How the perception of beauty changes

TAHSEEN NOWER PRACHI | Saturday, 14 November 2020

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” This is what Chinese philosopher Confucius said of beauty in a diversified way, thousand years ago.

This idea is still relevant if we just see right through the glass.

If one tries to remember the brides they have witnessed till now, a very few of them would be able to recall someone who was not ‘fair’ or did not try to be ‘fair’. Even the first requirement to be called ‘beautiful’ is to be a fair woman with long and lustrous hair and a curvy body in this region.

The temptation that has led women of the subcontinent to crave for a lighter shade is nothing but the result of Eurocentrism. Beauty has been defined with a limited thought in the past and even today, with the wave of modernisation, we have not come out of the beauty cocoon.

Beauty is often a biased idea based on some limited parameters. Especially, fashion models and actors are expected to fulfill these criteria in the long run.

The dictionaries of modern times give a definition of beauty that goes like this: “Beauty is a combination of qualities such as shape, colour or form that pleases the aesthetic senses.” This has given birth to debates like the preference of a lighter shade and the maintenance of a thin and curvy body. The perfection of face and body depends on the standards set along the lines of the European perspective of a fair woman.

But this is not the whole scenario. There are diverse and bold definitions of beauty across the globe, which defy the fixed standards set by the common adverts. This also proves that if there is diversity in the perception of beauty, then the celebration of one’s individuality should not be measured via the existing stereotypes.

Skin tones depend largely on the melanin underneath one’s skin. It is a dark brown to black pigment occurring in the hair, skin, and iris of the eye in people and animals. It is responsible for the tanning of skin exposed to sunlight. The darker skin tone is the result of the layers of melanin.

So, it is a natural trait that varies from one region to another. Still, this has been a constant parameter of ‘ugliness’ where the mainstream is hypnotised by the charms of fairer skin.

People with darker skin tones are directly or indirectly pressurised by the Eurocentric society that prefers lighter shades. The advertisements present people with a darker tone unsatisfied with their skin tone and suggest fairness creams as the solution to this ‘problem’. Even the brown people in the South Asian region tend to tag the darker shades as the uglier ones though it is the natural colour of this region.

Various brands that advertise their products on television or other media did tend to choose models having ‘fairer skin’, ‘long and lustrous hair’, and ‘healthier’ body shapes. For years, this phenomenon had been continuing where shade is a standard for ideal beauty.

Academy Award winner actress Lupita Nyong’o once defiantly argued that her coily tresses were digitally altered to fit a more Eurocentric and ‘acceptable’ image on the Grazia magazine. The magazine authorities did ask for an apology later on. Lupita herself once said that though she grew up believing that lighter shades and straighter hair are the measurement scale for beauty, she accepted and adored her darker skin tone and kinky coily hair.

It is food for thought that beauty pageant winners are also struggling with this limited idea of beauty and some of them gave it a try to bring a change. Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi said, in an interview after her return to South Africa, “The movement of breaking stereotypes started literally on the night, on the minute I got crowned.” She added, “I am not the benchmark. I don’t want young women and girls to look at me and say that they want to be like me. I want them to know that they can do more. Me speaking about the things I am passionate about, being brave about it, and being unapologetically black in all my blackness is exactly what the movement needs.”

Canadian model and spokesperson Winnie Harlow has the vitiligo skin condition. She continues to dazzle the photoshoots for world-famous brands despite her skin tone. She says, “Vitiligo is just another difference, like freckles, big hair, tiny ears. Everyone has differences.”

So, skin tone is now being known as just another difference that is largely individualistic and that hardly stands as a major standard for beauty.

The definition of beauty has been changing since ancient times. It also changes from one culture to another: African people have a skin tone that looks absolutely ravishing under the sun. The western view has the most widespread ‘popularity’ as the majority still values the aesthetic of a tall woman with delicate features that come with a healthier body shape.

The distinct and quirky physical traits that are considered as ‘flaws’ by the standard makeup artistes are exactly what the French women find most appalling. They believe that the natural texture of the skin is more enticing.

In ancient Korea, tanned skin implied a lower social status. Koreans have preferred a lighter skin from then onwards and thrived to achieve a skin texture that has been as smooth as porcelain. Korean skincare products are popular worldwide for the perfection they promise.

The subcontinent has always been the land where beauty changes its definition and characteristics. But this bold presentation of beauty is now leaning towards the western standards of beauty.

Thai women spend a good amount of money every year which helps them maintain a skin that is craved by all. They hardly let the sun destroy their complexion and tend to buy cosmetics that ensure higher SPF (sun protection factor).

The Maori people, mainly women, of New Zealand tattoo their faces, mostly the lips. This is a sign of beauty among them. In the Kayan tribe in Myanmar, women wear brass coils around their neck from childhood and that makes their necks look longer. Unlike the most, Mauritanian and Nigerian cultures encourage overweight women than those having a slimmer body structure.

The Santal women of Bangladesh are proud to have a skin tone that shines in sunny days. So, the variations of standards in different cultures are nothing but illusions imposed by society. The present generation has started to accept this fact and that is a true form of abstract beauty.

In a television commercial, a renowned Bangladeshi actress Nusrat Imrose Tisha threw out a question to the audience about the existing definition of beauty and supported diversity.

“Freshness means beautiful, not skin colour. Does beauty mean only fair skin? Never. A beautiful person can be with a fair, dusky, or darker skin tone. A person’s skin colour can never be the measurement of their beauty.”

Diversity should be celebrated as differences in skin tones and shapes cannot determine actual and standard beauty. It is the self-confidence and celebration of individual traits that make beauty absolute.

Tahseen Nower Prachi is a student at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Dhaka University.

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