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How beauty is perceived around the globe

By October 20, 2019Diversity Speaks

by Isidora Colic

Have you ever asked yourself how often you hear “typical” being applied to a group, community, ethnicity, or country? If you ask me, I think we like to generalize things too often.

If you look in the dictionary under “S”, you will find the definition of “stereotype”: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. When we discuss beauty, we often tend to stereotype it, too, according to the standards imposed by the media or the fashion and beauty industries. However, beauty is very individual, and the idea of what is beautiful isn’t the same everywhere around the globe.

People sometimes oversimplify things and put labels on the concept of beauty: what is beautiful and what isn’t. Social media almost obsessively imposes on us the idea that beauty should be a very important aspect in our lives. In the process, we’ve forgotten that beauty isn’t contained in strictly defined categories. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote, and wisely so, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

One very important aspect in the discussion of beauty is that it is perceived differently around the world.

More than 5000 years ago, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans considered maintaining health a beauty regime, with a particular focus on skincare. For centuries, Chinese herbalists concocted special tinctures, tonics, and elixirs to specifically address individual skin concerns. The secret is a balance between inner health and outer beauty.

East Asian women tend to aim for a minimal look, with flawlessly pale skin, because it is believed in these Asian cultures that skincare is the most important part of a beauty routine. Pale skin represented social prestige, while tanned skin was associated with lower-class field work. (Hyun, 2019) According to a World Health Organization study, Asian women consume certain foods in order to achieve a lighter skin tone. There’s a soup made of white peony root, white atractylodes, white tuckahoe, and liquorice, which allegedly would make your skin look pale. Global Industry Analysts’s data shows that of all whitening product sales in Asia, China makes up roughly 40%, Japan 21%, and South Korea 18%. Each of these three countries have their own practices associated with this beauty standard. (Hyun, 2019) If you’d like to fit in, avoid the sun at all costs!

Photo: Pixabay

You’ve probably heard that beauty can hurt sometimes, and that some people would do anything to achieve standards that are imposed by society or to keep up with trends. The practice of foot-binding was once a symbol of beauty in China. The tradition of foot-binding was passed from mother to daughter, generation to generation, causing many medical problems and in some cases even death. (Blazeski, 2017) It was deemed a symbol of prestige. This painful practice was present for centuries.

Woman with bound feet reclining on chaise lounge

If we move to Myanmar and Thailand, or specifically to a sub-group of Padaung people, rings around the neck are seen as attractive. It looks very uncomfortable, but the rings are only creating a visual illusion, so the neck appears longer. Kayan women start wearing those neck rings when they are little girls, four or five years old, and add more rings as they get used to the weight.

Kayan women start wearing neck rings as little girls

In Africa, more precisely Ethiopia and tribes of the Mursi, Chai and Tirma, lip stretching or lip-plates (dhebi a tugoin) is seen as beautiful, denoting female maturity. Even though the process is very painful, inserting a disc or a plate in the lower lip represents beauty in this part of the world. If you want to be considered more attractive there, you should consider inserting as big a plate as possible. However, it’s important to mention that this beauty standard isn’t strictly imposed by men, as the Mursi consider themselves very egalitarian. Girls and boys alike can decide whether they should pierce their lips. Researchers claim that the lip plate worn by Mursi women is best seen as an expression of social adulthood and reproductive potential. It bridges the individual and society, the biological self and the social self.

Lip plates are seen as an expression of social adulthood and reproductive potential, as well as being aesthetically pleasing

Beauty standards around the world may stay the same over time, but they may also change with society’s advances. Western countries aren’t the leaders in plastic surgery. Recently, according to a report in the conservative Etemad newspaper, Iran has become the rhinoplasty capital of the world and women like to show off the nose job they have done. (The Guardian, 2013)  Interestingly, although they no longer need to wear their bandages after the procedure, women still do, as a symbol of beauty. Even those who didn’t undergo surgery would put surgical tape on.

In conclusion, beauty is perceived differently around the globe. There’s a fine line between cultural practices and beauty standards, which can often collide. I hope that after reading this text, you will use the word “typical” more carefully, since beauty is definitely not the same everywhere!