Monday, June 4

Culture of Beauty

On May 28th, Japan's Riyo Mori was crowned Miss Universe in Mexico City. No, I didn't watch the pageant, but the fact that Miss Japan won has been a topic of some discussion the past few days, here in the Land of the Rising Sun . And the perfect lead-in to my assignment for this week - to write about beauty.

Actually the elusive question of beauty has been something I've been mulling over for some time, ever since reading Scott Westerfield's UGLIES. (I highly recommend his books in this series: UGLIES, PRETTIES and SPECIALS.) In Westerfield's futuristic world, children are raised to think of themselves as ugly until which time as they can undergo an extensive operation that will make them beautiful. The books give rise to the question: exactly what is beauty?

In Prettytown, beauty is defined as having clear skin, symmetrical features, silky hair and perfect, nubile bodies. This ideal is drilled into the heads of pre-operation children ('uglies') so much so that they willingly submit to giving up their individuality in order to become pretty.

Though the technology in Westerfield's world is more advanced and the emphasis on beauty taken to an extreme level, I couldn't help but draw parallels as I was reading to the very real pressures our societies place on being beautiful and the artificial lengths we will go to to achieve that beauty.

We may think we have come a long way from the old Chinese hobbling of women to achieve a dainty, small foot, or the Victorian corsets that displayed an abnormally-small waistline, but we still pander to our societies' definition of what Beauty is. In the Western world, we paint our faces and lacquer our nails, poke holes in various parts of our bodies to display jewelry, prick dye into our skin to adorn ourselves with art, inject toxins into our muscles to eliminate wrinkles and even submit to the knife to change our appearance.

So what does this have to do with Ms. Mori?

Interestingly, when she was awarded the crown in the largest beauty pageant in the world, reactions here in Japan were mixed. Naturally, many are proud to see Asian beauty celebrated. Others question whether Ms. Mori, who attended school in B.C., Canada, is simply an Asian version of a Western ideal.

The latter I find very interesting because exactly what the ideal for beauty is in Japan these days can be confusing. Gaijin (foreign) models are often used in commercials and advertisements. Dolls and posters feature children with round, light-colored eyes. Many women bleach their hair. My daughter, who has blonde hair and blue eyes, was the darling of her Japanese elementary school. "Big eyes" are considered beautiful - eyes very unlike the traditional Japanese almond-shaped eyes. To what Asian ideal was Ms. Mori to aspire?

Have you noticed differences in what is considered beautiful within certain societies/parts of the world?

What do you consider beautiful?

Does it even have to do with looks?

*(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)


Erica Orloff said...

GREAT post!

I read an essay penned by an anthropologist who visited a tribe that had NO mirrors, which of course makes sense in a so-called primitive society--no Western goods to buy. No mirrors at all. None of the women in the village ever saw what they looked like, other than a reflection in the water, for example. And the culture placed SUCH a value on feminine WISDOM. The "beauties" were the beautiful-on-the-inside women, treasured for their contributions. Age didn't diminish their beauty at all. Wisdom made them special. When you think of how much time the average woman spends worrying about her external appearance, and the message about what we value seen in the media and so on . . . I think it's really interesting. Most of us can't imagine our "sevles" without knowing what we look like. Have a horrific hair day and it often permeates your mood.

Anyway, lots of food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Some really interesting ideas put forth here.
Having just finished inhaling Westerfeld's books, and recalling the documentary/show that inspired him, I can't help but admire what he's created while at the same time becoming disturbed by the standards "we" have created. And to start tuning in to the way the perception of beauty has changed the world over... how far are we, really, from the values Westerfeld describes in his books? And will we, as a culture, really have to follow the trend of beauty to its extreme before we can once again embrace wisdom and confidence and basic goodness as ideals?
Yup, lots to think about.

Wendy Toliver said...

Great post, Gerb!

And Erica, your comment reminded me of one of my cousins. She went into a jungle w/ some at-risk teens a few years ago, and I don't know for sure how long they were gone, but when she got home (where there are things such as showers, razors, tweezers, makeup, lotion, blow-dryers, deoderant, etc.) she looked at herself in the mirror and said the coolest thing ever: "Wow, I don't look all that bad." (Not an exact quote, but you get the idea.)

One thing I do beieve about beauty is, someone can be drop-dead gorgeous on the outiside, but if they're conceited or rude or downright mean, their external beauty fades in my eyes.

Have a beautiful day!

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

I consider my daughter beautiful but, as I told her last night, if she were green from head to toe I'd still think that.

Gerb said...

Erica and Jen, wouldn't it be wonderful if wisdom was the most valued commodity in our society? The tribe with no mirrors reminds me of something a wise lady told me once - you can view life through a window or a mirror, but the mirror reflects only yourself and you miss out on everything else.

Wendy, you're absolutely right, true beauty is what's inside, though a lot of us never get that far because we make judgments based on the outside.

Lauren, I've said the exact same thing to my daughters. :)

Alyson Noel said...

When I lived in Greece I was told that I was "too tall." As I'm five feet six and a half, but always longed to be five ten, I took it as a compliment- though it definitely was not meant as one!
A world without mirrors would be a wonderful place!
Great post!

Gerb said...

5'6 1/2" is too tall? That's interesting. I would never have thought of Greece as a place where height mattered. Now when we moved to Japan, that was another story. We assumed that everyone here would be short and that we would tower over them all. Not so. The older people tend to be quite a bit smaller, but among the general population, we don't stand out the way we thought we would. Height-wise, that is. We are obvious gaijins. : )

Brian Mandabach said...

I haven't read Westerfeld's stuff yet, but my middle school students have been devouring them. I appreciate this post, though, because I have been thinking about beauty for a long time. What people consider beautiful changes over time and across cultures as does the emphasis people put on it. It seems, with the proliferation of visual media, that we are now in an age that is obsessed with appearance to an unhealthy degree. I look at old video footage of singers and bands from the 1960's, for example, and it's obvious that many of them would never make it today.

I myself am a sucker for the glimmer of a pretty face. For instance, I love to look at Catherine Zeta Jones. But then I read about something she said, and I hate myself because I still like the way she looks. But that is part of the film star/celebrity issue.

With people I know, external beauty makes a strong impression at first, but it's importance fades as I come to know a person. The inverse may be true for inner beauty. But people are so complicated inside, that along with "beauty" there is "ugliness" as well. People are beautifully complex, I suppose, and while physical attractiveness turns my head with a kind of lust, love comes from knowing the entire person.

Next topic: Truth (with a capital T! ☺) lol

Unknown said...

You reminded me of a show that caught my eye while flipping through channels the other day. The talk show, hosted by Tyra Banks? Well, it was an episode about how different races view beauty. She had a white woman, a black woman, an asian woman, and a hispanic woman there. They showed things like the sillhouettes of people's bodies standing behind a screen and asked each woman which one their community would consider beautiful. The white and asian women said the stick-thin figure was most attractive, and the black and latina women both said that the two heavier people were more attractive. They went on through different characteristics, the same way--hair texture, facial features, etc. What one woman said her community would consider beautiful, that was sometimes really ugly to another. It was definitely interesting.

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