Let’s try an experiment. When I say the word ‘beautiful’, what comes to mind? Probably a scenery or a montage of sunsets?
What comes to mind when I say ‘beautiful person’? Fair skin? Dark skin? Thin nose? Almond eyes? Hourglass figure for a woman? A ripped physique for a man?
Have you ever wondered the reason behind why the image you thought of came to your mind?
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘beauty’ as a quality that gives pleasure to the senses and the mind. While what we perceive as beautiful has been ascertained as subjective, ironically, there’s always a society ideal of beauty that everyone feels the need to fit in.
Just take a look at the past winners of the Miss and Mr India beauty pageant. –
Just from a single glance, you can tell that most of them look alike with similar features. The people who fit in these beauty standards are awarded for having genes that they had no hand in contributing to and the others get the message that unless they conform to such beauty ideals they might not be fully accepted. Society conditions the mind in such a way that one thinks that only one face or one image can fit the definition of ‘beauty’.
Different cultures have different beauty standards for men and women that have been influenced by a whole lot of factors and have changed consistently over time but interestingly enough there has been no point in history where everyone was thought to be pretty and appealing. Let us take a look at the different beauty standards today for all genders.
South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka etc have all been under colonial rule for aeons. First the Mughals and then the British. Thus ‘fair skin’ was associated with superiority and power over the ‘tanned brown skin’ of the indigenous people. In the Indian subcontinent upper castes have been depicted with lighter skin while lower castes are attributed with darker skin tones. This has even had an effect on mass media where Bollywood heroes and heroines have pale ‘attractive’ skin and antagonists or villains have dark skin as a representation of their souls. Matrimonial advertisements begin with skin colour rather than age and qualifications. ‘Wheatish’ is the word used to describe skin tones of South Asian origin.
The south asian beauty standard for women today is fair or medium complexioned skin with a narrow waist, full red lips and long black hair that is either straight or wavy.
The south asian beauty standard for men is less rigid and more vague today where men are expected to be tall, muscular with a full head of hair. Notice that society perceives ‘tall and dark’ as handsome for a man but dark skin for women is a complete no no.
East Asian ideals
The newfound fame of the asian entertainment industry like Kpop, Kdramas, Cdramas (Chinese dramas) and Jdramas (Japanese dramas) have shed light on the beauty ideals from countries like China, Japan, Korea
Women are expected to have pale skin (whitewashing skin is a common practice) with tall and slim figures. Big eyes with double eyelids, a tiny nose with a high nose bridge, and rosebud lips makes one the ideal woman. Such stringent beauty standards have led South Korea to have the highest rate of cosmetic surgery today.
Men are expected to be tall, sharp jawlines with defined cheekbones, pale skin and a leaner physique.
Black men and women
From having a tragic history in the slave trade to present horrors of racial discrimination and hate crimes, black people and African countries have had the biggest negative impact of having darker skin.
Black women are expected to have a ‘coca cola’ body, curvaceous hips, big features on the face, thick and black hair with messy curls or an ‘afro’
Black men are associated with a strong, muscular physique, rugged hair and big eyes.
Western beauty standards have not changed for a long time. They have influenced many cultures with their idea of beauty. Nazi Germany declared Aryans to be the superior race on the basis of their paler skin. This beauty ideal is probably what comes to everyone’s mind when we say ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome’
Women are expected to have pale skin, sharp features, blue or green eyes with blonde and straight hair.
Men too are expected to have pale skin and pale eyes but a muscular physique with blonde or brown hair.
Do you notice any similarities between the beauty standards between different cultures? NOPE. Humans come in different races and colours and it is impossible to fit them under one umbrella and call them supposedly ‘beautiful’. Everybody looks different and that fact must be celebrated.
Beauty Standards for the Queer and Non-binary
Gender is now widely accepted to be a fluid concept and for people who do not identify as one of the genders or have transitioned from one gender to another find beauty to be even more confusing and restricting.
Trans women have given accounts of using makeup, clothes, and hormones to [pass as] women. However, many said that they had difficulties in passing as a “pretty girl” or “beautiful woman” within the confines of archetypal White femininity, which was seen as the ideal, because of the “confines or bounds” of the “physical body”.
Society pressures these people to stick to the ideals of one gender and labelling them as ‘outcasts’ if they do not conform.
The old saying goes that ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’ then why do we allow society to rigidly define something that is completely subjective and fluid? Beauty is everywhere and in everyone, we are the dumb ones who fail to recognize it. A person’s colour, shape, features is unique which is what makes us ‘human’