One of the most memorable episodes of “TheTwilight Zone” television series begins as a womanchats with a doctor in a hospital room with her headcovered with gauze. This woman has undergone aprocedure to make her look normal and she isanxiously waiting to see her face without the bandages. "I never really wanted to be beautiful”, she tells the doctor. “I just wanted people not to scream when they looked at me”… “I want to belong; I want to be like everybody else”.
However, the doctor warns her that because shehas undergone so many procedures, it will not be possible to try again. If the procedure proves unsuccessful, she will be sent to a special area where people of her kind have been exiled. The doctor removes the bandages from the final surgery, and he and the nurses are horrified to discover there has been “no change”.
When the woman’s face is revealed to thecamera, however, we see that she is beautifulby human standards, but, to our surprise,when the camera turns to reveal the faces ofdoctors and nurses, we see that they arehideously deformed. The message is clear: Beauty is in the “Eye of the Beholder”
Throughout history, people in everyculture have sought to change the naturalappearance of their bodies. They reshape and sculpt their bodies and adorn them with paint, cosmetics, clothing, and jewelry. These customs, however, are diverse and particular to a culture at a specific period of time.
The diversity of body costumes has ledanthropologists (e.g., Douglas 1970; Strathern1996) to conclude that a body is both a physicaland a symbolic artifact, forged by nature and byculture at a particular moment in history(Sullivan, 2000). Social institutions, ideology, values, beliefs, and technology transform a physical body into a social body. Bodies, therefore, provide important clues to the mechanics of society (Sullivan,2000).
Body Size Ideals in African Cultures In Cameroon and many other parts of Africa,obesity, especially in the buttocks, has been associatedwith abundance, erotic desirability, and fertility. Fathas been seen as a statement of well-being and hasbeen frequently produced artificially through fatteningprocesses (Roybal,2002) In a rite of passage, someNigerian girls spend months gaining weight in what isknown as “the fattening room”. In this culture, awoman’s rotundity is a sign of good health, prosperityand charm. “Beauty is in the weight”, says a defenderof the practice, “To be called a slim princess is anabuse” (Angeloni, 2001)
Body Size Ideals in the Western WorldIn modern Western society "thin is in" andsometimes artificial means such as liposuctionare used to lessen the appearance of hips,buttocks, and fat in general (Sullivan, 2002).In the United States, most people hold negativeattitudes toward body fat. According to surveys,people attribute increased body weight to beingpoor or having poor health. Obese women, morethan men, are rated negatively by peers (Levy andShiraev, 2001).
Rites of passage between life stages in many non- Western cultures are marked by ritualized patterns of scarification, piercing andtattooing (Sullivan, 2001).
The Padaung women inSoutheast Asia are oftenreferred to as giraffewomen because of thecustom of placing ringsaround their necks fromwhen they are younggirls until they marry.The pressure and weightof the rings (as much as11 pounds) force thechin upward whilepressing down the collarbones and ribs,elongating the neck.
Lip plates have been aroundin some African tribes forthousands of years. Younggirls stretch their lips withround wooden or clay platesand wear them throughouttheir lives.The lip eventually gets soelastic that the plate can betaken in and out easily. Theplate must always be inwhile in the presence ofmen and can only be takenout when sleeping oraround other women.
The Kayapo peopleof the Amazon, usescarification,ornaments forpierced lips, ears,and noses, bodypaint and differenthair styles todistinguish socialand age classes, aswell as to adornthemselves forpotential mates.
In Papua New Guinea,scarification is usuallyrelated to initiation.The skin on the chest,back and buttocks ofthe initiate is cut with abamboo sliver to testtheir physical strengthand self-discipline. Thescars, when healed,represent the teethmarks of a crocodilethat has swallowed theinitiates who arereborn as crocodile-men.
Technological innovations thatinundate society with imagesof beautiful people are acultural change that has helpedto narrow the criteria forevaluating appearance(Sullivan, 2000).Few can compare themselvesfavorably to the beautifulpeople in the media, whoseimages are increasinglyartificially enhanced.Fashion dolls, like Barbie, arean icon of female beauty foryoung girls to adopt.
Mass culture and the media have served to project the body ideal and turn gentle concern about appearanceinto obsessions. Beauty can become very unnatural. People will go lengths to live up to the beauty ideals of their society: eatingdisorders, cosmetic surgery, hair implants, etc.
: "Even I dont wake up looking like Cindy Crawford." - Cindy Crawford
Every period of historyheld its own standards on what was and was not considered beautiful.
When powerful cultural ideologies andinstitutions change, body standards and customs change. This is clearly evident in the changing standards for feminine and masculine beauty over the last two centuries in the Western world.
In the early nineteenth century, Europeantravelers and explorers expressed their disbeliefat the "savage" and unusually decorated bodies of the natives, while asserting their own wildlyinteresting fashion statement consisting of wigs, large hats, painted faces, and body deformities caused by the wearing of narrow, pointed, and tight-fitting shoes. (Roybal, 2002)
Cultural Ethnocentrism We tend to regard our own culture’s customs as highly “civilized” and others’ as “savage”.
Beauty and EvolutionBeauty in women evolved in order to attract andhold the interest of men. The standards of what isbeautiful might vary from culture to culture andfrom time to time, but there is something withinfemale psychology which leads women to wantto be beautiful and attractive to men. Womenwant to be beautiful because to be beautiful is tobe desired by men and this means, hopefully,having access to a mans resources for herself andher offspring in order to ensure their survival(Sones, 2002)
Throughout cultures world wide, womenslooks seem to be more important to men thanmens looks to women. While a mans looksmight be important to women, when it comes toa long-term partner women are more interestedin a mans access to economic resources (orskills in hunting or fighting in less developedsocieties). There is no culture, as far as weknow, in which women actively seek to beunattractive to men (Sones, 2002)
ReferencesAngeloni, E. (2001). Anthropology 2001/2002. McGraw Conneticut: Hill/Dushkin.Levy, D. & Shiraev, E.(2000). Introduction to Cross-Cultural Psychology. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon.Roybal, V. (December, 2002). The bizarre and beautiful. Beauty Worlds: The culture of beauty. Retrieved May,14,2003, from the World Wide Web: http://www.beautyworlds.comSones, M. (December, 2002).Beauty, fashion and the coolidge effect. Beauty Worlds: The culture of beauty. Retrieved May,12,2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.beautyworlds.comSullivan, D. (December, 2000). Cosmetic Surgery. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.