The Burden of Beauty
In response to reducing sales and controversy regarding the psychological harm done to little girls, the manufacturing giant Mattel decided to launch a line of Barbie-dolls representing all the world’s races a couple of years back. Mentioning how consumer surveys show that women have a tendency to gravitate towards a product when it reflects a ‘body ideal’ they most identify with, Alice Chilcott of Varsity says,
“Mattel presents its new model, the ‘Average Barbie’, as a response to the evolution of American beauty ideals. A cynical translation of this might be that Mattel has realized that there is profit to be made out of making women feel good about themselves.”
The head of the Barbie brand, Evelyn Mazzocco, told Time,
“The millennial mom is a small part of our consumer base, but werecognize that she’s the future. I do all kinds of things for my kids that they don’t like or understand, from telling them to do their homework to eating their vegetables. This is very similar. It’s my responsibility to make sure that they have inclusivity in their lives even if it doesn’t register for them.”
The decision brings into the foreground the question about the vital role that the culture of beauty plays in our lives, not just from a psychological point of view but from a social perspective as well. It highlights how women have always had a ‘necessary’ compulsion to conform to near-impossible ideals of beauty. There is after all an entire list of women who have been in the media spot-light simply because they resemble the Barbie-doll. The latest of these would be the 16 year old Lolita Richi from Kiev, who tells the Daily Mirror,
“I think I’ve achieved this image better than anyone else…people have openly told me that they’re jealous of me and of how good I look.”
The Ukranian model Valerie Lukyanova is perhaps the most infamous of the lot. In an interview with GQ writer Michael Idov, she admits that her waist is a result of an entirely liquid diet. On being questioned about her opinion on plastic surgeries, she said, “Everyone fixes up their face if it’s not ideal, you know?…For example, a Russian marries an Armenian, they have a kid, a cute girl, but she has her dad’s nose. She goes and files it down a little, and it’s all good. Ethnicities are mixing now, so there’s degeneration, and it didn’t used to be like that. Remember how many beautiful women there were in the 1950s and 1960s, without any surgery? And now, thanks to degeneration, we have this.” Jenny Lee of Austin in Texas has undergone 59 cosmetic treatments to transform her look into that of a Barbie’s. The list indeed goes on.
These women are not strange at all. The commercialization of beauty paradigms has always existed, contributing to the perpetuation of a custom of following society-made prototypes. For instance, women in the West were not known to shave their armpits until 1915, when a Harper’s Bazaar advertisement endorsed removing ‘objectionable’ hair from the underarms. The plastic surgeries of these human Barbie-dolls are really very ‘normal’ considering that they are but conforming to a ‘normative’ tradition that has pervaded the whole world across time and cultures. Let’s look at a few societies.
In Mauritania, where fat women are a status symbol, there are ‘fat farms’ where young school girls are sent to be force-fed (to sickness, if need be) and made to ingest highly harmful medications in order to acquire a “beautiful” body shape. While the practice is somewhat dying down, the regional influence of the Al-Qaida means that there is an insistence on following traditional lifestyles. While activists Mariam Mint Ahmed are fighting to increase awareness of the danger of these practices, the battle looks like an uphill one.
Women of the Kayan tribe in Thailand wear neck-rings made of brass to elongate their necks. These rings are put in place when the girls are around 5 years old and the numbers increase with growing age. The idea is to push down the shoulders to give the desired effect of having long necks. The process is bound to be very painful.
In the Karo tribe in Ethiopia, women scar themselves to attract men. The Masai of Kenya like elongated ear-lobes. In this case, both men and women stretch the pierced earlobe using almost any and everything that would work, starting from stones to elephant tusks.
The Mursi women of Ethiopia really give the others a run for their money. Here, men like women with stretched-lips. They ritualistically place clay plates on their lower lips for this. The size of the plates increase with time to indicated sexual maturity. The process continues till the women have unimaginably stretched lips.
It is sad how women within the family have always played a vital part in perpetuating patriarchal absurdities. Foot Binding in China had persisted for over a thousand years. Lotus feet were practically mandatory if a woman wanted to make a good match, or in many cases, marry at all. Su Xi Rong, 83, of Shandong Province told The Guardian in an interview in 2008 that if she ever attempted unbinding her feet, her own grandmother cut off a slice of her skin from the toes in order to punish her.
When one reads in English historical novels of swooning, pale-skinned flushed women with corseted waists, we are reminded that these young women were practically starved, causing anaemia which produced the lameness considered to be “lovely”. Eating like a parrot would naturally ensure a slim waist, just as undernourishment would ensure a deeply flushed skin that resulted from the slightest of excitement. How important can being attractive to others be? Important enough to endure years and years of physical persecution?
In old families in Bengal, when women were being ‘seen’ as marriage-prospects for men, the boy’s parents could ask them to do almost anything. This could mean that she would have to walk in front of them with wet feet so that she could be checked for flat-feet. She could be told to open her hair and show her prospective in-laws its length who would check to see if the size of the bun was artificially enhanced. She would be physically examined as much as the boy’s parents saw fit just like examining goods from a market for consumption even as her parents were made to pay a dowry.
One can never deny that feeling beautiful is almost equivalent to feeling powerful in several ways. Every individual, male or female, has the right to sport the kind of look that will make him or her happy. The existence of rights necessitate the existence of choices. Choices too are a woman’s prerogative. She deserves to choose if or not she wants to conform to what people around her consider “beautiful”.
By Suchandra Banerjee
Edited By Siddhesh Gooptu