What is a Beautiful Woman?

by Harold Stephens

It was a number of years ago that I came to the conclusion that a beautiful woman isn’t really what we make her out to be. It came to me suddenly, like being hit with a lightening bolt. Ever since, I’ve held my own idea about beauty.

It happened like this. I had a magazine assignment to write about the efforts of the US Geogedic Survey team who were mapping the Choco Jungles of Panama. The jungles and coastal islands are the home of the primitive Cuna Indians. It was on one of these islands in the San Blas that I had to wait two weeks for a small bush plane to pick me up. This was way before tourism came to the islands.

Could she appear in a western Beauty Contest?

After a few days I came to know the Cunas rather well. Once you break down the initial barriers they can be friendly and, unfortunately, quite curious. They were interested in everything I had with me, including several old magazines.

I didn’t think much about it. I was stretched out in a hammock one afternoon, half dozing, and somewhere behind me I could hear a couple of women talking and turning over the pages in the magazines. Suddenly they stopped turning and their voices became excited. Other women came over to have a look. Something had their full attention. They began giggling. Curiosity seized me. I got up to look. It was a page of advertisement of a new American car with a very sleek New York fashion model bent over the front fender. She was stunning. The woman, not the car. She wore her hair back, with her eyes made up with blue shadow. She held a cigarette in a long slender holder, and her fingers were finely manicured. I can’t remember what kind of car it was, but I do remember the model.

San Blas men like their women this way

The San Blas Indian women were actually stunned by the photo. They kept staring and studying the model in great detail. I admit, I felt rather proud that they were admiring a woman of my world, but then, slowly, I discovered it was not admiration they had for the lady; it was more on the border of ridicule.

The model was to them everything that a woman should not be. Foremost what decent lady would paint her lips and eyes? In the San Blas culture the women draw a thin line down the bridge of their nose, which makes their already long noses appear even longer. And rings are not to be worn solely on fingers or in ears; they are to be worn in one’s nose. The Cuna women wear golden rings in their noses, much like an angry bull in a pasture has a ring through his nose.

The girl in the advertisement, as I recall, was rather shapely. Disgusting! From the age of three or four, young San Blas girls bind their forearms and calves to keep them from growing. Beauty to them is when a lady’s arms and legs resemble matchsticks. Nor do they fancy people who are over weight. To assure that they do not become plump, the girls in the tribe eat only every other day. They don’t even drink water in between.

We can go to the extreme, like here in northern Thailand, but their men like them

That got me thinking. Cuna men obviously like their women the way they are. Beauty to them is totally different than my concept of beauty. Who is right and who is wrong? How would a Curia Indian girl from the San Blas place in a Miss Universe contest?

I’m afraid that the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is true. Are not the San Blas men justified in judging beauty with their own society? Unfortunately Miss San Blas 2017 would not receive many votes in Bangkok, unless the judges were also from the San Blas, which is not likely.

Also, our concept of beauty changes from day to day. What we consider beautiful at present may not apply a few years hence. Think about it! I remember growing up in China after the war. A Chinese beauty then wore only silk gowns and had bangs, a whitewashed face and gold teeth. When she smiled all you saw was gold. That’s not the case today.

The other day I was in Mae Hong Song and had a chance to see those amazing Hill tribe women with their long necks. What torture they must endure! Imagine trying to sleep while wearing neck rings.

Seeing these women got me thinking about the aborigine women I saw on the Australian Outback. Their bodies were heavily scarred. Deliberately. The technical term anthropologist use for this is “scarification.” A couple of weeks later after the Outback I was in New Zealand and there I saw photos of the famous Maori woman, Guide Rangi who had died a few years before. Her lips and her chin had been heavily tattooed. Women with blue lips!

As I look back and think about these women, I can’t say they were very attractive. But then I can’t speak for their men. They obviously think their women are beautiful, and rightful so. The adage is so true—beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Many cities in Southeast Asia stage Beauty Contests. Here’s one in Singapore

Every society in every country of the world creates its own idea of beauty as well as methods to attain it, and no place is this better seen than in the countries of Asia and the Pacific. A Miss Thailand beauty contest held in Bangkok would not necessarily appeal to the bush natives of Papua New Guinea, and vice versa. I have to say “bush” natives for PNG has some very fine looking women—when viewed by culturally conditioned Western eyes—and all one needs do is fly aboard Air Niugini to find out.

Oftentimes we are appalled when we see what these societies do to meet their standards of beauty, and by that I mean body alterations. These are not necessarily fads. In some traditional societies the customs associated with bodily alterations are closely linked to social status and rites of passage such as puberty and betrothal.

We often find we ridicule those societies we know little about for their interpretation of beauty, and yet we close our own eyes to body alterations practiced in our own society which are accepted norms, and often which we give no thought to as being “odd.” We just call it cosmetic surgery.

She beautiful in modern day China but a generation ago she would have been wearing blue denim

In our modern world today, beauty can be bought. Cosmetic surgery is a booming business. The Chinese proverb: “Money disguises a thousand imperfections” invented before the “Surgical Age” seems most apt for present-day beauty culture. It is interesting to note the lexical connection between money and beauty: “A woman looks like a million dollars” or “Her face is her fortune.”

The medical specialty of cosmetic surgery—which started off as plastic surgery—is a making a fortune, from America to Japan. There’s even a popular TV show depicting how beauty is manufactured. A cosmetic surgeon can disguise age, redesign a face and reshape a body. The ideal woman, I’m afraid, is an artificial creation, a manmade woman.
In reality, cosmetic surgery is actually a rite of passage with a new identity, no different than practiced in the most primitive societies. To be honest, though, beauty is really the language of advertisers also signifies success, sex appeal and social acceptance, and you must become an adherent of the beauty cult. Women, of course, have a wider choice of rewards: breast surgery, liposuction or rhinoplasty. Such practices are no different than scarification among primitive tribes.
We do have both cross-cultural and cross-temporal perspectives of beauty. It deals not only with such things as women’s changing styles, make up or hair fashions, but also with permanent bodily alterations such as tattooing, scarification, ear and nose ornamentation, and even the use of corsets. Some styles, we can be fortunate, do change. Chinese women no longer bind their feet, and the blackening of teeth has passed. Teeth filing for young couple getting married on Bali still exist, but it’s more symbolic that real. Dental mutilation was common among Japanese women and the Sakai of the Malay Peninsula, but there is one form that still persists, and that is beetle nut stain. From India to Indonesia and across the island chains of the South Pacific, the mark of beauty is the red stains of women’s teeth caused by chewing beetle nut. I remember in Rabaul, New Guinea, I saw a very stunning woman in the Rabaul Yacht Club. I was anxious to meet her, and when she turned around, her teeth were totally red. Her appeal suddenly vanished, but then I am not a male from New Guinea.

Even in the poorest countries, if we look hard enough, we find beauty.

As a western custom, let’s consider the wearing of corset, once an important part of every Western woman’s wardrobe. Corsets actually started with the early Greeks, and in the 15th century, knights in armor going off to battle outfitted their wives with iron corsets, and only they held the keys. But we don’t have to go back that far. Hollywood promoted the use of corsets. We see them in use in such notable films as “Gone with the Wind,” “The Great Train Robbery,” “The Great Waltz,” “The Girl from the Golden West” and “The Outlaw.” For thin waists, the lady who holds the record is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the smallest known waist, some 13 inches. The desire for thin waists would not appeal to the Samoan women or most Hindu women.

Women’s use of corsets have all but disappeared in the West, but oddly enough, it’s still the practice of the men in the Itaburi tribe in Papua New Guinea to wear them.

Today men have taken to wearing earrings, but it’s not new. What would a swashbuckling pirate be without his earring, and William Shakespeare wore one as well.

Who would believe that tattooing started in the Pacific and spread to Europe when seamen sailing with Captain James Cook in 1773 returned to Europe bearing tattoos. Sailors to this day, from every nation, tattoo their bodies as marks of status. Every society in the South Pacific underwent tattooing, and many still do to the say. I witnessed tattooing ceremonies in Apia, Western Samoa, that lasted two weeks. The men there to reach stature in society have their torsos tattooed in solid designs from the waist down to their knees. Tattooing among men is very popular in Thailand and Japan. Unfortunately, women to are taking up the habit. It’s one of those status symbols that one might regret in the years to come.

Beauty In Tahiti once meant being fat and tattooed.

Tattooing took on the character of body carving, especially among the men of the Maori on New Zealand. Their entire faces were carved, not to make them look handsome, but to make them look fierce. Their women must not have been too frightened, for the race propagated.

We may wonder why people violated the human body as they did, until we look objectively at the practices used by some of the youth today, namely the so-called “skin heads.” Multiple ear piercing, nose rings, tattooing of shaven heads, they all, have become membership badges for adolescent urban rebels.

We have to admit, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My eyes are open widest when I see the beauty contestants line up at a Miss Thailand contest. Or on Tahiti during the July 14th National Day Fete, when those lovely, lithe Tahitian dancers do the tamure to the sound of sharkskin drums and wood blocks. I’m sure then, even the wild New Guinea savage from the deepest jungle would take notice.