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Beauty Standards Around the World: What Makes Someone Beautiful?

Beauty Standards Around the World: What Makes Someone Beautiful?

The age old saying goes “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” yet many women today feel pressured to conform to a certain set of beauty standards promoted by the media. In Western cultures, the beauty ideal leans towards more Eurocentric, or white, features – favoring fair skin, high nose bridges and cheek bones, large, round eyes, and straight hair – as well as thinness.  

This idea that “beauty equals white” is a centuries old concept seen  prominently during eras of slavery, colonialism, and racial segregation (in many Asian countries, this standard stems from colonization as well as ideas about class and status) and prevails today in more “subtle” (*rolls eyes*) forms like colorism within ethnic groups as well as in mainstream society. Sociologist Margaret Hunter defines colorism as the process of discrimination that privileges light-skinned people of color over their dark-skinned counterparts. And thanks to globalization, this kind of message is reaching more and more people every year.

In the study, “The Globalization of Beauty: How is Ideal Beauty Influenced by Globally Published Fashion and Beauty Magazines?” researchers Yan Yan and Kim Bissell found concurring sentiments. “As western media and media content have become more global, the homogenized representation of beauty and attractiveness results in more critical assessments of non-western-appearing people,” Yan and Bissell note in the article.

Their research consisted of analyzing 5,557 female models in four fashion and beauty magazines (Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour) from 12 countries/regions in order to examine the portrayal of female beauty globally. In their research, they found that North American and European publications dominated the beauty norms. This concerned them. They concluded, “...minority cultures are confronted with the possibility of losing their independence in setting up standards of ideal beauty. This loss of cultural identity may ultimately lead to more pressure for non-western women, who may feel that it is impossible to match the Anglo-Saxon definitions of beauty.”

Though mainstream media has been gradually making strides on more diverse and inclusive representation, Dove’s Global Beauty and Confidence Report revealed that so much more still needs to happen as beauty and appearance anxiety is on the rise globally. According to the study, researchers found that 69 percent of women and 65 percent of girls noted increasing pressures from advertisements and media to reach unrealistic beauty standards as the main reason for their appearance anxiety.

We talked to three college students with roots across the globe to see how they understand and navigate the worldwide definitions of beauty and the pressures that come with them (as Western media permeates cultures worldwide from India to Trinidad and back.)

1. Grishma, India

Illustration of Indian mother and daughter holding hands.

Illustration of Indian mother and daughter holding hands.

What would you say is the ideal look in Indian culture?

The ideal “look” is definitely to have a white complexion and fair skin. A lot of ads and movies and tv shows heavily make their actors look fair. Beauty is also very classist here. Makeup is not affordable at all, and a lot of girls here look to celebrities like Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt as their beauty “goals” and these actresses also have a fair “white” complexion. There’s also like a stigma here associated with having darker skin – like I’ve heard and seen relatives talk about skin tones and how that would affect whether they would attract guys or not.

People here are also obsessed with their weight – not the newer generation so much but definitely the older generation – they tend to always comment on every woman’s weight and how they think it will affect their chances of “getting married.”

Do you think these things have affected your self-image?

They’ve affected it a lot! Especially the weight thing, but I’ve been told that I’m “fortunate enough to have a fair complexion” (which is absurd because what does being fair have to do with anything?) As for the weight, it’s definitely a constant in my life. Like my parents, relatives and even friends openly talk about how much weight I gain or have lost every time I come back from the States. It obviously affects you, but I’ve learned to stop letting crap like that phase me now. Been hearing it for 21 years, and I’m sure I’ll keep hearing it for the next 21!

No matter what size, shape, or color you are, I’ve learned that everyone is going to have an opinion no matter what. I’m honestly just listening from one ear and removing it from the other haha!

Why do you think there is so much pressure to look a certain way as a young Indian woman?

Because India has such a collectivist culture, everyone is in everyone’s business and they think it’s okay to talk so openly about one’s flaws and point them out in front of everybody, which sucks but it’s how we were brought up. Also, because of globalization and the recent migration of thousands of expats in India and visa versa western beauty standards also have a huge impact on Indian girls.

2. Shanyah, Trinidad

Illustration of a Trinidadian woman raising her arms as if to say “welcome” in front of a house.

Illustration of a Trinidadian woman raising her arms as if to say “welcome” in front of a house.

What is unique about Trinidadian beauty and the ideal look?

I think the ideal look for women in Trinidad is centered around confidence. Women wear what they feel the most confident in, which also happens to align with the current trends in Trinidad. Although being slim or skinny is very favored, the most important aspect of a Trinidadian woman's style is dressing for her body type and looking clean/put together no matter what she is wearing, she must look clean and neat.

In terms of features, generally, all skin tones are considered beautiful but, lighter skinned is much more favored too. Additionally, having nice, long and soft straight/curly hair that is well done is very appealing. Overall, I would say that the "ideal beauty" for Trinidadian women is having confidence in her outfits, slim/skinny, lighter or smooth skin, long and soft natural hair and looking well-kept.

Do you feel like the standards set in Trinidad are similar to the U.S. ones?

I think they compare to the US standards just the same. Nice hair (preferably natural), nice body (skinny/slim or curvy but not fat/overweight) and lighter skin tone is the basis for both the US and Trinidad in regards to beauty on the outside.

I think what separates Trinidad’s standards from the US’ is the need for looking clean and put together. I mean, you must smell good, have clean clothes, wear your size to match your body, have neat hair and nails. That’s a big emphasis because people will judge you if you’re not clean or do not look clean.

3. Crys, Mexico

Illustration of two young women holding Mexican flags wearing the flag’s colors.

Illustration of two young women holding Mexican flags wearing the flag’s colors.

Do you think Latinas are pressured to look a certain way?

In terms of Mexican-American beauty standards, ever since I was younger I was told by my abuela to stay out of the sun. She would tell me that being dark was “fea” [ugly] and no boy would want me like that. But I was like 8 and did not want a boy anyways! I grew up thinking bleaching cream was the norm (colorism is real in Mexico) and that no hair should be on my body, only on my head.

Do you think the rest of the world has a preconceived notion of the beauty standards in Mexico, or more broadly Latin America?

Definitely! The U.S. media has created this hypersexualized image of the Latina. Americans expect me to have long dark brown hair, light brown skin, great eyebrows, be curvaceous, but still have a small waist. It’s crazy!

What are some things you love about beauty in Mexico?

Thanks to Frida Kahlo going mainstream (kind of sad about it), facial hair and body hair are now starting to become treated as natural and beautiful. I do not remember the last time I shaved my legs or got my brows done. Another trend that is coming back is traditional Mexican clothing. Every winter break I go to Mexico and Guatemala to visit my family. This time when I went, all my cousins had on these beautiful flower woven shirts that I usually wear for Mexican themed parties in the U.S. One of my primas told me it’s starting to become trendy to wear Mexican campesinas skirts and dresses again which makes me so happy.

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