Monday, April 2, 2012

A to Z: Beauty's in the eye of the (cultural) beholder

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There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of themselves in various styles.

What is beauty? What makes someone beautiful?

Before you jump up like the eager teacher's pet and shout out, "their soul", let me specify: we're sticking to physical beauty today. Call me superficial. Just for the sake of argument, today it's all about the shell and not the meaty and savory oyster flesh, ok?

A woman, for instance. Blonde or brunette? Tall or short? Thin? Fat? Big boobs, tiny waist? Long legs? Tiny feet? Shiny straight hair, a mass of curls? Dark eyes, colored?

Some of these things can be bought--a box of dye in the supermarket, a trip to a third-world country for surgery, the latest starving regimen, a set of contact lenses. I, for one, am like Dove--a fan of the natural, a cheerleader for authenticity, an enemy of aesthetic surgery. But I won't judge if you're not, and I applaud anyone that takes matters into their own hands to make changes they sincerely believe will make their life better. We can get into the psychology of that some other time, if you want.

My point today is about beauty... About the definition of beauty. In the West, ever since the Greeks, we've had a certain image, a certain standard, a set of attributes that, together, define beauty for us. But the West is a very small part of the world, and there are other definitions--that's what interests me.

Whereas it's been acceptable on this side of the world for girls to starve themselves, do serious--and permanent--damage to their health, in order to be socially beautiful, there are cultures where overweight is considered attractive--because it's a mark of wealth, of leisure. Some cultures consider piercings barbaric, self-mutilation--but in Mexico it's standard practice to have girl newborns' ears pierced on their first day of life. In many countries a tattoo is a stigma, something to be hidden--but in the South Pacific, tattoos are not just a symbol of maturity and adulthood, but they also beautify their bearers, make them more desirable to the opposite sex.

These dichotomies are more common than we think; they're everywhere, and they're not just cultural. The definition of beauty varies also among social strata, communities, even families. What we find attractive is almost as personal as the kind of underwear we like, or the way we brush our teeth. Still, there are certain cultural traits that make some physical characteristics more attractive--in general--to people of a certain environment than others. Case in point--super models.

Here's a bit of food for thought: female beauty is the one that is usually discussed or argued or agreed upon. The female ideal of beauty is one we're all familiar with, and thanks to the last twenty years, with global exchanges becoming more and more common, it's become almost universal--blond hair, green or blue eyes, tall and slim, bosomy, shapely. Yeah--the Barbie.

But--what about Ken?

What about male beauty? Maybe you'll argue there is no such thing as male beauty, that men aren't supposed to be beautiful. Ok, fine--my bad choice of words. Let's talk about male appeal, then. What makes a man appealing? Does that vary from culture to culture too, like female appeal?

Where I come from, where men are usually not very tall, and they're dark-skinned and dark-eyed, where the dominant hair color is dark, too, blond tall men are considered very attractive. But throw one of those stocky well-muscled dark loverboys into the midst of American female tourists, say in Cancun or Acapulco (the dive instructor?), and the short spiny-haired runt becomes Adonis.

Are we attracted to the different, the special, the unique?

Still, I believe that there's an intrinsic difference between male and female appeal. I believe female "perfection" is important for men (and for women, too, but let's leave that out of the equation for the time being), whereas male "perfection" isn't quite so important for women. Why do I believe this? Because, at the risk of sounding totally sexist, I think attraction begins differently for the sexes. The attraction organ of men is the eye.

For women, it's the ear.

What do you think?


  1. Nice post, Gulie! I think most of us like to trust that beauty (physical kind) is subjective and based on each person's tastes. However (as you pointed out), society and group perceptions definitely play a role. There are also oodles of psychological influences.

    We will naturally be more attracted to people who look like those we are fond of. That's why so many people end up marrying people with similar physical characteristics of their parents. (We do it on the emotional side as well.)

    We will also be more attracted to people who share unique life events/stages with us as well. Lots of interesting studies on attraction between people who've been involved in traumatic events together. Again, it works on the emotional and physical levels.

    Just fascinating stuff! Me personally? Eclecticism rules the day. I've been attracted to blondes, brunettes, redheads, tall, short, brown-eyed, green-eyed--basically all kinds of women. Although I have noticed my own personal data is a bit skewed toward brunettes. : )

    New follower, and it's really nice to meet you.


  2. Lovely post, Guilie!

    Beauty is such a relative term.

  3. I did not know that about the ear versus the eye, but it's absolutely fascinating!

  4. Great choice for B. Beauty is a huge subject, but you've shown different aspects wonderfully. I think beauty and attraction go hand in hand, but I also oogle beautiful women without thinking anything dirty. I guess it depends on WHY I'm oogling them! :)

  5. I couldn't agree with you more. As a matter of fact, I've always felt that about men and women. However, instead of the ear for women I've said it's the mind. Nice post.

  6. An interesting post. I believe in male beauty! :-) sigh! But at the risk of being linched, I hate all the overblown muscle-men. LOL

  7. I find certain men beautiful. But a man can be scarred and retain his attraction. I've heard that's because it shows he can defend his mate.

  8. How true, Guilie. You know your beauty well! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Well said. I love the different ways you've looked at beauty here. Great 'B' post.

  10. Nice piece, Guilie. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

  11. Oh boy, I remember having so many discussions of what beauty is with my mother. What's interesting about beauty is what you may have considered beautiful as a young person versus what you might consider beautiful today. Is Marilyn Monroe beautiful or kitschy? Was Garbo beautiful or merely handsome?

    1. So true, Rebeca--it's not just cultural but also age-related, and era-related. The busty full figures of the fifties are soooo not "in vogue" now (thank God, haha).

    2. I feel like that may be coming back in some ways, though, although here in the US thinness still rules all. The pin-up look is pretty popular in certain circles, though...

  12. This was an interesting post on B for Beauty. I don't know about anyone else but I think smell is the significant sense for me. I have a highly sensitive sense of smell and a bad scent is like a force-field, as far as I'm concerned. Happy A to Z Challenge.

    1. Smell! That's one I didn't think of, Elaine, but you're so right--it's terribly important. Thanks for joining the conversation and sharing your point of view!

  13. You always have the most intriguing posts, Guilie :) I don't think the notion of beauty is ever truly fixed, rather I think we constantly adapt as we are influenced by our cultures, our cities, our schools, our careers, our neighbours, everything we experience. You mentioned a stocky, well-muscled dark lover boy in amongst some blonde American tourists... a perfect example of how even something like a vacation can open up a new road of what can be beautiful/attractive that a person may not have even considered before.

    I dearly hope you find your little cat soon :(


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