Is Beauty Cultural? (And if so, can I change cultures?)

Margaret Nyoni is beautiful.  She has sparkling eyes and a brilliant smile. She also has a good eye for fashion. I don't think I've ever seen Margaret looking "frumpy."

Margaret is one of the few people I could actually ask why it seems that African women don't seem to have the same hang-ups that Anglo women do about size.

Margaret explained that in Africa size 14 - 18 women are considered more beautiful than say, size 4, because it is healthy.  (David-the-Artist-Pastor confirmed that in Uganda, the Western-produced mannequins are added to with wire frames to make them wider and curvier.)

With African-American women there is a beauty that seems to come from within--a confidence that radiates whether size 4 or size fourteen.  I know this isn't true across the board, but I'm curious if someone did a sociological study if they wouldn't find that African-American women actually know more about how to be beautiful. Margaret promised we could get together for coffee at some point to talk about it because she has noticed the same phenomenon, but her short e-mail answer was that she believes it is about discovering who you really are. About not conforming to the box that society says you belong in.

Similarly, my friend Dixa from Panama is gorgeous.  When I met her mom back when Dixa and I were next door neighbors in our early twenties, I was blown away by how fashionable she was.  Twenty-something me had never met a woman in her forties who wore a sparkly gold belt in a size 14.  (Dixa actually found a belt like that for me and mailed it to me when I moved back to the states.  I still have it!)

I'm curious why we don't give our daughters symbols of what it looks like to be feminine and beautiful in a context that isn't dependent on wearing a smaller size jean.  Poor Bethany.  I can't do it.  I've been dieting since I was twelve and have been everything from size 8 (pre-kids) to a size 18.  At a size 12 (right now) I'm still not happy.

I hate it that all the female TV stars change their faces the second season after their show becomes a hit and everyone pretends not to notice.  Hate it that young girls have their real breasts torn out and balloons stuffed in so they can be "sexy." (Seriously. Think that one through. Ow.)

But mostly I hate it that I can run, dance, laugh, speak, see...and can't appreciate any of that half the time because I'm so focused on the belly flab or bingo arms. Seriously.  What is wrong with me?  (Apparently lots.) 

If only I could change cultures with a spray tan.  It would be cheaper and way less scary than plastic surgery.


wishful nals said...

hmmm. very interesting post!

Ashley said...

Cathy I love this post!! A fad dieter since age 12 am I and what the heck for? I appreciate the women who say- I naturally maintain at this weight and that makes me a size 10,12,14 or whatever and embrace it. I just wish i could erase years of brainwashing. Case in point: I had a Turkey Burger for lunch with my clients. I opted for greens instead of fries and am still beating myself up... figuring out how to get to the gym and what I won't eat to make up for it. Or attempting to tan and get rid of freckles in my teen years...AND WHAT FOR? Beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and complexions. I just wish our western society would get on board as well... and I wish I wasn't such a foolish female that I felt the need to conform to society's version of beauty.

Cathy_H said...

Can I get in on that French fry action? Seriously. Fried + potatoes... My favorite.

Angie said...

Hi, I just came across your blog and I love this post. I live in Africa (Mozambique) and what your African friend said is totally true. In this cultural being fat means you are doing well......that you can afford to eat. Being thin is associated with sickness or poverty.

Living outside the US and watching the culture change has been quite interesting. I still fall prey to the "world's" standard of what true beauty is and end up hating myself half the time. God's not pleased with that.

I'm on a quest right now to eat foods that give me energy and trying to exercise to take care of the body God gave me. That is hard because I crave the things that make me feel sluggish - cinnamon rolls, any bread, anything with sugar and chocolate!!!

I'll definitely be back to visit!a

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Maira Gall