This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Fifth Web Papers
The Cultural Implications of Beauty
"Human beauty is a reflection of cultural perceptions and ideas of aesthetics are indigenous to that area." (13)
"Beauty is not one's own, but a reflection of one's culture." (46)
The conclusion of our beauty class ended on a topic that I was really interested in and wanted to explore further. The cultural implications of beauty are prominent in every culture and have a strong influence on the way women are perceived. Across the world, different cultural perceptions uphold an ideal of beauty that is linked to sexual appeal and social status. The purpose of beauty is the feeling and consequences from being beautiful. In ancient cultures, according to Julian Robinson, "the enhancement and beautifying of the human form by various means appeared to be an inborn human trait-an essential part of our genetic makeup and an expression of our psyche."(13)
Both genders are aware of the societal need to embellish them, in order achieve something that is closer to the ideal. In general, the appeal of beauty is to attract a sexual partner or attain a higher status in society. My interest in the cultural implications of beauty stems from my background of being a 2nd generation Indian living in the United States with a very traditional upbringing that has influenced my view on what is beauty, and why it is so. I conducted research on fellow Bryn Mawr College female undergraduates to try and comprehend how the different cultures and religions of the participants reflect their stance on beauty. I interviewed seven undergraduates who have different cultural, religious, living backgrounds that would provide a wide spectrum of responses. The questions were focused on how their culture influences their idea, feelings and acceptance of beauty.
I. The process of beauty
We have all endured some sort of process to beautify ourselves, and in each culture the process varies, but the purpose for most women is to be considered sexually attractive. Robinsons makes a valid point, that "human beauty is an expression of this inventive and aesthetic nature, a reflection of our inner sprit, a biological imperative sculpted into our soul by some seemingly godlike life force, about which we can do little except accept its reality and validity."(31) Although some reject beauty as a powerful tool, it is pervasive in all environments can be paid for with a price.
As women, we undergo many transformations to be a beautiful woman, and although the changers are costly, painful the end result is a work of art. In the past five thousand years, the quest for beauty has changed significantly but they have the same purpose, to show off material wealth, social position, authority, and flaunt sexual appeal. "We have a desire to be more sexually attractive and this causes us to aesthetically alter how we appear, and as we become more aroused by our beauty we desire sexual activity from another human."(30)
II. What is beauty?
Based on our class discussion and my cultural beliefs, I think beauty is being desired by the opposite sex, even if not conforming to the ideal. "It has always been well understood that the desire to be united with another human whom we perceive to be attractive-even if this union is only a fleeting fantasy- is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgment of beauty is influenced by it."(25) The desire to be admired by another person, in a sexual aspect drives women to perform beautifying tasks and changing their form. In all cultures, clothing and jewelry styles have sexual overtones and we use these packages to cover our nude bodies to appear more sexually attractive. In fact, the nude body is seen to be the most beautiful thing because it captivates and seduces others and ourselves without adornment.
The results from the survey question, "Is there an idea of beauty that is accepted all over the world; are there variations?" were not surprising. Most of the participant said they found symmetry, slender, proportionate, and thinness to be beautiful characteristics. One participant who originated from India and was born in the United States believes that "true inner beauty reflects outer beauty, but for most people, beauty is superficial." Her answer is culturally influenced; the Indian culture believes beauty to be a fleeting and artificial, but rather the personality and charm to be beautiful and long lasting.
III. The Nude
Both the Eastern and Western cultures have very contrasting definitions of public nudity and the nude figure. Robinson in his research states that "Although Western cultures have a "marked phobia about nakedness" (23) Westerners have not lost respect for some attributes of the naked body, even when they redesign some body parts to cover the genitalia. But it is when the nude figure comes out publicly on display that both Eastern and Western cultures consider it distasteful. "Because of our religious and cultural traditions we are not accustomed to observing the naked body as it really is, in all its various shapes"(24)
The women surveyed were in consensus that the public nudity is unattractive, unacceptable and uncomfortable when confronted with it. One participant says, "Because we are raised to always cover ourselves, we see nudity as wrong," However, when asked about cultural ideas of nudity, the participants reasoned that it is not admired in either culture. It is not admired because of the sexual instincts that are associated with a "pure form", and when someone is gazing at a naked body it is out of sexual pleasure. Kenneth Clark in The Nude writes, "No nude, however abstract should fail to arouse in the spectator some erotic feeling"(25) Despite the differences in cultural beliefs, both hemispheres have an aversion to public nudity and the nude figure unless displayed in an inanimate manner e.g. a painting, sculpture, temple idols, ukiyo-e prints, and carvings.
IV. Western Cultural Ideals
My survey asked, "Do you know what the Western ideal of beauty is?" The answers to this questions exemplified how strong culture is tied to our ideas, one Caucasian stated a natural looking glow, and big breasted, one Jewish stated straight-edge classic, and an Indian said white features- small nose that turns up, tall, thin and with few curves. They proceeded to give examples, like Gwyneth Paltrow, Pamela Anderson, and Kate Bosworth- all white, famous, affluent actresses. Based on these answers, one can state that all races feel a Western ideal of beauty- a white, slender, sensual figure. Although I knew the Western ideal to be what these women stated, I didn't think that two women would have written the same actress or felt the same characteristics to be the Western ideal. This further proves that regardless of our religion, ethnicity, and cultural background the Western notion of beauty will always be in our minds and is used as a comparison tool.
However, I do believe Robinson's claim that "each cultural group has invented the ideals and symbols it needs to reflect its natural peculiarities."(28) The Western culture applauds women who are tan, tall and slender, have large breasts small waists, and delicate features. Most of the Western ideals originated from early artist's rendition that depicted women in plumpness and opulence, which was made these women appear rich because they could afford to eat more food than thinner women.
V. Eastern Cultural Ideals
In this paper, I confirmed that the ideals of beauty are related to what each individual desires sexually. However, in Eastern cultures where sex is not discussed, their ideals differ very much because of this. For example in India, "women naturally have full bosoms and waists, they have persuaded the men that this conformation is the highest degree of perfection, they have also worked themselves into the same belief."(28) The ideal is not based on sexual attraction but rather what is appealing in society, hence nudity is looked down upon even more so. Despite this, the ideal of Eastern cultures based on the Caucasian surveyed students is considered more subtle, cherished, and have sensual, delicate features. But the Indian students polled think the Eastern ideal is voluptuous, curvaceous, big eyes and strong noses. Both Asian races that were interviewed, Korean-American and Indian-American felt the influence of a Western ideal of beauty- undergoing plastic surgery to attain that perfect upturned nose, larger blue and green eyes, and luscious lips as one participant writes.
Robinson found it difficult to define one Eastern cultural ideal because of the influence of Western culture and the varying process of beauty evolution. The evolution has been closer to a Western ideal. He says, "The ideals of the industrialized world are rapidly spreading through these remote areas- affecting the way of life and the sensibility of all, regardless of skin, their religious beliefs, or their cultural heritage. I have observed many business men from Sri Lanka who shave and prepare their hair in Western style, signifying their membership in the global village."(49) The discrepancy between the Caucasian and Asian students interviewed stem from their racial background. The Caucasian students see a European look as being the Eastern ideal because they arrived from Europe, where the Asian students see East and South Asian curves, average height, being the Eastern ideal.
VI. Religion and Beauty
For the Asian religions in the Eastern hemisphere, especially Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism, the pressure to treat beauty as a respectful and dignified attribute is repeated over and over in the religious texts. The surveyed students of Asian descent state that, "Hinduism suggests that beauty is demonstrated through a woman's actions and behaviors, and is admired more when reserved." Furthermore, it makes the Indian students view beauty on a different level, rather than for its material characteristics. However, for the Caucasian students, religions such as Christianity, Episcopalian and Judaism did not play a role in how they viewed beauty.
The religious idols and texts displayed in Western and religions have not been nude and the idols are fully clothed, signifying that beauty might not be found in religious idols but rather in the scriptures. Oppositely, Eastern religion idols are considered beautiful, especially when depicted in the nude because it is real and has to be revered because it is a religious being. The Kama Sutra which originated in India and the Bijinga painting styles from Japan, both painted a very beautiful depiction of women, and although it was in a sexual way they were considered religious because the beauty of the women were god-like.
Robinson sees a relation between what cultures find beautiful and the appearance of their Gods. "These forms of adornment are also the measure by which we judge other people. Many of us find it difficult to comprehend or accept the aesthetic merit or logic behind any form of apparel or adornment other than that which we currently admire within our society."(47) With this belief, both cultures can admire the beauty of what is displayed in their houses of worship, and use that admiration to define their cultural ideal of beauty. The Hindu goddesses are displayed as plump, round figures, and the male gods, which are in animal, or baby stages are nude, but shown innocently rather than as sexual objects.
VII. The relation between Sex and Beauty
Sex and beauty go hand in hand, especially when determining what the ideals are because Robinson says that sexual attraction influences what the cultures find attractive. Early Freud stated, "I have no doubt that the concept of beauty is rooted in the soil of sexual stimulation and signified originally that which was sexually exciting."(32) For cultures that are more open to consider sexual attraction as a basis for beauty, the study of Eastern sexual practices describe the "sex-sensual pathway to health and happiness has a beautifying effect and energy on the mind, body and beauty of participants."(32) This reaffirms the participant's belief that beauty comes from sexual desire and the men and women who are considered beautiful in all cultures are those that are wanted as sexual partners. Robinson says, "Without such regular sexual contact very few couples would stay together for very long, it is also this sexiness that seems to fuel our aesthetic sensibilities, it is also one of the main motivating forces behind our modes of beautification, experimenting with new and different ways to attract a mate."(36) The seeking of a mate helps prove that in all cultures, women and men go to great lengths to beautify themselves into that cultures ideal.
The women participants all felt that sex and beauty are intertwined, more so in the Western ideal, when beautiful women are displayed as sex symbols, for example runway models in scantily clad clothing or in magazine advertisements displaying bathing suit fashions. Even the Asian women surveyed felt the sexual influence of beauty in their culture, especially when Western advertisers have a pervasive sovereignty on the young generations of Asians. The women feel the effect of sexual pressure more strongly, because they see sexiness and beauty relating to, "healthiness, and the ability to successfully bear children, all the females had to was learn to woo these males with their beauty and they would be protected and given a greater chance of survival."(38)
VIII. Cultural influences on survey participants
The purpose of this paper was to investigate how cultural backgrounds, religion, and ethnicity influenced the ideals of beauty. Through my survey, I saw a consistent trend that explained how ubiquitous the Western ideal of beauty is all over the world and even in cultures that have little exposure to the pressure of advertisements. The Western ideal is what most women are striving to attain, it replaces their own ideal and this causes obstacles when ethnic women are not meant to biologically conform to the Western ideal. The seven women who were interviewed ranged from Episcopalian, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian to being Korean, Indian and Caucasian. The wide array helped me understand that women of different generations and locations have felt the globalization of a Western ideal- skinny, "white" features, tall, and non-curvaceous body.
Even Robinson saw this occur when researching Robert Brain's findings in The Decorated Body, "our current Western modes of beauty are far from average, they are not even products of natural evolution, but of astute marketing and industrialization. We in the industrialized world now live in what can best be described as a "beauty culture"- a culture that in many countries has virtually replaced religion. Western ideal of regulated beauty, where it is manufactured for mass consumption." (44) The mass consumption is taking places, in Eastern countries at a rapid rate and the end result is a perception of beauty that is not indigenous to that area, and is based on manufactured attributes.
Although I was only able to survey seven women, I think with more time I would have come across similar responses that prove a Western ideal to be the most coveted by women. The geographical divide between the Eastern and Western hemispheres permit beauty ideals that are opposites of each, however there is a Western influence felt today by civilizations and I think it helps cultures enjoy the beauty of others for the purpose of sexual enjoyment, which is what beauty is about.
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