Who defines beauty?

What is Beauty?

It seems simple enough, but our reactions to what is deemed ‘beautiful’ rely on much more than our physiological and sensory functions. We take a look at the different perceptions of beauty from around the world.

Beauty can be defined as a collection of characteristics that give pleasure to the senses. In today’s modern and westernised culture, we often gain our perception of beauty from watching TV, scrolling through Instagram and looking at glamorously styled models in magazines. It’s time to explore outside our comfort zones and take a look at why beautiful here doesn’t always translate to beautiful everywhere.

Petite feet

A small and petite foot has long been considered a very attractive feature for Chinese women. But achieving such a delicate foot is far from a delicate process. Foot binding has been a timely and extremely uncomfortable tradition, and one in which girls as young as five years old have undertaken since the 10th century.

The process historically involved a visit to a foot binder who would tightly bandage the feet using long lengths of cloth, so that the toes would bend under the arch of each foot. Known as the ‘golden lotus foot’, the bound feet were traditionally covered with socks and shoes, soaked in perfume and scented powder and hidden under numerous layers of leggings and skirts. The bones in the foot would break and the arch of the foot would heighten, shortening the length of the foot so that over several years both feet would become permanently deformed “taking beauty is pain” to a whole new level.

Feet were seen as an indicator of beauty so much so that the girl’s prospective mother-in-law often assessed them before allowing marriage.

Elongated neck

In African and Asian cultures neck rings are worn to create the appearance of a longer neck. The beauty of an elongated neck is quite unfamiliar to our western aesthetic values, and has been the subject of interest and fascination for many years.

Girls are introduced to wearing brass neck rings between the ages of two and five years old, stacking as many as 20 over many years. The weight of the rings puts ample pressure on the shoulder blades and causes them to deform, creating the impression of a longer neck. Fully ‘stretched’, the neck becomes 10-15 inches long. Women with a large amount of rings usually need to drink from a straw, as tipping their head back can cause them to loose their balance and fall.

In some more extreme groups, if a woman were to offend her tribe the rings were cut off and the lack of structure would potentially cause the woman to choke to death.

Fair skin

Many women in Thailand strive to have pale skin and often go to extreme and potentially fatal measures to be the fairest of them all. This beauty ritual is not only aesthetically pleasing for Thai women, but is also a sign of success and wealth as darker skin indicates hard labour from working outdoors.

Advertisements for skin lightening products are placed on television and billboards all around Thailand and reflect how highly sought after these products are. Despite many dermatologists warning consumers about the harmful long-term effects of the creams, well-educated middle and upper class women still take part in the regime. The message that only women with fair skin are successful is often communicated in advertisements to sell the product playing on important values that are ingrained in the Thai culture.

Fuller figures

Obesity has long been the basis of beauty in the north-western African nation, of Mauritania. According to the World Health Organisation, one quarter of the 1.5 million women who live in the desert region are obese. From a western perspective, this is quite a surprising figure as there is not a single fast food franchise in the area, with many areas remaining relatively rural.

Mauritania is one of few African countries where girls will be given more food than boys.Many Mauritanian women have said that they were force fed as children, with their increasing bulges making their mothers proud as they were growing up. This practise can involve young girls being filled with camel or cow milk several times a day to fatten them up. Often referred to as gavage (which means ‘to gorge’), the tradition often meant that refusing to eat or vomiting after eating would result in punishment and further feeding. This tradition stems from the idea that larger women represent lavishness, wealth and prosperity “highly attractive qualities in the culture.

Big is seen as beautiful, and Mauritanian men are very aroused by full figured women. A woman with vivacious curves is almost a requirement, as men of this culture often first notice a female by her thick ankles and bodacious bottom. Because of this ideal, stretch marks are also seen as very beautiful and have great sex appeal.

Although obesity brings with it many health problems such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, many women are willing to pay the price for the sake of beauty perhaps the only beauty mantra shared by women globally.

The idea that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is not a new one, and there are many cultural factors that contribute to the beholder’s aesthetic values. The fact that these traditions feel strange and even alien to women of western cultures is a testament to the extreme ways in which beauty is defined around the world, which is something worth remembering the next time you consider a fad diet or exercise machine. Maybe the money would be better spent on a trip to Mauritania.