This report was done for a Womens and Gender Studies course. We were to explain our thoughts and opinions, as well as report findings, on a question relating to women or gender that has no “real” answer.
In various American dictionaries beauty is defined differently, but they all generally agree that it means something along the lines of being attractive, appealing, alluring, and charming. In a broad sense, it can be any or all things or even thoughts, concepts or ideas that appeal to the senses. A particular dictionary even goes as far as to give the definition of beauty as a very attractive or seductive looking woman.
Am I beautiful? This is one question that most likely everyone will ask themselves at some point in their life. But can we ever really give ourselves a true answer? If so, what and who defines what beauty is? There are answers to these questions, though the answers may not be very validated by facts, but more by opinions. There is also the question of when did people start becoming so dependent on the idea of their own physical beauty. To most, beauty is defined by a stereotype of what has been learned by our society. Therefore, the definition of what defines beauty is different in most societies. I’ve taken a closer look at the stereotypical “beautiful woman” from different countries around the world to really understand how beauty is viewed in different societies. .
Only 2 percent of 3,200 women surveyed from 10 countries — including the United States — would consider describing themselves as beautiful, according to a new Harvard University study, “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report.” Women see themselves as cute, average or natural looking, but almost never beautiful.
A society very different from our own is the Islamic society. Islam is a religion that pervades all areas of life for a Muslim, whether this is national in politics, social in the community or private in the home. The teachings in the Qur’an express God’s will for all humankind, revealed from the Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of God. Beauty is considered to be a divine quality and is shown through such things as Islamic art and architecture. “Beauty itself, therefore, is believed to emerge from spirituality and to guide the inner qualities of peace, harmony and equilibrium in artistic manifestations of the Islamic religion”. Criteria for female beauty can be seen to derive directly from Islamic understandings of femininity, revealed by Allah in the Qur’an. Women are expected to be silent, immobile and obedient. Her gaze must also be lowered, and not show her beauty to anyone except her husband.
Clothing wise, women must cover their entire bodies, except for the face and hands. Head-to-toe garments worn by women include the Burqua, Chador, and Hijab. Her clothing must be very loose fitting with no tightness at all. They should also never be transparent by any means. Even more astoundingly they should never be so glamorous that they attract the opposite sex.
A particular incident that I have read about shocked me. I could not believe that the issue of beauty and the amount of the female body being covered or lack there of could turn into such a battle. During the staging of the 2002 Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria, violence broke out and exposed the difference of the understanding of beauty in the West with that of Muslims under Islam. Gamal Nkrumah, a reporter, wrote in The Al-Ahram Weekly, “Beauty is only skin deep, but in Nigeria, it has assumed such profoundness that in the preparations to stage an international beauty queen pageant an estimated 250 lives were lost because of sectarian violence”. Women of these countries, where the Islamic religion is practiced, are starting to come out more with their emotions towards the concept of ideal beauty. They are starting to realize that everyone’s idea of beauty can be different, and some feel that they should not have to be covered from head-to-toe to be beautiful. Another pageant example is from the 2003 Miss Earth Contest, where Vida Samadzai was the first Afghan entrant in an international beauty competition in the past thirty years. The downside though is that Fazel Ahmad Manawi, the deputy head of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, warned her that she could face prosecution if she returned to her native country. Her crime? Wearing a red bikini. Opposite of that, judges at the contest, awarded her a newly created ‘beauty for a cause’ award. She was awarded this because they thought she was symbolizing a newfound confidence, courage and spirit of today’s women and “representing the victory of women’s rights and various social, personal and religious struggles.
Another country that has very non-Western influenced view of beauty is Africa. The beauty of African women has been described as raw, wild, sensual, sexual, and exotic. There is a saying in Ghana that “the thicker and heavier, the richer and more attractive a woman is. As well as being more marriageable and fertile she is.” Like Ghana, may other African countries have the same concept of beauty for women. A heavier set body with apparent curves is the ideal, and cherished by men of that these countries. An example is from the Calabari people in southeastern Nigeria, where fat has traditionally held a cherished place. Before their weddings, brides are sent to fattening farms, where their caretakers feed them huge amounts of food and massage them into rounder shapes. After weeks inside the fattening farms, the big brides are finally let out and paraded in the village square.
For many years people of African descent have struggled with the ideals of black beauty as reflected by a Western gaze. Historically, to many European observers, black characteristics were not seen as beautiful. Their hair was seen as too kinky and too short; black lips, thighs and behinds were too large; and, of course black skin was too black. Black looks were contrasted to a white ideal, and a Western fascination and distaste for black features found expression in many ways, for example in an 18th century exhibition in Europe of a Southern African “Hottentot Venus”. Her body shape and proportions were perceived as freakish and worthy of circus display because of her larger backside and bosom.
In a world dominated by Western values, it’s no wonder that blacks, along with other non-Western cultures find themselves beginning to internalize white standards of beauty and to want a European aesthetic. The battle for black beauty has been a long one, and through the ages black people have both responded to white expectations and struggled to define their own standards of beauty. Because of this struggle, black women have begun to have a preoccupation with manipulating their appearance to be more of an American aesthetic. This has fueled lucrative businesses and influenced social movements in the black communities, whether they be in Africa itself, or within African Americans.
Beauty in the United States is not like that of any other country. There is a lot of pressure from American society to be beautiful. It seems like who we are depends on how beautiful we are. Here we are so exposed to the mass media and images of other women. The image of what is thought of as beautiful is being pushed upon us by promotion and advertising. For example we as women are bombarded with many more images of flawless women -from TV commercials to billboards to magazine ads. This is the root of the stereotypical “beautiful” woman has stemmed from. The question though is, is flawless beautiful? And what defines flawless? The number one component seems to be weight. America has become obsessed with a thin, lean body being the ideal image. Hannah Khoury, who grew up in Sierra Leone and now lives in Atlanta, is dismayed by society’s obsession with thinness. “What Americans see as beautiful would not pass in Africa. Here, you have to be real thin, and in Africa, they would not get a second look. Women like that look sickly,” Khoury said.
Because of the mass advertising here in America we see” beautiful” people everywhere. When we open a magazine, we never see an overweight woman on the first page. Instead we see a woman who is 23% skinnier than the average American woman. Advertisers show stunning models living the perfect life to try and entice us into buying their product. They give the illusion that if we buy their product, we will become beautiful and have the desired life. Advertisements don’t try to get us to buy a product so that we will be better people; they sell products because we can be beautiful if we own them. For example, while flipping through the pages of Cosmopolitan there is an advertisement promoting a foundation make-up. This is demonstrated by a face, which has no acne, lengthy eyelashes, thin, perfectly colored lips, and finely plucked eyebrows. We question, “Is this the face we are supposed to strive for?” “Is this what is considered beautiful?” As individuals, we seem to buy into this concept. We strive to fit the description of beauty that society has set for us. We buy the right clothes and cosmetic products. Many of us work out obsessively, and others even develop eating disorders. We are trying to mold ourselves into the outlines for physical attraction society has set for us. For some unknown reason there is something in all of us that feels the need to be beautiful.
Many problems have been raised with today’s youth in America because of this need to feel beautiful. The eating disorder rates have increased severely and cosmetic plastic surgery is becoming more and more popular. Adults and especially young adults are being pressured by the media to have that ideal body type that is being advertised, but at the same time most of our society does not have the body structure to appear that thin. Women are striving for this body image because it is portrayed as the more socially acceptable and beautiful image. Does beauty lead to or create happiness? Maybe…but more than likely is does not.