Beauty Through the Eyes of Culture

By Shauna Mullin

Beauty can be seen both in natural settings, untouched by human influence, and in art and aesthetics, created for our pleasure. The word beauty, derived from the Greek, means ‘according to one’s hour’. This time reference refers to the notion that beauty is relative. An ancient Greek philosophical concept of beauty, known as the Apollonian, suggests that finding satisfaction in things that are defined as beautiful and attempting to achieve this beauty in oneself is a human response to uncontrollable nature. We might say that beauty is found at the intersection of nature and man’s interpretation of nature in culture.

Interpretations of beauty are as varying and colorful as fish in the sea. Beauty falls victim to both time and place. Cultures determine what they identify as naturally beautiful and then create ways to accentuate it artificially. Throughout history, emphasis has been placed on different standards in relation to beauty. With varying ideals, China and the United States offer an interesting look at the way beauty is perceived through cultures. 

In China, ideal facial features are wide eyes, dark eyebrows, a narrow nose, and small lips, all on a narrow face. Freckles are unwanted. Freckles are kisses from the sun and are avoided by a culture that prefers fair, flawless skin that is sheltered from the sun’s rays. In an effort to achieve impeccable porcelain skin, the Chinese often resort to skin-whitening creams. These creams are more common than their healthful counterpart, the moisturizer. A Chinese student at Lasell College, Sammi Yang, says that skin-whitening creams play a “very important role in everyday life.” She explains that the makeup used to accentuate the ideal face is natural and minimal. Key elements include a light shade of powder for cheeks, darker powder along the sides of the face to create a narrow look, black eyeliner to create a wider look in the eyes, and a pink or coral gloss. 

Weight in relation to beauty is an important characteristic in China as well. Yang explains that in the T’ang Dynasty, a full-figured woman was deemed attractive, but since then the desired figure has slenderized to extreme proportions. Today’s ideal size for Chinese women is what American culture would classify as excessively thin.

Height is viewed as attractive in China because it accents a thin frame. Both men and women desire lengthy limbs. The Instructional Technologist at Lasell College, Ye Liu, says, “Ideally, everyone wants to be taller and thinner.” In ancient China during the Han Dynasty, women wore robes with long trains to achieve the appearance of a slender, long frame. The average Chinese child now is taller than the average child of thirty years ago, and thus a stronger emphasis is being put on height. The desire for height has spurred an interest in plastic surgery that involves inserting metal rods into the legs to add inches to one’s frame.

One of the more well-known, iconic beauty treatments in Chinese culture is the practice of binding to form a smaller foot. This began in the late T’ang Dynasty and was popularized in 960 A.D., during the Song and Ming Dynasties. Women were forced to achieve an unnaturally petite size by restricting growth, accomplished by fracturing a girl’s toes at around age three and binding her feet in linen strips.  This was done to stress female vulnerability in preparation for marriage and to show class distinction. Yang explains it was also to show that the young ladies who possessed bound feet had “freedom from manual labor.” Many families required their son’s future wife to have tiny feet, and those who did not follow the practice were often late or unable to marry. Foot binding was banned in the beginning of the twentieth century, due to its crippling effects, and is no longer common today.

Correct feminine posture is very important to pull together all aspects of beauty in a Chinese woman. Young women often take etiquette classes where they learn how to walk, talk, sit, and smile with elegance. Yang delves deeper into the details of correct etiquette by explaining that high-heeled shoes and short-sleeved blouses are avoided and subtle neutral colors are valued. Chinese women are expected to avoid large hand movements as well as the habit of speaking with their hands. Liu explains that in China, “on the street it is not often that you hear young ladies loudly talking.” Women walk with tiny steps in order to appear ladylike.

An ancient trend that originated in the Ch’ing Dynasty developed around the effort to gain attention through pity, called bingtai mei. Attention was achieved by means of a sickly look that derived from avoiding the sun and wearing thick white makeup. This look was popularized through the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, written between 1749 and 1759. In this story, the character Lin Daiyu is portrayed as the main love interest of the protagonist. Lin Daiyu is not a conventional beauty for her time but is instead frail and sickly looking. Readers found her look striking, and it began to alter the contemporary definition of beauty.  The sickly look is not a fad today; however, traces of its influence remain. Yang says bingtai mei was “originally thought of as attractive because the pale skin gives a clean and fresh look.”

Chinese women often grow their hair longer than do Western women. A contemporary look is that of shoulder-length waves. Most women refrain from dying their hair, in stark contrast to Western women and their practice of coloring. Fewer than 20 percent of Chinese change their hair color. However, Liu points out that over time, the younger generation has begun to move towards shorter cuts and hair dying, for a more modern look. The Chinese have naturally gorgeous hair. It is thicker, stronger, and more lustrous than Western hair.
In the United States, beauty can be defined through other means and is emphasized in different aspects of the face and body. American beauty is an outward representation of one’s inner self, and practices vary according to changing societal standards.  In America, a growing number of industries cater to a woman’s desire to create a personalized outward appearance. Based on a foundation of freedom of expression, American beauty is achieved through makeup, hair styles, hair coloring, and unique fashions.

In metropolitan areas such as Boston, self-expression is thriving. Liu says that in Boston, “you can see everything from all over the world -- including China.”  Americans set themselves apart from their peers through self-expression and choice in dress. We are inclined to imitate what other cultures offer, and Western fashion and beauty trends are direct results of these influences.

As in China, there are societal standards that affect our everyday lives and the way we perceive beauty. One of these involves body shape. Plagued for many decades by the desire to achieve a super skinny frame, women in America and specifically in the city of Boston are now finding value in a healthy body. A healthy weight is different for everyone and is largely dependent on height and genetics. Now the bigger fad than being thin is joining a gym. There are many gyms all over the Boston area, encouraging exercise and a fit lifestyle. Strasner says that the “ideal person would be healthy…diet and exercise [and] comfortable in who they are and confident in who they are.” This trend is also embraced in the Boston fashion industry, as local designers are making their sample sizes a bit larger than the typical size 0-3. The size of local models has diversified, as natural curves are more in demand. 

A dark, golden complexion is desired in cities like Boston, where salons thrive from Westerners’ UV obsession. Silas Anthony, a nineteen-year-old Boston native, says, “Tan skin makes someone look vibrant and healthy.” Tan skin is reminiscent of a luxurious vacation and plenty of down time in the sun and is thought to have a slimming effect, all of which is in stark contrast to the Chinese ideal of the pale, almost sickly look. Yang says American culture emphasizes “tan skin, a fit body, and confidence.”

In Boston, people see beauty in the ordinary as well as the exotic, and although there is still an interest in symmetry, facial features are much more varied than in Chinese culture. A walk down the streets of the city will reveal a rainbow of skin tones, facial shapes, facial features, and makeup. Although Western culture is known to value predominately Caucasian blondes with blue eyes, Boston in particular celebrates all looks. 
Advertisements for beauty products and clothing in the Boston area reveal diverse ethnicities. The models are from different backgrounds, each with their own striking look. It seems that the more original the beauty, the more attractive it is to consumers. Strasner explains the Bostonian look: “A lot of it is be yourself, be an individual…pick and chose from different cultures.”

Popular makeup applications in America include using a natural-looking foundation that disguises blemishes with a bronzer often applied on top for a sunny glow. Eyes are often highlighted with eyeliner, eye shadow, and mascara. Cultivating elongated eyelashes is a rather new phenomenon in Western culture.  Latisse is a prescription treatment that is brushed directly on the lash line, making the lashes grow in longer and darker. A curling tool is used to add volume and shape to the eye, in conjunction with mascara.
Full lips have long been a symbol of femininity. This look is achieved using lip liner, lipstick, or gloss. Lip Venom is lip gloss made of  a blend of essential oils, including cinnamon, wintergreen, and ginger, that cause the blood to rush to the surface of the lips, flushing and swelling them slightly. The result: fuller bee-stung lips. These effects are an instant, less permanent and dramatic version of the result of a collagen injection, yet another popular lip enhancement.  
As far apart as the cultures of China and America lie on the map, they do influence one another. Yang highlights examples of Chinese culture in the city of Boston, with the popularity of shopping in Chinatown, as well as the many young people looking for an opportunity to visit China, curious to learn from the culture there. Travelers will inevitably bring back customs that they absorb, and that will add to our bubbling pot of cultural influences. Liu explains that there are many Chinese immigrants settling in Boston, and she sees them bringing, in particular, the performing arts. Anthony thinks of Chinese culture as “proper, respectful, and reserved.” He adds, “America is the exact opposite. I do think it would be positive to gain some aspects from Chinese culture.”
Yang feels America’s influence on China can be found in the media with movies, and through the influence of American models and actresses who have popularized “large eyes and a sharp nose.” Liu sees American culture as having a considerable influence on China: “I think it has a large impact. China has become an open society.”

With these vibrant interpretations of beauty represented in two cultures that are worlds apart, it appears that beauty stands independently from any single foundation. Regardless of the context, an important concept to remember is that true beauty evokes a sense of satisfaction.  Since the mind is shaped both by human nature and by nurture specific to one’s background, cultures will always be able to look to one another to see connections in their perception of beauty as well as marvel at the fascinating differences. It is through these aspects that beauty is given meaning. Through the similarities we can define beauty with reference to its origin in nature, yet through the differences we make space for the definition of beauty to be altered as one culture influences another.

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