Culturally-Defined or Universally-Defined Beauty and the Beast?

When asked to define beauty, what comes to mind? Perhaps a woman with pearly, white teeth and long, flowing locks. But, is it ever considered what someone nearby may consider beautiful? How about someone across the globe? Their definitions of beauty could be entirely different. And if everyone defines someone beautiful differently, is there really one definition at all? No. There are countless ways to define beauty.

Cultural definitions of beautiful women change from country to country. The Kayan tribe of Thailand believe super-long necks make women look more beautiful and will begin wearing stacks of brass rings around their neck at the age of five to elongate them. In Mauritanian culture, women are lauded for gaining weight and are more desirable as wives when they’re heaver rather than skinny. Rather than focusing on weight or the length of women’s necks, the Maori people of New Zealand consider women with tattooed lips and chins the most beautiful. If women in America had super-long necks, were a heavier size, or had tattoos on their face, they would not be defined as beautiful. Women with these attributes would be compared to a giraffe, told to go on a diet, and considered “trashy”. Ideas of beauty from around the world are completely different.

In an experiment to see how different cultures around the world define beautiful, journalist Esther Honig sent a picture of herself to twenty designers around the world asking them to transform her using photoshop to reflect their culture’s idea of beauty. The results were telling. In the picture edited by an American designer, Honig was given bright blue eyes, thin, sculpted eyebrows, and long hair that fell nearly to her waist. However, in the picture edited by an Israeli designer, her eyes were darker, her eyebrows were made thicker, and her hair remained pulled back tight in a bun. These two representations of cultural definitions of beauty were very different, so how can there be just one way to define someone beautiful? There can’t. Finding a universal definition of beautiful is impossible when describing.

Gad Saad, Ph. D., states in his article “Beauty: Culture-Specific or Universally Defined?,” that “Social constructivists, who are strong proponents of the blank slate premise of the human mind, have repeatedly argued that there are no universal metrics of beauty (as was the case in Dr. Albers’ latest post). . . I am afraid that this is a grossly incomplete and incorrect perspective.” He also goes on to recognize that certain attributes (such as clear skin, symmetrical faces, and high cheekbones) are considered beautiful across many cultures. Universally accepted qualities such as these promote the fact that there can be one way to define beauty. However, there are even more forces going against that belief. Certain cultures, like the Mauritanian women I recognized earlier, consider bigger women to be more beautiful, but in others, stick-thin women are the epitome of beauty. Surma and Mursi women of Ethiopia wear large plates to stretch out their bottom lips to an unearthly length. This and many other strange, abstract ideas of beauty around the world would not be the beauty ideal in the majority of other cultures. Therefore, the definition of beauty changes depending on the culture and is not universally defined.

If there are different ideas of beauty all over the world, there can’t just be one definition. Classifying someone as beautiful in America is not the same as classifying someone as beautiful across the globe, so how can there ever be only one way to define beauty if everyone disagrees on who is and isn’t beautiful? Beauty is different to everyone everywhere, and therefore can’t be defined as one thing.