If ‘Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder’ it must be Culturally Constructed
I fell over last week… stick with me here…
I fell over last week and decided to show a male coworker of mine the hideous graze I received as a byproduct. I pulled up my trouser leg, expecting a loud “ew!” and I got one, but for a completely different reason altogether. I began pointing to the lumpy surface of my healing wound when he stopped me mid-sentence and exclaimed: “Erh! You don’t shave your legs?”
I was taken aback a little. I hadn’t thought much of the hair on my legs up until this point, I’d never looked at them with disgust when I was showering or sliding on jeans, I didn’t think about them when I decided to show my coworker my graze; to me, they were just my leg, yet, it was the first thing that he noticed, even over the disgusting site of the gargantuan scab I have taking over most my knee! Why was he so shocked by the hair on my legs, so much so that he felt the need to vocally comment on it? After some thought, the answer became fairly obvious, fairly obvious, but hidden deeply rooted within the ideologies of westernised society. To put it simply, it’s the self-policing of a patriarchal system.
Let’s break it down. We will start with Beauvoir, who famously argues that; ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ supports an idea that womanhood and what it means to be a woman is a constructed concept. You are not born a woman, you are taught how to be a woman, you are shaped into a woman by the society you are raised in. Indeed, womanhood is different within every culture. Some cultures such as Mauritania and Samoa favour heavier set women as it is a symbol of wealth. The Makonde people of Tanzania wear lip plates from as young as pre-teen age and stretch their lips and earlobes over time as a symbol of their womanhood. Scarification is hugely popular in various Ethiopian cultures and it is often used to as a way to find a suiter, even the unhealthy pressure on women in Thailand and East Asia to use skin-bleaching products as pale skin is favoured can seem hard to believe coming from the acclaimed laws of our westernised beauty but they very much exist. These women are culturally conditioned to believe that traits such as these make them beautiful and womanly within their own respective societies and so we begin to realise that beauty standards and ideas of “femininity” are constructed concepts, defined by cultural perspective. In other words, although there are different types of beauty and preferences across the globe they have to be “approved” by a particular cultural group to be seen as acceptable and attractive. So, if ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ it must be socially constructed as each ‘beholder’ is culturally influenced.
But what are these standards constructed around?
Beauty standards (at least within the frameworks of our westernised society) come from a patriarchal system. They exist to oppress both sexes by presenting a conceptual standard by which all people must adhere to in order to function within the expectations of society. Subconsciously we recycle these ideologies of “womanhood” and form a seemingly inherent pressure on young women to conform within these standards, even in the self-policed way that my coworker made me feel uncomfortable about my own leg hair by commenting on it with such disgust for example. We, as young girls are told that things such as shaving, wearing makeup and watching our weight are essential components in feminine beauty that need to be upkept in order to fit into what western culture has deemed as ‘feminine’, ‘womanly’ and ‘lady-like.’ But these labels are oppressive and reproduced over time through socialised influences such as our peers, our teachers, our parents and our media system. These labels seek to oppress women under a man-made system, turning them into the perfect products for male gaze all while feeding into a system that commodifies the unattainable ideology of beauty by presenting products such as razors, makeup and hair care to be as natural to a woman’s lifestyle as food and water. When society screams these rules at you it can be jarring to witness someone who doesn’t necessarily conform to these notions of idealised beauty and as a result, this version of womanhood doesn’t exist. My advice is just to do what makes you feel beautiful and if you don’t want to shave your legs in the middle of winter you don’t have to…
By Dani St Leger
- Beauvoir, S, D, Parshley, H.M. The Second Sex. (New York: Knopf, 1952.) p.301
- Frith, K., Shaw, P., Cheng, H., ‘The Construction of Beauty: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Women’s Magazine Advertising ‘, Journal of Communication, 55.1, (2005), 56-70.
- 3 Hofstede, G. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. (New York: McGraw Hill. 1997). n,p