Beauty is a highly subjective concept, with different ideas and standards of beauty prevalent in different cultures around the world. The Greek philosopher Plato talked about an Ideal Form of beauty that all beautiful things in the world somehow resembled. But in different places, the Ideal Form of human beauty has some definite and distinct variations.
In the US and in much of Europe, for example, the ideal physical shape for a woman is to be very thin with large breasts. But in other countries, thinness is actually the opposite of ideal. In Mauritania, adolescent girls are force-fed by their families so that they grow heavy curves. The heavier and curvier the woman, the more marriageable she becomes. In South Africa, a mid-level of weight is desired, neither too heavy nor too thin. As a side effect of the AIDS epidemic, an excessively thin figure is seen as a sign of illness, so having a midrange weight is seen as a sign of health. In much of the Caribbean region, it’s considered attractive to have a rounder figure, the better to shake while dancing.
Another area of difference in cultural perceptions of beauty is in skin tone. In the US, tanned skin is considered beautiful and healthy, a sign of either a leisurely life by the poolside or an active life pursuing various outdoor sports. In many other countries, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, paler skin is considered much more beautiful because it is a sign of aristocracy, of not having to work outside on the land. As a result, plenty of women in the US spend money on bronzing solutions or self-tanning creams, and in other parts of the world women spend money on skin-lightening creams. In each case, women are trying to bring themselves closer to the ideal.
A third area of difference in beauty standards is in facial features. In most places, highly symmetrical features are considered beautiful, but beyond that point of commonality are a host of differences. The main differences tend to relate to noses, probably because the nose is the central and most prominent feature of the face. In the US, a fairly small nose with straight or aquiline lines is considered beautiful, but in many African cultures a broader and somewhat flatter nose is considered to be more attractive. In addition to shape, the placement of the nose on the face also affects perceptions of beauty. In the US, a nose that starts on level with the crease of the eyelids or slightly above is considered more beautiful, but in Brazil, a nose that is placed slightly lower on the face is considered to be more attractive.
In many places, people who feel that they do not live up to their culture’s standards for ideal beauty will choose cosmetic surgery to bring their features more in line with what their society finds attractive. In the US, breast augmentations are a prevalent way for women to enhance their appearance, as is liposuction to achieve a slender silhouette. Because US culture often values a youthful appearance, facelifts are becoming popular among the fifty-and-up crowd. Nose jobs are also frequent surgical procedures, which in the US usually involve bringing the nose more in tune with the small shape and straight lines considered to be ideal. Finally, in South Korea, a number of young women get eyelid surgery to achieve the double eyelid crease and round shape typical of Western movie stars.
No matter where we come from, each of us is in some way affected by our culture’s standard for ideal beauty. Whether or not we believe in Plato’s Ideal Form of Beauty, we know that to some extent each culture has an ideal against which all beauty is measured. But because beauty standards vary so much between cultures, we truly are able to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no matter where you are.
Jamie Northrop is a medical writer from California. She is particularly well-versed in plastic surgery techniques, and writes about rhinoplasty, breast augmentation, and face-lifts for Dr. David Bray, Jr.,