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Beyond Universal Beauty Standards: Beauty In Different Cultures

A woman exemplifying universal beauty standards.
Universal beauty standards are present in every culture.

Beauty runs the world, or so it seems. Physical attractiveness affects us whether we are aware of it or not, especially in our highly visual generation.

But do universal beauty standards truly exist or is beauty just another social construct?

People from different walks of life and different generations all have something to say about what beauty is and its criteria. Some agree on what makes conventionally attractive people: facial symmetry, proportionate figure, big this, small that, all wrapped in the perfect skin color.

In our world today, the media has a powerful role in reinforcing these ideas and in convincing the rest of us to join the bandwagon. But we will always find contradictions and exceptions to these conventionally attractive examples especially when considering beauty standards in different cultures and generations.

Beauty Standards in Different Cultures

The Perfect Skin

The skin is the largest part of the body that we see, making it a person’s most noticeable feature, especially among women. But the question of which skin color is the most beautiful remains arguable. Americans and Europeans love to tan themselves, bathing under the sun all afternoon. On the other hand, most Asians– Indians, South Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinas included– aim for the coveted pale complexion, sustaining a multi-million dollar skin-whitening industry.

Besides color, however, most cultures do agree that smooth, soft skin is a top priority. South Korean skincare is sought after for its effects of a healthy, flawless, youthful glow. Westerners also agree, seeing unblemished wrinkle-free skin as a non-negotiable beauty standard.

Shape of You

Beauty comes in different shapes and sizes but certain cultures prefer one side of the spectrum over the other. Americans prefer tall, busty, but slender while Brazilians like their toned legs and curvy bottoms.

Pakistani, Thai, and other Asian countries would go for a slimmer figure, contrary to African countries like Mauritania and Nigeria, where the heavier side is traditionally attractive. For them, the more curves and weight you have, the better.

It’s All in the Hair

Women can also have different takes on their crowning glory. Many Asian countries, such as Japan, China, the Philippines, and India, admire long, straight, jet-black hair, as it is common among the population. Americans consider wavy or straight soft hair to be typically attractive, while the preference for blonde hair continues to stick around in countries such as Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Russia.

Make-up vs Natural Beauty

Many cultures prize the use of make-up to emphasize facial features such as the cheeks, eyes, and lips. Russians, Koreans, and Americans invest a lot in make-up products to enhance their beauty and spend a considerable amount of time painting themselves up before the mirror.

However, it is different for the French. They prefer the more natural, make-up-free beauty, or what they call “au naturel.” They “work” more on their effortless look, counting on their distinct and peculiar qualities that make for unconventional beauty.

Conventionally attractive people from different cultures
Society often sets the criteria for conventionally attractive people.

Unfair Advantages of Being Attractive

Though the perception of beauty can vary as we can see among cultures, it is still undeniable that beauty has a pull that gives attractive people an advantage of sorts.

For example, certain social experiments show how different reactions to people can vary according to their different levels of attractiveness. A choice among equally competitive applicants may boil down to who is most pleasing to look at. Also, people in general give more immediate attention to someone beautiful without even thinking about it.

No matter how objective we profess ourselves to be, we cannot escape the beauty factor that freely influences our thoughts and actions. So, is the victor in the battle between average-looking vs good-looking a no-brainer? Is there a monopoly of the universal beauty and will unfair advantages of being attractive continue in society?

Is Beauty a Social Construct?

This question on beauty can be better understood when we try to look more deeply into where our definition is coming from. Looking at beauty on the physical plane alone can explain how beauty is a social construct. Each society can vary because of racial differences, pressures, and influences.

Moreover, the dominant tier of society, most notably those who have media, political, and economic control, have the means to mold beauty standards. We are bombarded by their propaganda day in and out through advertisements and ideologies that tell us this skin color will make us happy or that waistline will get us the man of our dreams.

Subject to their unavoidable influence, most people tend to subscribe to such idealistic beauty with or without conscious agreement or comprehension. Society can be a strong current that we don’t always have a chance to challenge but rather find ourselves tolerating or worse, blindly following. This is often the case with our perception of beauty.

A woman smiling sweetly
We need to go beyond idealistic beauty to recognize beauty at its fullness.

More than what Meets the Eye

Beauty is also present beyond the physical realm. Although it necessarily passes through our sight, a person’s physical attributes could never capture the entirety of the beauty that one beholds.

While one may just be seemingly looking at another’s physical appearance, other less evident factors such as emotional, intellectual, and psychological factors are also present and influence the beauty we see in a person.

In reality, we are not only affected by what we see physically but by the totality of the person we encounter. This may account for the nuances of the beauty observed and experienced in a person and results in the differences in beauty perception.

This is because a person’s soft contours may be accompanied by gentle actions. A sweet face frames a kind and generous heart. And one’s attractive, glowing appearance is often a reflection of a noble and cheerful character. These internal attributes are what observed beauty substantially points to and what gives it a more complete definition.

Beauty is an ever-present reality that is simultaneously a mystery. It is one of the forces in the universe that cannot be easily explained or resisted. Even though we try to grasp it with our universal beauty standards, there is more to beauty than what meets the eye. It is important to go beyond ‘attraction-at-first-sight’ to recognize beauty in all its fullness and realize that it’s possible to find it in everyone.

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