Bruk is the managing editor of Brooklyn Exposed, and
has written for Salon, VICE, Nerve
and many other magazines. You can follow her on twitter @BrukDiana.
would a man want a woman with small feet?” asked one befuddled
Indonesian man, “How would she work in the rice fields?”
This was the preoccupation of one of the participants in a recent
study on human sexuality by University of Washington anthropologist
Geoff Kushnick. While most countries espouse the notion that
smaller, daintier feet are more feminine and attractive on a
woman, Kushnick found that rural areas of Indonesia both men
and women have an aesthetic preference for the hard-earned bulk
of a nice thick foot. This research is significant because it
suggests that our concept of beauty isn’t -- as some evolutionary
psychologists insist -- hardwired purely to reproductive potential,
but is also heavily influenced by cultural and environmental
fact is that, whether we like it or not, scientists studying
embodiments of beauty from hundreds of different cultures throughout
history have proven that there is some standard of beauty, one
that goes back to when the first caveman saw the first cavewoman
from atop a wooly mammoth and thought “I’m going
to impregnate that girl.” We like a waist-to-hip ratio
of 0.7, for example, because it’s optimal for childbearing.
We like lustrous hair and healthy nails because they indicate
that we’re not about to drop dead.
yet, of course there are standards of beauty that differ from
one culture to another. In the Kairo tribe of Ethiopia, women
scar their bodies in intricate patters in order to attract males.
In West Africa, being overweight is more physically desirable
because it’s a sign of wealth. And yet, perhaps this isn’t
a surprise, given that these are areas of the world that don’t
have direct access to Keeping Up With the Kardashians
and are therefore untainted by culturally external depictions
the most interesting aspect of the study on Indonesians found
that the greatest predictor of whether a country preferred large
feet or small had to do not with its ecological environment
or patriarchal values, but with how much exposure the area had
to Western media.
dominant role in movie-making means that international beauty
standards are geared largely toward what we like in the US.
While pale skin is considered beautiful in most of Asia, for
example, it’s becoming increasingly popular to lighten
one’s hair and suntan one’s skin a la Los Angeles.
In Korea and Japan, the most common form of plastic surgery
is one that transforms their characteristic eye shape into a
more Westernized double lid. And those who can't afford pricey
plastic surgery often buy rat-trap contraptions to massage their
noses into being thinner, or roll cans of soda over their legs
to reduce the size of their calves (and warm up their drinks).
my mother, who grew up in the Soviet Union during an era of
intense distrust between the two nations, recalls the giddiness
with which she and her friends obtained their first pair of
jeans on the black market, so they too could exude all the sexy,
high-rise mommy pants splendour of their American counterparts.
yet, I’m hard-pressed to think of an example of America
appropriating (long-term) the beauty trends from another country.
Certainly, there are fashion trends that transatlantically transport
themselves: the Australian Uggs and French berets and African
beads. But I’ve never walked into a room and seen someone
trying to manually elongate their neck or stretch our their
earlobes or thicken their calves, and I can only imagine that
this is because cinema -- the source of immortal glamour --
stems largely from America, where at least five Hollywood blockbusters
play for every local flick.
we move into an increasingly globalized society, I can’t
help but wonder if we’re moving into an increasingly standardized
understanding of beauty, and whether (for the near future at
least) America will continue playing a dominant role in determining
exactly what that standard is. The Internet has provided a means
of conveying images of beauty all around the world -- and if
a more homogenous standard of beauty is related to exposure
to Western media, then it seems the rapid rise of the Internet
will do nothing but further this trend. In 15 years -- or even
five years -- many areas that are cut off from technology today
certainly won't be. The real question is whether this will further
current beauty trends or if the Internet will radically alter
the diversity of beauty we're exposed to. No longer do you need
to be a Hollywood actress to have your image seen all around
the world -- you just need a Tumblr.