Ideals of feminine beauty: neck rings, bridal tattoos, fat farms

by Brittany Gasper

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Despite misquotation, Plato famously spoke of the inability to define beauty. A woman’s culture declares the ideals of her beauty to the point that some societies oppose each other.

In the United States, many women consider a tan to imply sun-kissed, healthy skin. Citizens of Southeast Asia consider pale skin so beautiful consumers rarely find cosmetics without whitening agents. Despite government attempts to control the growing market, one research survey estimates four in every 10 women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan use whitening cream.

A beautiful woman’s skin has diverse interpretations throughout the world. Pakistan, Northern Libya and North India consider “mehndi” or henna to have “Barakah” blessings and apply it for luck, joy and beauty.

Bridal henna, the most traditional use of the art, consists of inking the bride in complex patterns to support her greatest joy and wishes for luck. In some Middle Eastern countries such as Yemen, the henna process can take up to four or five days to complete. This fashion has grown in recent years with new innovations in the use of glitter, gold powder and fine-lines.

Some cultures emulate beauty through body modification. The women of the Karen Padaung tribe of Burma wear multiple brass rings around their necks, arms and legs as a sign of female beauty and status. Starting at the age of 5 or 6, a girl’s bone structure, from clavicle to chin, holds the wrapped rings in place. Each passing year brings an additional ring that lengthens the neck. An ideal woman wears 37 brass rings around her neck.

For some, a woman’s Waist-Hip-Ratio (WHR) leads to measurements of an ideal body shape. A woman can calculate her WHR by dividing her waist measurement by that of her hips. Research has shown the WHR of any woman of any build strongly relates to her attractiveness. Men from North America and European cultures consider women with a WHR of 0.7 to be most beautiful. Famous beauty icons with this WHR include Angelina Jolie, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and the statue Venus de Milo.

Preference of a woman’s WHR varies from culture to culture. The most attractive women in Asia have a WHR of 0.6, while ideal women in Africa and South America have a WHR of 0.8 or 0.9.

The African country of Mauritania finds a higher WHR (less definition between waist and hip) to be so beautiful that the population reveres obesity. In a country that sees fat as a sign of wealth, Mauritanian girls receive more food than boys. At ages as early as 7, families send girls to “fat farms” where they gorge on foods such as dates and couscous three times a day. However, men now insist they would rather their wives have natural bodies instead of force-fed ones.

No one can define beauty. Neck rings and fat farms, skin tones and tattoos. Each culture, despite its differences, manages to create a beautiful whole.

Brittany Gasper is a junior at St. Bonaventure University majoring in journalism and mass communication.

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1 reply »

  1. I’ve always found this subject fascinating, especially, as a historian, how these trends change over time and are transmitted from one generation to another. Most often the practices are passed down among the women as a rite of passage or part of growing up. In many cultures it can be one of the few means of dominance that women have–it can give them a sense of power and and authority over other human beings.

    Footbinding and corsetting were 2 examples of this. Both would be started at an early age when the bones were still flexible and small. Girls would be strapped into the bindings or corsets at an early age, often by their mothers. Mothers would take great pride in the smallness of the waist or foot: it was often an indication of a child well-raised–obedient and submissive. Women would judge each other on those same characteristics and (in the case of arranged marriages) select brides based partially on those traits.

    Nice piece!