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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 December, 2003, 18:19 GMT
In the eye of the beholder?
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Cover of Indian Elle magazine
UK, Taiwan, India? Fashion magazines look increasingly similar

In areas of Nigeria, brides-to-be are sent to "fattening houses" so that they may look plump, and thus beautiful, on their wedding day.

To any Western woman who has struggled with one of the vast array of modern weight-loss plans so she may rejoice rather than recoil at her wedding snaps, tales of such institutions may sound like a cruel joke.

And yet while such gulfs in perceptions of beauty clearly still exist, increasingly, it is argued, women around the world are being presented with a homogenised standard of female loveliness - based primarily on Western attributes - which peers out from billboards from New York to New Delhi.

"It's definitely having an impact," says Lerato Moloi, a successful model in South Africa and former Face of Africa finalist who was dropped by New York agency Elite for allegedly being too fat.

"While Africans still prefer women to be fleshier than they do in the West, young girls here are increasingly concerned with being thin. The more exposed we are to western media, the more we buy into it."

No spots, please

Perceptions of basic facial attractiveness, for their part, do not appear to have changed dramatically down the centuries, unlike the ideal body mass.

It is true that we have no idea of what it was about Helen of Troy's face that enabled it to "launch a thousand ships", nor do we know what one of the world's most beautiful queens, Cleopatra, actually looked like.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
We can only guess what Cleopatra looked like
But the faces of Botticelli's women continue to draw admiration from around the world, more than 500 years after the Italian Renaissance painter put them to canvas: his subjects are widely seen as having a timeless beauty.

Art historians, anthropologists and human psychologists in general agree that it is the symmetry of a face, its perfect proportion, or indeed its averageness - where no feature stands out - that has consistently down the ages been deemed attractive.

Those who champion the evolutionary cause, who put all our instincts and preferences down to nature rather than nurture, see this desire for averageness as inextricably linked to finding a healthy partner with whom to reproduce.

Our aversion for example to facial markings and blemishes, the evolutionist argues, is motivated solely by the consistent desire to avoid taking up with a diseased mate.

But the argument becomes more difficult when it comes to explaining western preferences for the very thin, or China's former desire for binding feet to make them tiny, neither of which have any apparent benefit for mating capacities.

Botticelli's pale and almost paunchy Venus may look a more suitable mate in childbearing terms than today's super-skinny, super-tanned supermodels, but her friends today may also urge her to shed a few pounds.

We are what we eat

Perceptions of desirable body mass, it would appear, have a time-specific, cultural and economic dimension.

The attractiveness of larger women in early modern portraiture is at least in part explained by the notion that to be plump was to be well-nourished, which was to have wealth and status.

In a similar vein, pale skin was a sign that one did not have to spend one's time toiling outdoors. A tan in the modern era is evidence of leisure time and hence wealth, while a slim, toned body similarly provides testimony to status.

In areas of the world where food has become abundant, the division is not between those who have and do not have food.

Young girls in Africa are increasingly concerned with being thin - the more exposed we are to western media, the more we buy into it
Lerato Moloi
South African model
It is drawn between those who can afford high-quality food, and are sufficiently educated in the relative value of those products, and those who opt for cheap fatty junk foods, either out of ignorance or economic necessity.

Peter Stearns, author of Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, argues that America's obsession with thinness has stemmed in part from an increasing supply of food, but also from the growth of consumer culture and the redefinition of women's roles.

As other countries continue to develop along the same lines as the US, and increasingly consume Western media, they too may take on these ideals.

"There's pretty clear evidence that the impact of US and Western media and models will have increasing global repercussions around shared standards of beauty," says Professor Stearns.

"Look for example at the impact of the arrival of American TV shows on some of the more remote islands of the Pacific, which have led to increases in dieting and bulimia."

East meets West

But the fashion and beauty industry rejects the notion that an ideal is being imposed on impressionable women everywhere.

"We follow what the public wants very closely because it's not in our interests to give them something they don't want. You have to take into account cultural differences, different markets, different interests." says Gerald Marie, president of Elite Model Management.

"There is no one type - quite the opposite."

Nonita Kalra, the executive editor of the Indian edition of international fashion magazine Elle, similarly believes the power of the media in determining women's beauty aspirations should not be exaggerated.

But she does see in India, as in other fast developing countries, a growing interest in western standards of beauty - driven in part by increasing access to US media via satellite and an ensuing fascination for all things American.

Across Asia, creams which promise to turn brown skin fair are snapped up and products with a similar purpose are available in Africa, despite having been banned in a number of countries.

The advent of coloured contact lenses has also enabled the darker skinned to westernise their eyes.

"There is a global standard of beauty, and it is one which is very western influenced. But local ideals have not been forgotten - they live side-by-side," says Ms Kalra.

"When an Indian girl gets married, she goes for the totally traditional look. This is seen as equally beautiful. Indian women are able to admire Western models without becoming totally obsessed with looking like them."

Read a selection of your e-mails below.

There exists a tribe in remote Papa New Guinea where the females in order to become pregnant grow their hair long and float it in the current of a river in the direction of an Island were they believe that the sprits of young children come from. I think that this is one of the purest forms of female beauty I have ever heard about, it transcends all the profit making mind controlling madness of the fashion industry.
Damien Moran, Ireland

Beauty is imperfection. Imperfection is character. Character is individuality. Individuality is what you need to fall in Love. And someone you can fall in love with has the truest beauty of all.
Luke Tennant, England

I'm a researcher and recently completed an interesting paper on Globalization and Localization of Organisations, and am stunned on why I did not think of Globalization and Localization of beauty and perceptions. Well it's true, the market is getting homogenous in every form and no matter how much we deny, it's happening even in the human form. And the theory of Globalization with a flavour of localization will win even in the physical beauty in women as we have all seen the blends already. There is an undeniably trend of what beauty is and that is psychologically ingrained today with media influences into men and women and hence the global women.
Bysani Vijay, UK

Many so called beauties are definitely too thin and bony, but the current 'beauty enhancement' fad that really disgusts me is the lip thickening that has distorted so many attractive faces into pouting turn-offs! Where nature provides full lips the face is usually shaped to match. Enhance nature by removing blemishes, moles and marks and by the clever use of make-up by all means, but let's retain the multitudinous variety that God and nature provided, for variety IS the spice of life! - Vive la difference!
Bill Wyc, GB

Beauty to me is about having the right attitude towards the world and having sincerity, integrity and self-respect. Yet, women are unique in their own way and dare to challenge the others in order to maintain your principles and independence. They are very much involved in the well-beings in your community, your family, and yourself.
Chi-Ning, USA

If only globalization would stop bulldozing other people's cultures all this would stop. Women must stand up for themselves and their culture and realise that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and not decided by an editor in New York or Paris.
Barry Praag, Israel

The Western definition of beauty has always been somewhat commercially defined. The issue of underarm shaving in women (and increasingly so for men, perhaps) although it has no obvious effect on reproductive success, was merely a clever ploy hatched up by cosmetic companies in the sixties to sell more razors. Such paranoia multiplies, of course, with widespread and famous fashion magazines. And more telling as to why the definition of beauty has always been exclusively Western: who owns the biggest cosmetic companies and the famous fashion magazines?
Ian, Singapore

If they were all like my wife of 41 years the World would be a happy place.
Jonathan Bennett, England

I am heartily sick of seeing women in the media who look mass-produced. My strongest objection is that I am expected to find them 'beautiful' because they comply to a formula. If this becomes a global look, God help us.
Vic Bannister, UK

The promotion of thinness largely began with propaganda designed to support rationing in Europe during the Second World War. Although there had been a period of "thin" fashion in the 1920s, this did not actually affect many people until the 1940s promotion of the concept to a new generation. Most of our present day food fads can be traced back to the propaganda that today's European grandmothers were fed in their youth.
Andrew, UK

People of different cultures and/or nations should retain their individual flavours, after all in history so many perceptions and admirations were connected with individuality and difference. About the supermodels: what can be attractive in a young girl made to starve herself and looking bony rather then slim? Where are the soft curves of femininity? Where is the warmth and gentleness of the refined body? They have much more originality and beauty to offer, rather then surgically enhanced USA!
Yaroslavna Sundaram-Lasytsya, UK

Beauty is definitely not being skinny. Every person is gifted in some way or the other which makes them beautiful.
Anu, Botswana

I think it's despicable that any human being is judged on appearances. Women have always been judged on appearance, from year one and we still continue to live in the limbo of the stupid. Pageants, Ms World, Ms Universe...give me a break! What in hell does this all mean? How do those contests advance the culture, or change the lot of third world women, or of the morbidly obese women of the USA?
Mattie, USA

It's a great shame that everything is becoming so westernised, because cultural differences should be celebrated. Also, I think what most women don't realise is that there are a variety of different body shapes, and each one of them is equally beautiful. But they are only ever shown one of these body shapes by the media, so is it any wonder so many women strive for thinness?
Rhea, England

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