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Geography of Beauty

Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder, Based on Geography

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Hijab

In the predominantly Islamic Middle East, women are often expected to cover themselves for modesty. Many women cover their hair with a headscarf called a hijab, as shown here.

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
It is a common English idiom to say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that beauty is in the geography, as cultural ideals of beauty vary drastically by region. Interestingly, the local environment seems to play an important role in what is seen as beautiful.

Large Beauties

In the African nation of Mauritania, food is a scarce resource. Mauritania's climate is principally desert. Having a large wife traditionally meant that a woman is healthy enough to withstand a period of famine. From this environmental constraint, fat women grew to be the ideal of beauty, as the body mass of females in a male's care became a criterion of social standing and wealth.

Extreme forms of this practice includes sending young girls to fattening farms, called "gavages", alluding to their unfortunate similarity to French farms where geese are forcibly fed via sausage stuffers to create foie gras. Today, food is considerably less scarce, leading to many morbidly obese women in Mauritania.

As Western media continues to infiltrate Mauritanian society, cultural preferences for large women are dying out in exchange for a slimmer Western ideal.

Although Mauritania is an extreme example, this idea that large women are beautiful women are seen in other regions of the world where food is scarce and populations are susceptible to famine, such as Nigeria and rainforest cultures.

Flawless Skin

In East Asia, smooth and youthful skin is a primary criterion of beauty. Creams, lotions, and pills promising flawless skin are widely available. Compared to a typical American woman's skin care ritual, Asian skin care rituals are much more elaborate. The typical daily beauty regimen for an Asian women include general cleansing, application of toners, emulsions, serums, skin massages, treatments, eye creams, general skin creams, and moisturizers. Some Asian women go as far as to shave their entire faces, not for hair removal, but for the exfoliating effects of the razor.

Perhaps the most shocking facet of East Asian beauty is the fact that the male cosmetic industry is booming. In a society where flawless skin is considered an indicator of social success, South Korean males spend more on skin and makeup products that any other male population in the world. According to the Associated Press, this year's male South Korean beauty industry is expected to gross over US $850 million.

The trend for more feminine and pretty males in South Korea seems to be the result of an influx of Japanese cultural goods that portray male figures as romantic and effeminate.

Skin Lightening

In a multitude of cultures subjected to the harsh rays of the sun, having light skin meant that you were wealthy enough to pay someone else to toil in the rays of an unforgiving sun while you relaxed inside. An extreme example of this beauty ideal is seen in India.

With the southern portion if India residing in the Tropic of Cancer, India's close proximity to the equator has resulted in the characteristically dark skin tone of its citizens. India's infamous caste system, although based on birth and occupation, placed that vast majority of those with extremely dark skin into the lowest caste, classifying them as "undesirables" or "untouchables".

Although today the caste system is outlawed and it is prohibited to discriminate against someone based on his or her caste, the widespread beauty ideal of light skin is a subtle reminder of darker days. To feed this culture's obsession with light skin tones, a huge industry dedicated to lightening and skin bleaching creams flourishes in India.

Light of My Eyes

In the predominantly Islamic Middle East, women are often expected to cover themselves for modesty. Many women cover their hair with a headscarf called a hijab, or drape their entire bodies in a loosely fitted garment called a burka.

These coverings leave the eyes at the focus of the female's face, or in more extreme communities, only the eyes are left uncovered. These cultural and religious norms have led many predominantly Islamic countries to focus on eyes as the epitome of beauty. This fixation of eyes is an integral part of Arabic culture. Many idioms of the Arabic language center on the eyes, for example the Arabic equivalent of responding "My pleasure" when asked to do a favor roughly translates to "By the light of your eyes I will do it."

As Islam spread throughout the Middle East and into South Asia and Africa, it brought with it modesty practices for women such as the hijab and burka. With these new cultural norms, eyes likewise became the focal point of beauty in many of these cultures.

In addition, khol is an ancient eye cosmetic used not only in the Middle East but also in Africa and South Asia. It is said that it was worn around the eye to protect from vision damage from the sun's harsh rays, as these areas where khol is used regularly are very near to the equator and thus receive a lot of direct energy from the sun. Eventually, khol became used as as an ancient form eyeliner and mascara to line and accentuate the eyes, and still used in many places today.

What is beautiful is often not exactly a universal concept. What is seen as beautiful and attractive in one culture is seen as unhealthy and undesirable in another. Like so many other topics, the question of what is beautiful is intricately intertwined with geography.

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