As a new study illustrates how conditional our ideas of beauty are, will the internet broaden or restrict who we think is beautiful?
“Why would a man want a woman with small feet?” asked one befuddled Indonesian man, “How would she work in the rice fields?” This was the preoccupation of one of the participants in a recent study on human sexuality by University of Washington anthropologist Geoff Kushnick. While most countries espouse the notion that smaller, daintier feet are more feminine and attractive on a woman, Kushnick found that rural areas of Indonesia both men and women have an aesthetic preference for the hard-earned bulk of a nice thick foot. This research is significant because it suggests that our concept of beauty isn’t–as some evolutionary psychologists insist–hardwired purely to "reproductive potential," but is also heavily influenced by cultural and environmental factors.
The fact is that, whether we like it or not, scientists studying embodiments of beauty from hundreds of different cultures throughout history have proven that there is some universal standard of beauty, one that goes back to when the first caveman saw the first cavewoman from atop a wooly mammoth and thought “I’m going to impregnate that girl.” We like a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7, for example, because it’s optimal for childbearing. We like lustrous hair and healthy nails because they indicate that we’re not about to drop dead.
And yet, of course there are standards of beauty that differ from one culture to another. In the Kairo tribe of Ethiopia, women scar their bodies in intricate patters in order to attract males. In West Africa, being overweight is more physically desirable because it’s a sign of wealth. And yet, perhaps this isn’t a surprise, given that these are areas of the world that don’t have direct access to Keeping Up With the Kardashians and are therefore untainted by culturally external depictions of beauty.
Because the most interesting aspect of the study on Indonesians found that the greatest predictor of whether a country preferred large feet or small had to do not with its ecological environment or patriarchal values, but with how much exposure the area had to Western media.
America’s dominant role in movie-making means that international beauty standards are geared largely toward what we like in the US. While pale skin is considered beautiful in most of Asia, for example, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to lighten one’s hair and suntan one’s skin a la Los Angeles. In Korea and Japan, the most common form of plastic surgery is one that transforms their characteristic eye shape into a more Westernized double lid. And those who can't afford pricey plastic surgery often buy rat-trap contraptions to massage their noses into being thinner, or roll cans of soda over their legs to reduce the size of their calves (and warm up their drinks).
Even my mother, who grew up in the Soviet Union during an era of intense distrust between the two nations, recalls the giddiness with which she and her friends obtained their first pair of jeans on the black market, so they too could exude all the sexy, high-rise mommy pants splendor of their American counterparts.
And yet, I’m hard-pressed to think of an example of America appropriating the beauty trends of another country in any type of long-term way. Certainly, there are fashion trends that transatlantically transport themselves, the Australian Uggs and French berets and African beads. But I’ve never walked into a room and seen someone trying to manually elongate their neck or stretch our their earlobes or thicken their calves, and I can only imagine that this is because cinema–the source of immortal glamor–stems largely from America, each country I’ve ever been to playing at least five Hollywood blockbusters for every local flick.
As we move into an increasingly globalized society, I can’t help but wonder if we’re moving into an increasingly standardized understanding of beauty, and whether (for the near future at least) America will continue playing a dominant role in determining exactly what that standard is. The internet has provided a means of conveying images of beauty all around the world–and if a more homogenous standard of beauty is related to exposure to Western media, then it seems the rapid rise of the internet will do nothing but further this trend. In 15 years — or even five years — many areas that are cut off from technology today certainly won't be. The real question is whether this will further current beauty trends or in the internet will radically alter the diversity of beauty we're exposed to. No longer do you need to be a Hollywood actress to have your image seen all around the world–you just need a Tumblr.