How do beauty standards differ globally?

Alice Vagun, Editor in Chief

Cultural differences are often represented by varied perceptions of body image. Statesman explores how one nation’ s values towards phsycial appearance differ from another country’s through characteristics and clothing and how this may impact social hierarchies.

Freelance journalist Esther Honig had one simple request when she sent out an unedited photo of herself to several contractors in over 25 countries: “Make me beautiful.”

On June 24, 2014, her project, “Before & After,” which used photoshop to explore the concept of beauty on a global scale, went viral. Countries like the United States, Argentina, Germany, Pakistan and more answered back with tanner skin, longer lashes, different eye colors and even thinned out figures in an attempt to make her beautiful. The diverse images that Honig received back led to an obvious conclusion— the standards of beauty varies from culture to culture.

From Morocco, Honig received an image that stuck out from the rest of the countries— she was covered in a hijab. A hijab, or a headscarf, is primarily worn by Muslim women in public. While some may believe that the hijab is used a symbol of oppression, others, including hijabis— women who wear the hijab—disagree. For hijabi Amina Moheddin ’15, it is indeed quite the opposite.

“I don’t want anyone to think [the hijab] is a sign of oppression. It is true that in some parts of the world, the women are oppressed,” Moheddin said. “But, the majority of Islam is not oppressive to women and to me, [the hijab] a sign of liberty. It’s very free and I feel in control of my own body.”

While in a few Islamic countries, it is mandatory by law to wear the hijab, other Muslim women choose to wear it for their own reasons. Moheddin’s choice stemmed from her belief that people should be treated on their character, not on how they look like.

“[By wearing the hijab,] you’re taking back what is rightfully yours, which is your beauty,” Moheddin said. “You’re not allowing other people to impose on you their standards [of beauty.]”

In a study published in the “British Journal of Psychology,” a survey of nearly 600 Muslim women—all ranging from never wearing the hijab to regularly wearing it— suggested that the hijab actually promoted a healthier body image.

Led by psychologist Viren Swami, the hijab was found to actually offer some protection against the body dissatisfaction that seems to worry Western women. Despite the different notions in how body image is perceived, Moheddin still believes the Middle East share some beauty standards with the Western world.

“The more rare a certain beauty feature is [in a culture], the more attractive it looks,” Moheddin said.

In societies like India, where a majority of the population is dark-skinned, the $600 million industry of skin lightening has brought into question whether or not this new trend has came about because of a Western influence, or Indian cultural tradition.

Regarding beauty as a social construct, Gregory Sherwin, social studies teacher, believes the varying standards of beauty are tied to the traditions and beliefs within each respective culture.

“The higher caste members tended to be a lighter skin tone, which dates back to the Aryans who conquered India 5,000 years ago. As you move to the south of India, people who speak Dravidian languages tend to have darker skin pigmentation. This divide was racial and used for the caste system,” Sherwin said.

What is found in India right now is that many people are purchasing skin lightening cream to be “beautiful.”  Part of this is due to the legacy of the caste system and the ideas of beauty in Indian society in part might also be due to globalization and the idea of Western beauty ideals, Sherwin added.

In the past summer, India’s Advertising Standards Council had to set new guidelines to have beauty companies abandon discriminatory portrayals of dark-skinned Indian women in skin lightening product commercials.

“I try to show my students the different standards of beauty throughout the world. What [my students] see is people undergoing transformation of their bodies to make them look ‘beautiful.’ It seems painful to outsiders, yet what the students fail to see is how they undergo the same pain to transform their bodies,” Sherwin said.

While some transformations can be applying on a simple skin lightening cream, other cultures have gone as far as going under the knife.

In some East Asian countries, the plastic surgery industry is booming, with South Korea leading with the most procedures done, according to a 2010 report by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. While a majority of the procedures, such as eyelid surgery and jaw reconstruction, lead to a more Western appearance, Ashley Chai ’15 believes that certain beauty standards are more rooted in the culture, rather than the influence of Eurocentrism.

Like in the Indian caste system, Chai shares that in Chinese culture, lighter skin signifies that a person does not do manual labor, and therefore are of a higher social status.

However, Chai still believes that there are some aspects of Western influence on the standards of beauty in East Asian cultures. Over the past summer, those effects led her to create a three-piece art series at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“The first part was me painting my hair blonde to adhere to Western standard of beauty. Another girl erased her skin tone to make herself appear white or pale. In the last piece, another boy cut his eyelid to represent a more Western shape,” Chai said.

While Chai views beauty as a combination of  physical attractiveness and aspects of a well rounded personality, she believes one should find themselves comfortable in their own skin, rather than adjusting to cultural norms or other expectations.

Projects like “Before & After” have clearly reveal ed that there are varying standards of beauty between cultures. However,  Sherwin worries that in an era of global communication, we may be moving towards a global standard of beauty—with the “Hollywood standard” setting the example.

From Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss, the most popular and admired models or celebrities have remained significantly thinner than the average American woman.

“I always tell my students, ‘Be aware that society has created these standards. Know that advertisers are preying on your fears—and then choose, ” Sherwin said. “If you know that and choose to achieve it, it’s fine. Knowing is the key. Know that you are being manipulated and that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder and that there is no set standard.”