What is beauty?

Amal Chatterjee
11 min readNov 9, 2021

Source : Google photo of the beauty the whole world appreciates

Synopsis : Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder as the cliché goes but true beauty is universal as exemplified by Miss Spain who was judged to be the Miss World. However different people have their own ideas about beauty and will go any length to promote it so this blog looks at the notion of beauty among different people.

Note : This blog is the new updated version of it published 5 years ago.

Human beings are obsessed with this question since they evolved from their primitive life so long ago and always disagree when it comes to define what beauty is. People say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder so if you are the beholder and happen to be a strict orthodox Moslem or Jew then your definition of beauty will be wildly different from someone in another society. So how people define beauty essentially depends upon his religion, his ethnic background, his cultural background, his tribal heritage, his customs and taboos, his upbringing and lastly his education and social awareness.

The Caucasians for example like women with strong and pointed jaws and call such women beautiful while in Asia a woman with softer facial features, oval face and almond shaped eyes would be considered beautiful so there is no standard that is universally agreed upon because there is a strong cultural bias involved when it comes to calling someone beautiful. This cultural bias is inherent in all cultures because people are taught from their childhood what should be or not considered as beautiful and are loathe to accept anything contrary to their beliefs.

There was a time in China when a woman with very small feet was considered very beautiful so they bound their feet from their childhood very tightly .It resulted in agonizing pain all through their miserable lives because walking became so painful due to the enormous deformity that feet binding caused yet the practice continued until Mao Tse Tung banned it forever. You may not like Mao Tse Tung because he was such a monster in his personal life yet he did something good by declaring that men and women are equal and this abominable practice of binding the feet must stop. Some time it takes a strong person of ruthless courage and audacity to dictate to people who must give up certain practices that are inhuman and so painful.

I remember Kamal Ataturk who banned the practice of wearing Turkish Fez and veils for women in Turkey that was a very traditional Moslem country so women for the first time in their life felt the freedom from the oppressive veils that their men forced upon them and have never looked back since then. Turkey is considered to be one of the few Moslem countries where the women have been able to liberate themselves from the past taboos and norms through education and asking for equal rights thanks to Kamal Ataturk setting up an example of moderation that other less liberated women can aspire to. But Mao Tse Tung and Kamal Ataturk were called revolutionaries for a reason who decided that men must not judge women and dictate to them what they should or should not do and left a lasting legacy that changed their nation. Fidel Castro is another such legend who changed Cuba forever through his bold moves to make women equal to men in every way possible.

I include now a video on what is considered beautiful in different countries that you may not totally agree with but in each culture, people decide what is beautiful and what is not so some of them go to extreme measures as shown in the video to make themselves beautiful.

Source : U Tube video

When we come back to the notion of what is beautiful, we come back again to people who paint themselves into a corner in defining what is and who is beautiful so two people will never agree on this subject. Dark people crave for lighter skin and fair people roast themselves in body tanning beds with ultra violet rays even if it is known to cause skin cancer. Women lie naked in beaches around the world to get a tan even if it is known to cause cancer. You will read in the Indian newspapers matrimony section any day the ads for a bride who has wheat complexion by which they mean a woman of fair skin although some wheat varieties are quite brown in color.

In Burma the tribal women wear neck rings from a young age to extend their necks because long necks are considered beautiful by their men. They do it by adding rings each year that press down the collar bone with their weight and deform it permanently. The pity is that they can never take the brass rings off because the extended neck would collapse without it and bring about a quick death. In Africa especially in the Southern part of Ethiopia and Somalia, there are tribes that consider women with lip disks beautiful so these poor women cut their lips and insert a flat disk in it that they gradually increase in size over the years. I still do not understand how they can eat or drink anything with such disks on their face but the tradition continues.

Source : Google photo of an African woman with braided hair.

In other parts of Africa, the Dinka people in South Sudan consider their women pretty who wear facial scars. These scars are made by cutting the skin regularly and putting on the poultice of herbal paste to heal it. Some tribes wear the scars on their face and body to distinguish themselves from other tribes who may develop a different pattern of scars like cattle branding in some countries. Among the Fulanis of West Africa, men wear make up with paint, beads and other means to attract females during festivals where women gather to select their mates. This is not so different from the birds that try to attract females with colorful plumage or by decorating nests with feathers and pebbles.

You will notice that in the animal kingdom, usually it is the male that is more beautiful and gorgeous than the females where the males fight it out to win their mates. The females then get to choose the strongest and healthiest males who will then sire genetically strong offspring. Now it is scientifically proven that humans do the same although it is done subconsciously. When a man looks at a woman for the first time, he checks out how wide is her hips and how tall she is, how large her breasts are etc. because he is wired to think that way in order to decide if the woman will produce healthy kids. Women too are genetically wired to think of their male partners from the point of view of breeding although it may sound a bit crude but such are the laws of nature that guide us through this process even without us realizing it consciously. They are impressed by the tall, athletic looking male with broad shoulders, narrow hips and strong physique. This is called the first impression that may lead to some patent pick up phrases men like to use to impress the girl.

But in all societies, they place more emphasis on female beauty than on male so it is a boon to the industry that produces mind boggling array of products that will turn an ugly woman into a beautiful one instantly. There are creams to whiten the skin, creams to make the breasts bigger and fuller, elevator shoes to make a woman taller when nothing else works, hair colors of numerous shades , special bras to uplift the breasts, special jeans ( at a special price for a limited time) to hide the bulges. So women low in self esteem fall for these gimmicks and have helped make the cosmetics a multibillion dollar industry worldwide. These snake oil peddlers see no limit to their income as long as some women feel that they are ugly and need their dubious products. The TV is full of commercials of this type of ads 24, 7 so you can imagine its effect on people.

We know from the history books that Cleopatra took a milk bath in a gold bath tub everyday to make her skin soft and beautiful but she was a beautiful woman albeit vain as most women are but don’t worry . The cosmetics industry has something better at a cheaper price. Who said women are not suckers? The traditional society depends more on its resources than the commercial products because of economics so it is a practice among the Hindus for example to scrub a woman with a paste of milk cream and turmeric before the all too important marriage interview. They swear by their Holy book that it works and turns dark skinned and unlovely women into someone more presentable. If they fail the interview then they must try again such are the rules of the traditional society.

The western woman on the other hand is more gullible to the snake oil peddlers and will try anything to look better. It may include Botox injection or cosmetic surgeries or who knows what else? The wise people say that a beautiful woman does not need Botox or surgery to look better but it falls on deaf ears of women who think they are not pretty and want to improve their looks by cosmetics and clothes. Women more than men are influenced by what others think of them and not by what they think of themselves. Then there is peer pressure. If wearing very tight shorts cut to the crotch is the fashion then they all run to buy the shorts. If wearing jeans cut in shreds at the knee is the fashion then they buy such jeans and the razor blades. No woman wants to be accused of not being in tune with the current fashion be it the hair color, tight shorts or shredded jeans. The fashion is a fad worldwide but like all fads, it changes every now and then.

I see this craze here in the Philippines where some women over 60 forget their age and wear inappropriate clothing that are more suitable for teen agers and even go to church like that to the dismay of the padres. A great deal of what you see as fashion starts overseas somewhere and is brought to you through the TV and the movies so it becomes the thing to do unless one wants to be labeled as old fashioned and not with the current vogue.

Source : Google photo of an African woman of Fulani tribe in Mali

Now let us go back to the tribal societies of Africa and try to understand why they do what they do to make the women look pretty and what is it they consider pretty. Again it all comes down to what men think of them because their make ups, beads and paints are meant to impress their potential mates so it is more biological than anything else. They did not have the beads before the Westerners came to “discover” their land and the tribes. The traders brought with them beads, paints and mirrors, clothes, trinkets and tools and lastly guns so that the tribes could massacre each other paving the way for the whites to settle on their land. So the tribes used seeds of plants to make necklace, natural colors made from plants and earth to paint their body, animal teeth as decorations, animal hides to make clothes and women braided their hairs. This braiding is an art and time consuming but it does make a woman look very pretty. You only have to see how the Malian women braid their hair in so complicated and beautiful ways.

Source : Google photo of hair braiding in Mali

Our daughter was so impressed when she went to Zambia that she had her hair braided the African way that took her hours to untangle later but such is the price women pay to look pretty. I am not talking about cutting the skin to develop scars because that is too extreme but there are ways a woman can look better without spending a lot of money. The African women know this so they go for the intricate hair styles that do not cost money but a lot of time. They say they have all the time in the world so who is complaining?

Source : Google photo of women with henna design

Another thing women in some countries do is to paint their hands and face with henna to look pretty. In India henna is known since a long time but you have to see the Egyptian or the Sudanese women how artfully they paint their hands. It is also used widely among the women in the Middle East when they are at peace which is seldom. Then there are the nose piercing, ear piercing and belly button piercing that many women do to wear ornaments. The hippies started even piercing their eye brows and put rings there but what do they know?

The puritanical societies in the United States still look down on any kind of piercing and are shocked if their daughters pierce their ears and wear rings. As I have written earlier, the likes and dislikes are rooted in their beliefs, their tribal customs, their upbringing and many other things so what is considered beautiful in one country may not be considered so in another. I am partial to women who have oval face, soft jaw bones, almond shaped eyes that are big and expressive , good skin, tall, black lustrous hair that is long and well groomed, good posture, long neck (without the rings) and regal poise. Only Amparo Munoz comes close. I do not consider Hollywood movie stars pretty although some have sunny personalities but then I may be biased in favor of Asian or Middle eastern women because I was brought up to appreciate beauty in women in a certain way only.

So my last word on this topic is what makes a woman beautiful is not necessarily her pretty face and all the other attributes that I mentioned earlier but her inner beauty that shines through if she is a loving, caring, moral, very educated, with empathy for others, not vain, not selfish, helpful, generous, gifted with artistic abilities, sharp mind and a loving heart. Such a woman is a lovely woman anywhere.

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