance in social status and have even been viewed as being more competent and trustworthy. Some of these advantages are simply a result of human beings’ desire for the simplicity found in symmetry. The concept of symmetry is a norm in most studies of aesthetics, whether in art or life. This balance, signifying familiarity, is comforting to the human eye. A symmetrical face suggests an overall healthiness of mind and body. A pockmarked face is a deviation from a clear, smooth complexion. Eyes unevenly set across a face are irregular and disconcerting to the viewer, who intuitively craves symmetry. People are attracted to that which is uniform and conventional. Although the face is just one signal of physical beauty, it is often the foundation of judgment when assessing one’s appearance.
Along with an appealing face, a proportionate, pleasing body frame is a necessary feature of beauty as it demonstrates physical fitness and defines one’s lifestyle. A thin woman with a toned, tanned body and blonde highlights in her golden hair can reflect a lifestyle of leisure. One can imagine her enjoying leisurely days at the beach with the sun bronzing her skin and lightening her hair. A trim body demonstrates her self-control and discipline in a lifestyle that can afford much leisure time. Even if genetics have blessed her with a high metabolism, a hairdresser applied the sun-streaked highlights to her hair and a cosmetic bronzer deepened her skin tone, the final outcome is beauty. However, not all cultures find the trim blonde a perfect representation of beauty. In Nigeria, women are encouraged to be more full-figured as it demonstrates fertility and the ability to carry and birth many babies. In some Southeast Asian cultures, wherein war resulted in a lack of food, a more full-figured woman demonstrates a higher social status. Being thicker in frame can boast of being well fed and healthy. In these ways, beauty implies superiority and cultural status. However, standards of beauty depend upon the social conditions of the times in which one lives. The blonde with bronze skin would not be appealing to her Victorian ancestors, who saw tanned skin as a sign of the lower classes toiling in the hot sun. Although times change, the power of beauty and what it symbolizes remains.
At times, trying to emulate beauty standards can be unrealistic or come with physical or psychological risks. However, to many people, the rewards of trying to embody a culture’s beauty standards outweighs the dangers. The Victorian women, in an effort to stay as pale as possible, were often poisoned by lead-based makeup. Even the Victorian descendant, the California beach bunny, risks harm from too much sun exposure. Around the globe, diverse ideals of beauty often come with their own unique hazards. Some tribal women in Burma are known for their seemingly elongated necks fitted with multiple rings. Many rings signify social status, gracefulness and make women more appealing to potential husbands. The rings do not stretch the neck, however. The rings, in fact, slowly weigh down on the collarbone, pressing it downward, and creating a sense of a long, graceful neck. Though creating deformities in the shoulders and weakening their neck muscles, sometimes to point of fatality if the rings were ever removed, the rings are still a reflection of beauty. Similar is foot binding in China, which is not practised during modern times. In an effort to seem diminutive and subservient to men, women’s feet were bound tightly to impede the growth. These unnaturally little feet were revered as part of a beauty standard. Although some customs perish, new customs emerge in the quest for beauty.
In contemporary times, having large eyes is seen as a mark of beauty by some Asian cultures, in which eyes tend to be smaller in shape than European’s. In addition, many Asian women have undergone surgery to create European-looking eyelids. This desire to be what is rare and unattainable is a common element in beauty standards throughout the world. Many Western women strive to appear like the runway model who is grossly underweight. Many people go under the surgeon’s knife to alter their appearances, sometimes for the worse. In this sense, attaining beauty is a sacrifice with it own rewards. However, not all cultures view beauty as something difficult to achieve. The Maasai people approach beauty as an attainable quality that people can control. These east African tribal people focus on a tidy appearance and jewelry as adornment. Bright white teeth, a clean appearance, and short cropped hair are easily attained with brushing, washing, and cutting. Beaded jewelry is easy to find, make and wear. Proper grooming demonstrates personal pride, a healthful outlook and adherence to cultural norms.
In contrast, the Suri people of Ethiopia find beauty represented in women’s lip plates. When a girl reaches puberty, her bottom teeth are removed to make way for a piercing in the lower lip. Once the piercing is in place, the lip is stretched around a clay plate. When it is time to find a husband, this lip plate guides the dowry process. Plates are seen as both a sign of beauty and a measure of a woman’s value in cattle. Larger plates signal a more valuable and desired woman. Another sign of personal value is demonstrated in the elaborate facial tattoos of the Māori people, an indigenous group in New Zealand. In modern times, the Tā moko, this face-covering tattoo, is worn as a demonstration of cultural pride and beauty among the group. In the past, the Tā moko signified social status, and those without a marked face, were not allowed participation in tribal rituals and dismissed to a low social rank. The use of the Tā moko faded away with the settling of many white people in New Zealand. However, in the 1990s, this practice saw a resurgence as some Māori wanted to emphasize their cultural pride and ideas about beauty through this conspicuous symbol. Modifying the body through art is a custom in many cultures.
Scarification of the body is another practice, specifically among populations with dark skin too dark to show tattoos. The Karo tribe of Ethiopia scar men and women’s torsos and chests to assert social status. Men’s scars mark the number of enemies killed in battles, while women’s scars represent sensuality and appeal. Although less practiced today, some indigenous groups with little contact with the modern world continue these kinds of beauty rituals. Today, many people of African descent in the Western world wear their hair in dreadlocks, coils of hair fused together, resembling matted braids. This hairstyle often symbolizes a cultural pride and beauty in their black identity and a rejection of the white beauty standard of straight, silky hair. The fact remains, however, even in rejecting some beauty standards, the idea of beauty remains.
In Southwestern Asia, the area often known as the Middle East, the rejection of Western culture and beauty standards, along with the insurgence of Islamic traditions, has seen the rise in more traditional, Arabic clothing. This clothing tends to cover more of the body and gives only an alluring glimpse at the feminine figure within as a clear denunciation of the revealing outfits worn by many in the Western world. These outfits display the humble, demure and secret beauty of the wearer, whose husband is the only one with access to the body hidden within the folds of fabric. Still, with increasing globalization, many Western beauty ideals have spread throughout the world, while cultures with little contact outside their indigenous communities continue to observe their own beauty practices. Either way, ideals of beauty are ever-present throughout the diverse communities of world.
Although differing across the globe, beauty standards are an important part of the cultural landscape. Demonstrating status, social acceptance and suitability as a mate, physical aesthetics affect how people view themselves and those around them. Health, fitness and social expectations are consistent in standards of beauty across cultures, although different cultures all have their own ideas about what makes one beautiful. While time and social conditions can alter these standards, what remains is that the notion of beauty is unchanging and powerful.