Beauty, depending on where you live

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 27 November

I still find it very sad that the first Filipino words I learned were “malaking ilong.” I kept hearing those words repeatedly as I walked around Manila’s giant shopping malls in my very first days of living in the country. When I asked what they meant, a friend told me the sad truth in full agony and embarrassment: big nose.

I have never been under the illusion that I had the world’s most conservative and miniscule nose, but until that point in my life it was never a public exclamation or excitement. What caused me to emerge in a real-life Cyrano de Bergerac role was the fact that Filipinos, no offence, do not tend to have proper noses – proper as defined in this part of the world.

The positive side of it was that I could have made it to a basketball team in the country, as my height, which was normal for us, was rather exceptional there. In fact, twice, random pregnant women pinched my back site on the streets, due to the belief that if they did so their children would also be tall like me. I always laughed thinking, “They did not see the malaking ilong as they approached me from my back, that would be my revenge!”

These funny exchanges signal a much more complex issue of how our perceptions of beauty are shaped by our cultural and geographical location, if not orientation.

I always found it amusing to see the excessive money spent and great lengths gone by some Asian women to lighten the color of their skin, and at the same time to see my British friends go great lengths with fake tanning and torturously long sun bathing to darken their skin color, just a bit for a day or two.

Similarly, I get puzzled by seeing increasing obsession in the West with size zero, if not the closest to that “ideal,” and at the same time listening to the comments of my African and Polynesian male friends on how thin Western women won’t make it as suitable brides in their countries, and how my Middle Eastern and Latino friends love their curves.

What can be seen as most mundane in one country, e.g. blond hair in Scandinavia, can be seen as an extremely attractive feature somewhere else, e.g. a blond Scandinavian woman in Turkey.

Obviously, these are tongue-in-cheek over-generalizations. Yet, they draw our attention to something much deeper than what meets the eye. It seems, that just like we travel between different time zones, there are invisible lines that separate different perceptions of beauty and attractiveness across the world.

This challenges the conventional wisdom that beauty is a subjective judgment of the individual and that it is in the eye of the individual beholder. Somehow, collectives produce and then internalize descriptions of a “desirable woman.” Thus, the beholder is looking at its object through the limited angle and lenses provided by his or her culture, not simply out of personal taste. So, we learn “beauty,” just as we learn what is a “good life.”

The realization that beauty, and thus personal conformity pressures we face, has strong social conditioning can be liberating. The first thing that comes to my mind is the fun strategy of moving to another “beauty zone” if the one you are in is stressing you, just like people move to warmer climates.

If you feel your nose is too big and people laugh at you in East Asia, move to Central Asia and the Middle East. If you feel your looks are just plain and common, move to the far end of the world, where your hair color or skin complexion is rare. If you feel a bit too conscious about the extra pounds you have put on as the years go by and if the Western culture is causing you to have nightmares, pack your bags to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. You won’t regret it.

The second thing is of course an assuring realization that most people are lead to feel horrible about themselves by the aggressive assertions of their cultures. It is indeed heartbreaking to see eating disorders haunting 14-year-old girls who think that they are “too fat,” and it is similarly heartbreaking to see an olive-skinned Asian trying to look “white” as a statement of social status.

This does not need to be! All across centuries and across different cultures we have been shaped to confirm into shapes and behaviors that were presented to us as what it means to be beautiful and worthy. Yet, long gone are the days since Chinese women had to wear iron shoes to keep their feet small, or British women had to cover their faces with that ghostly white powder.

Being exposed to another culture and its perception of beauty helps us to see the bizarreness of what we are exposed to as the “plain truth” in our own home culture; hopefully, leading to a much more mature and confident self-actualization, if not the first flight to a different beauty zone.