April 2019

Global Beauty

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

Humans value beauty. Researchers have found that being attractive makes you more likely to earn higher grades and wages, get approved for a loan, or be acquitted in a trial. Having a non-standard or “ugly” appearance makes you more likely to get convicted or to engage in criminal activity in the first place. Even babies have been shown to innately prefer good-lookers.

But what looks good? That has varied across continents and centuries from the dazzling (diamond tiaras and cloaks of spun gold) to the ordinary (curves and blue jeans) to the grotesque (flattened heads and lip plugs as big as dinner plates.) Certain things make sense scientifically. Studies show that physical traits suggesting fertility—such as a high hip-to-waist ratio in women—are preferred, if not universally, then predominantly.

Experiments that overlay many faces to form a computer-generated composite have indicated that averaged-out features are perceived as closer to the ideal, evidently because they don’t betray any sign of genetic aberration or defect. It has also been suggested that symmetry equals beauty. But considering the diversity of trends that have come and gone, exercising a powerful sway during their lifespans only to be laughed at later, simple logic shows that beauty is mainly a subjective and even arbitrary social construct. Yet we get so wrapped up in it!
The facial tattoos that make one a pariah in this culture could be a sign of high rank in another. The long, hairy beard denoting wisdom for some might be an abomination to a smooth-skinned race. Most white people in America want to get tan, but most tan people in the rest of the world want to get white. It’s sad that Eurocentrism is pervasive, creating a negative psychological impact on everybody else. It’s a shame when people don’t feel confident and content with who they are because they get bombarded by outside suggestions to the contrary. Black is beautiful! Big is beautiful! Beauty is what you make of it. Beauty is when you’re happy and you make others happy, too. So, let’s open our eyes and hearts to a few looks from around the world, and understand that no matter how different others may appear, we all just want to look nice.

Ancient Mayan Grill Bling
If you thought gold and gem-encrusted teeth were the exclusive domain of rap stars, think again; the Mayans were already doing it a couple of thousand years ago. Skulls have been found with little colored stones flashing across the teeth like a Lite Brite. Using primitive tools, ancient dentists drilled holes into wealthy folks’ teeth and inlaid them with turquoise, opal, quartz, pyrite, cinnabar and especially jade. Jade made you the beloved of the gods; it was the holiest bling your grin could contain. In an informative and sensitively written article, a modern-day member of the Massachusetts Dental Society tells how he couldn’t understand why so many Central American patients were coming in with gold stars and rims on their teeth, getting them replaced with the more discreet white porcelain “American crowns” he recommended, then going home to their countries and showing back up a few years later laced with gold again—until he traveled to Guatemala. There, 65 percent of the largely indigenous population has gold in their grill (though perhaps not the highly prized jade anymore), a cultural norm they couldn’t let go of after emigrating. The author of the article reasonably concludes that as they bring their own ideas of beauty to his first-world dental office, he must be aware of their customs and history if he is to serve them.

Japan’s Snow-White Look
The Japanese are known for peculiar and distinctive tastes and the extremes to which they often take them. There has always been a certain pageantry and fetishism to the Japanese beauty ideal, from the Geishas of olden times to the elaborately bizarro street fashionistas of twenty-first-century Tokyo. But whether they’re wearing kimonos or manga comic outfits, the national love for paper-white complexions has stayed its course through history. Add jet black hair and ruby lips, and the look is reduced to the elemental—Japanese minimalism to the max. White face powders were the rage even from ancient times; eyebrows were being starkly penciled, raven locks grown long, lips painted, and cheeks daubed red. But during the middle ages, this tri-color palette was taken over the top by women lacquering their teeth black! Evidently it was a sign of marital maturity. The custom didn’t survive to modern days, but skin as powdery as Mt. Fuji’s cone remains the Japanese cosmetic standard.

Big is Beautiful in the Pacific Islands
Is the waif look beautiful? (Consult a Western fashion mag.) Is obesity beautiful? (Look at a Polynesian chief.) Is there anything really to beauty at all? (Perceptions have no substance.) In traditional Pacific Islander societies, being spectacularly fat was a sign of health, wealth, prestige, and therefore beauty. Starving to death was not a good look! Having a big body made you leadership material. It seems perfectly sensible for a place and time when people depended on the vagaries of fruit and fish harvests; but in today’s world of imported Spam and white sugar (not to mention television), things get complicated. Health problems are accompanying the weight, and body image issues are surfacing among women exposed to the drastically smaller profile of the Western World. Will the big-body love of islanders survive, or will globalization force them to slim down or pay the price? Let’s hope they find a happy medium of good health and continued appreciation for their plus-size heritage.

African Tribal Beauty
So often, it’s not the look itself but what it represents that makes people perceive it as attractive. Especially when choosing a mate, you want to know they have what it takes to ensure the survival of your bloodline, which means being strong, healthy and in every way equipped to thrive. So, let’s take a step back and view one of the more shocking forms of beautification in this light. Scarification is a common practice among certain African tribes wherein people get symbolic designs cut or burnt into their skin. First, it shows you’re tough and can handle it, which will be important in primitive life. Second, you are fully willing to “belong” within the social group announced by your markings. And third, you have surrendered yourself to whatever religious, cultural, sexual or other rites of passage are prescribed by your people. Congratulations, you are now beautiful! Punk rock and neo-tribal counterculture movements have adopted the African practice of ear stretching by using increasingly large disks or cylindrical plugs in the pierced lobes, or perhaps even stones, feathers and bones. The multicolored layers of beaded necklaces favored by the Maasai have found their way into haute couture. And although historical evidence doesn’t exactly point to dreadlocks originating in Africa (specifically Egypt) because they are recorded among many ancient peoples including Etruscan warriors and Hindu mystics, the smooth red dreads that Namibian women create using a paste of butterfat, red ochre and aromatic resin must surely be unique on earth … until they show up at a hair show in Atlanta. 

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