Fashion Anthropology: Exploring Beauty Traditions Around the World

Beauty has always been subjective and sometimes, controversial. I am sure that most of us here, men or women, have looked in the mirror and found themselves unattractive for whatever reason. Well first, this is completely false, as everybody is beautiful just the way they are. Then, beauty standards are so subjective that they change every 10 years. Remember that in the 2000s, you couldn’t be considered beautiful if you weren’t tall and thin, almost anorexic or with big muscles and slicked blond hair?

Well, today is totally different, as what seems to be the most ideal body in today’s society is a woman with a generous chest and backside, while having a flat stomach and perfect hair. And for men, it turns around the idealized athletic body from Ancient Greece, but with a certain notion of fashion, designer stubble and tattoos.

Even if today’s fashion tends to be more inclusive to people who don’t match fashion diktats, some of us hate fashion. Because as one of the greatest fashion designers said once: “Fashion changes, but style endures”. This statement from Coco Channel has never been so true as in modern Western societies, styles are so numerous and different that we can’t really know what style still means.

Hopefully, all around the world, civilizations have conserved traditional beauty rituals, unique and dashing.

Traditional Beauty of Women

The Natural Chic of France

Beauty France: portrait of a brunette woman with light make up
Credit: Teen Vogu

France has always been a countryside place, but also the country where fashion exploded. Here, the beauty tendency remains in the “natural chic”. Women prefer unmade-up faces, as in France, it is commonly believed that the most beautiful women look effortlessly glamorous and graceful. Beauty routines are passed from generations to generations and, above all, French women tend to love their bodies as they are. Eyes are not covered with makeup, lips are red, the hair is tied up in a messy bun, and that’s all. And the final touch : a perfume, and an expensive one, s’il-vous-plait !

The Sensuality of Italy

Beauty from Italy
Credit: Harper Bazaar

Ah…The only the evocation of its name makes me dream! Italy is known for having the most beautiful women in Europe, and maybe even in the world. What seems to matter to Italian beauty standards is sensuality. And even if they tend to take care of themselves to maintain a natural beauty, Italian women have a sense of style, like men actually. This care treatment includes sunscreen and a proper diet to maintain beautiful hair and skin. When it comes to style, eyeliner, black mascara and bright red lipstick are necessary to reveal the sensuality of Italian beauty. The hair is appreciated long and healthy, proof of a sexy elegance.

The Mystery of Native American

Beauty of Native American woman
Credit: Positive News

In some tribes, there is a belief that a person is composed of four things: a physical, an emotional, a mental and a spirit part. Together, these four elements make a person who must bring positivity to these elements to have a balanced life. But the Native American community is still evolving in a society which abandoned them. Popular beauty standards in America don’t fit with their culture and traditions. Therefore, a lot of Native American women feel like outcasts. With recent movements for Native American rights, women tend to show themselves as they are: descendants of a persecuted nation. And their history, one of their tribe and families, is sometimes quite enough to show their beauty.

The Simplicty of Myanmar

beauty from Myanmar: young woman working

In Myanmar, beauty is a synonym for good. If you’re good on the inside, you’ll be considered beautiful. But if we should present more concrete beauty standards in Myanmar, women have straight and long black hair, reaching their bum. Also, they can’t escape the Asian law of fair skin. Every country in Asia, to achieve this beauty standard, has its own method. In Myanmar, women use a light-yellow cream called “thanaka”. Vegetal, this cream is similar to the Masonjoany powder used in Madagascar. Myanmar beauty for women is also completed by traditional costumes and hats, with bright colors.

The Labial Tray from Ethiopia

Beauty from Ethiopia: woman with labial decoration

In Ethiopia, beauty standards can seem very special to Westerners. For instance, women can’t be considered beautiful without a labial tray. When they are around 10, little girls from some tribes get their lower lips pierced with a piece of wood. Then, it will be replaced by a clay cylinder, which will get bigger as they grow up. These ornaments can be 12cm wide and have a real power of seduction on the male sex.

The Fairest Skin in Japan

Beauty from Japan: Japanese woman with very whte skin
Credit: Kapnai! Japan

It is extremely rare to see someone with tanned skin in Japan. You can easily guess it with the legendary figure of the Geisha, who has the whitest face in the world. To be considered dashing in the Land of the Rising Sun, you must have the fairest skin possible. Most Japanese women can put at least 16 beauty products on their face to achieve this fair complexion, a symbol of purity in Japan. Also, almost all Japanese beauty products are composed of ingredients which help the skin whiten. But these products, long-term used, can be dangerous for your health.

Added to this are big round eyes (some Japanese women don’t hesitate to use plastic surgery to get double-eyelid surgery), “kawaii” (cute) behavior, almost childish, and crooked teeth. This last technique is also very popular in South Korea.

The Elegance of China

Beauty from China: actress Gonf Li with white dress on the red carpet
Chinese actress Gong Li, considered as one of the most beautiful women in contemporary China
Credit: France Inter

Chinese women went through every beauty diktat: from curvy and fat to thin and skinny, they embodied every fantasy throughout China’s history. But one special tradition distinguished itself from the others. From the 17th to the 20th century, the more fragile a woman looked, the more beautiful she was. But close attention was given to her feet and, if they were small, she was a pure beauty. But small in a special way: indeed, since they were toddlers, Chinese women have got their feet tightly bandaged to keep them small. With this technique, their toes went down the sole of their feet, making the foot look like a lotus flower, the purity symbol of China.

Hopefully, this beauty standard was abolished in 1911. Today, a Chinese woman pays close attention to her skin. They have massage techniques to look less tired and tone up their skin.

The Traditional Heritage of India

Beauty from India: Indian dancer covered in jewels
Credit: Pixabay

India is a country where everything, from food to clothing, is colorful and beautiful. From the name of cities like Jaipur (meaning “the pink town”) to temples, women’s clothes, jewelry, make-up and even spices, everything inspires beauty. And, of course, Indian women are most of the time seen as the most beautiful creatures of the country.

What’s so special about female beauty in India is that Indian women tend to keep beauty secrets from their grandmothers and keep using them to maintain a tradition in their makeup. Their complexion must be bright and their skin smooth, as a symbol of wealthiness. As for their hair, bright and recognizable all around the world, they must be black, long and thick. Indian women are rarely seen wearing contemporary clothes like jeans. Their saris can be of any color, henna is always used to decorate their hands and bindies, which are first a symbol of the Third Eye, are more stylized and became a fashion accessory. For the body type, a skinny woman is considered unhealthy and ugly. But Western ideals tend to give a place to slenderness in India, especially through the movie industry.

The Ta-Moko of New-Zealand

Beauty from New Zealand: woman with balck hair and a tattoo one her chin and lips
A Maori woman with the Ta-Moko on her chin
Credit: Te Ao Maori News

New-Zealand still fascinates today with the Maori culture. And even when we want to discover the true meaning of beauty on this island, Maoris are the winners. In Maori culture, tattoos are a strong element of beauty; they tell the story of their bearer and have forever symbolized power and beauty. The most iconic tattoo for Maori women is the Ta-Moko, on their chin and sometimes, their lower lip.

The Indigenous Beauty of Brazil

Native woman from Brazil
Credit: The New Republic

Alright…We have all heard of the mythical perfect body. And it seems that in Brazil, women have everything to be perfect. Suntanned skin, wild hair and always in a swimsuit on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. The fact is, as Brazilians live outside almost every day, a perfect body is mandatory. But be careful; contrary to what we think, the athletic and slender body is not the perfect body type in Brazil.

The perfect physique is called “corpo de violao”. It means that the ideal woman has reasonably wide hips and breasts, with a very thin waist. In other words, the body shape of a guitar. It is common for women in Brazil to go once a week to a beauty institute. Here, they take care of their hair with macadamia and jojoba oils. But it is the only type of hair they take care of meticulously. If they find any other type of hair elsewhere on their bodies, the hunt begins and their weapon is wax!

But we must not forget that the real beauty in Latin-American countries is very close to the Native American one, like the indigenous people from the Amazon.

What About Men ?

Sure, we tend to see that women can be the victims of beauty diktats all around the world. But men are never fully protected. Pressure for getting more muscles, more tanning or even perfect dentition are very present in the media and publicity, generating, like for women, an ideal of masculine beauty. All around the world, masculine beauty has conserved some great traditions.

The Machoman of Mexico and the Lumberjack of the USA

Lumberjack style from USA
Credit: Pinterest

For instance, in Mexico, a machoman is considered attractive. It is supposed that it shows the masculinity and virility of men. While in the USA, men who have the lumberjack style are considered quite attractive, embracing one of the oldest traditions of the United States: the strong and brave man, like Paul Bunyan (except that they are not 5 meters high).

The Aryan of Brazil

Beauty from Brazil: blong man with brght eyes
Credit: Men Worry Too

In Brazil, the ideal man is quite surprising. It comes from a dark part of the country’s history, when the Nazis fled away from Europe to find refuge in Brazil and Bolivia. Therefore, today, the ideal man is what was once called “the Aryan”: white, with blond hair and blue eyes. But a tanned skin is also appreciated.

The Romantic of Turkey and The Nonchalant of Italy

Beauty from Turkeuy: Actor Can Yaman
Turkish actor Can Yaman
Credit: Pinterest

In Turkey, the Turkish man doesn’t really have physical diktats to be beautiful. What Turkish women seem to like are romantic and sensitive men, when tradition describes Turkish men as great warriors and conquerors. And the extra to be handsome today is torso waxing. Close to Turkey in Europe, Italian men have an advantage: fashion. Italians are often well dressed with costumes in a modern-chic style. And in their behavior, the “sprezzatura” (a planned nonchalance) has some effect on women.

The Tradition of India and South Korea

Traditional costumes for men
Credit: Creatrip

In Asiatic countries like India, the movie industry strongly influenced beauty standards, for men but also for women. But India is probably one of the most conservative countries in the world. Then, a man who is successful and married at a young age is appreciated. He can also take care of his skin with bleaching products. In South Korea, pop culture influences the beauty industry. Therefore, beauty is also reached through plastic surgery. But traditional beauty remains in the most ancient costumes of traditional Korea, full of light colors, inspirating power and high social status.

Fashion changes, but beauty endures” – Naïs Boekholt

Between the traditional beauty and diktats of modern society, it seems hard to consider what is beautiful and what is not around the world. To me, real beauty is the one which tells a story; the story of your life, of your family, of a tribe or of a people. Diktats always change, but style is unique to everyone.

During ancient times, men were ideal when they were athletic and women were beautiful, either thin or curvy. Then, Renaissance beauty belonged in clothing and the body type was not very important. Even if paintings of beautiful women show curvy, and even obese women, the symbol of wealthiness. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, men were appreciated with a dandy style before coming back to the trend of muscles and of leather jackets. Women went through the fashion of corsets to the roaring and freer twenties, before reaching the ideal of an athletic woman or the androgynous style of the 90s.

Nowadays, in Western societies, fashion is a real mystery. Styles are so numerous that it’s almost impossible to say what the trend is for 2021. And it may be better like that, as the body-positive movements encourage women and men who are different to be who they want and dress as they like. Hopefully, all around the world, traditional beauty diktats remain, like in First Nations populations, India, China or even Russia. This type of beauty is part of the heritage and history of great civilizations.

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