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What Is Considered Beauty in Different Parts of the World?

By Rachel Burt
Edited by Jessica Miller 

I recently saw a documentary called The Human Face, starring Elizabeth Hurley, on BBC about beauty; strangely, when countless of people were asked to define female beauty in a study, no one seemed to have a clear answer. The documentary reveals that most people concurred that symmetry defined beauty but beyond that there was not much agreement. 

What Is Beauty?
Models From India, Holland, Morocco and Sudan

To make matters even more interesting, symmetrical proportions have changed throughout decades, e.g., compare a curvaceous Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s to a heroin skinny Kate Moss in the 1990s. Moreover, can beauty be defined by body shape and age? Who decides? 

Supermodel Kate Moss (1990s)
and American Icon Marilyn Monroe (1950s)

Beware that in the West, there is a multi-billion dollar fashion and beauty industry for which there are legions of people working countless of hours to suede the public to worship particular physical attributes. Moreover, even in the West, the definition of beauty has changed drastically since the 1980s when black supermodels like Veronica Webb (signed with Revlon in 1992), Naomi Campbell (appeared on the cover of British Vogue in 1987) and Tyra Banks (booked for 25 fashion shows for the Paris Fashion Week in 1991) began to take front stage with major beauty and fashion household names.

1997 Revlon "In the Flesh" ad. featuring Veronica Webb, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, and Kara Young
What is Beauty? With Supermodels: Beverly Peele, Carla Bruni, Kristen McMenamy, Naomi Campbell, Emma Sjoberg, Linda Evangelista, Angelika Kallio, Helena Christensen, Marpessa Hennink, Karen Mulder, Veronica Webb & Unknowns with Gianni Versace (in the early 1990s)
Perhaps the more interesting question, especially as the world becomes more flat with the advent of social media, what do various cultures across the globe consider beautiful?  For instance, how does beauty vary in China v. the United States? Let's take a look...


I remember when I was in China, I saw many beauty products to protect your skin from sun exposure and even beauty products that whiten your skin and even make it pale. Perhaps the phrase "skin as white as snow" from Snow White comes to mind when thinking of what an average Asian considers to be a key element of beauty. 

Interestingly, while in China, I bought a lotion and unknowingly after using it on my face a few times found out that the lotion contained bleach. In effect, the lotion was peeling off my sun-tanned skin. Locals shared with me that pale skin was considered beautiful because paleness was associated with the West and with a particular socio-economic class, whom did not have to slave away on farms.  A part of me thought that it was ironic that pale skin was associated with the United States because countless of Anglo-Americans used tanning beds to achieve that bronze "beautiful" look. 

Beauty in Asia: Pale Skin 


Kayans are a sub-group of the Red Karen people, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority in Burma, that measure a woman's beauty according to her neck length. She places brass rings around her neck as she ages. As women there grow older, they increase the number  the number of rings, which gives off the appearance of an elongated neck. This is beauty in Burma.


In India, long hair and light skin define beauty. On the top, add excessive jewelry and lots of bright colored saris, and you have an ideal setting for a Bollywood movie.  In fact, the most popular Bollywood stars such as Aishwarya Rai -- a former Miss World -- look more white than Indian. Perhaps this is a remnant of India's colonial past when the country was ruled by the British Empire, in which the ruling elite were Anglo-Saxon fair skinned Europeans. Even today, many young girls in India are discouraged from spending too much time in the sun lest their skin turn several shades darker. 

Miss Universe/Indian Actress: Aishwarya Rai
Indian Supermodel Lakshmi Menon
The Arab World

While traveling through Morocco, I noticed that beauty here has to do with what one does not see rather than what is visible to the naked eye. Covered from head to toe in fabrics and extravagant jewelry is what makes a woman desirable in this part of the world. Clothes and jewels aside, thick eyebrows and long hair are features that make a woman very beautiful. Large eyes with bold contouring is what gives these ladies a very exotic look. 


Since Africa is populous, i.e., around 1.033 billion people recorded in 2011, beauty varies from region to region. However, I will say that I discovered that in some tribes being heavy is what is  considered beautiful because plumpness is associated with prosperity, i.e., the woman has the financial means to indulge in whatever her heart desires. Secondly, another interesting feature, which serves as a desirable accessory, is a lip plate.  In certain parts of Africa, e.g., Surma, Ethiopia, as part of tradition, females have their lower lips cut. Right before tying the knot, the bigger the lip, the smoother the dowery negotiation between two families. 

Lastly, a controversial question that looms over much of Africa: is black beutiful? In South Africa, this has been a hotly debated topic as the local musician Nomasonto "Mshoza" Mnisi says in an interview with BBC that her new skin, now several shades lighter, makes her more beautiful and confident. In fact, according to a recent study by the University of Cape Town, one in three women in South Africa bleaches their skin. Bleaching skin is not just an issue that is specific to Africa; the skin-lightening industry is expected to reach $2 billion this year, with the fastest growing markets in China, Japan and India. (Personally, I hope that beauties like the Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek have influenced the public opinion that black means gorgeous!) 

Alek Wek: 
From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel 

Western World

Standards for beauty range from decade to decade; as I mentioned before, symmetry is the most desirable trait when beauty is defined by scientists and plastic surgeons in the West. Today, supermodels, who are skinny, tall, with white-straight teeth, and smooth-long hair define beauty and perfection in the mass media. Women, including supermodels, undergo extreme measures, e.g., implants, teeth whitening, hair extensions, stringent diets and fitness routines, and professional hair and makeup to be considered "beautiful" by general societal standards. 

Dutch Supermodel Doutzen Kroes
Beauty Standard: blond with tanned-bronzed skin 
With all of this research, it seems that beauty does not have a clear definition. It is a concept that is molded by traditions, culture, history, and even corporations looking to capitalize on everything beauty related. To me, on the exterior, beauty is definitely diversity in color, shapes and sizes; on the interior, beauty is your spark that lights the dimmest room.

Plus Size Beauties 


Saya said...

Beauty is really just in the heart!

Unknown said...

Doesn't matter where you come from, if you're black, white, yellow or even green lol, beauty is that little something called "charme" in France that you have to be born with no matter whare you're from. That"s really true, not just a humanitarian speech...

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Working My Way to MY Goal said...

I don't like the fact that the ladies at the end of the reading all have clothes on accept for the African American woman. What's up with that? I don't like that they are portrayed in that way. Black women should not be viewed as just sexual instruments rather respected for who and what we look like. Not fair that she was exploited in that manner... :(

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