Imagine all the things that we do to ourselves all in the name of beauty?
As a culture, we….:
- pluck hair from places where it grows naturally
- shape our eyebrows
- straighten, curl, dye and otherwise, torture our hair to make it what it naturally isn’t
- we sew in weaves or glue in tracks for longer hair (ouch!)
- buff and scrub our feet (this is torture for me)
- squeeze ourselves into tight corsets for that coveted hourglass look
- we wear high heels
- we subscribe to things like botox, fillers, tummy tucks and cosmetic plastic surgery
Some cultures might look at all that and call it crazy (actually, some of that stuff on that list is beyond my realm of comfort), but how about a global approach to beauty?
Here are some that are unusual, and considered beautiful in each culture.
Japan: Geisha (Geiko) Hair
Note: They are not prostitutes or night walkers. They’re artists, and “Memoirs of a Geisha” got it twisted for fictional purposes. Read “A Geisha’s Life” by Mineko Iwasaki if you want the real scoop from a true former geisha account of what the life was like.
To get this coveted geisha hairstyle, the hairdresser has to comb in hot wax and attach animal hair throughout their long black locks, and then style it into the shape, where it will stay like that for as long as possible so it can look fresh and neat.
The whole thing can weigh as much as 6 pounds! (Oww…)
A geisha’s hair is also subjected to hot irons, and with all the weight on their head from so many years, some older geisha have bald spots from where the hair ornaments rested against the crown of their head, or need to have “extra yak hair stuffed inside her locks to keep them reaching sensuously skyward“.
To sleep at night, they use a wooden neck rest to raise their heavy head of hair, keep from flattening their hairdo out.
To teach a young geisha how to keep her hairstyle from touching the floor and getting flattened, they put a bed of rice bran (or something similar) underneath her hair (raised a couple of inches above) and let her adjust to the neck rest.
If she lets her hair dip into the dry mixture below, it sticks to the wax and ruins the entire hairstyle.
She is then forced to go back to the hairdresser’s for another torturous session until she has learned how to sleep like a statue and not ruin her hair.
- Washington Post – The Geisha Stylist who let his hair down
- “A Geisha’s Life” by Mineko Iwasaki
Thai-Burma: Neck Stretching
It is also done by the girls of the Ndebele people of South Africa wear neck rings to signify their marriages.
It is a traditional display of how rich a family is, with how many brass rings a woman wears around her neck.
Rings are snapped around the necks of girls beginning at the age of six.
A few rings may be added every year, up to a limit of 20. The record, according to one village woman, is 28 brass rings.
If they don’t start at a young age, they have to painfully lengthen the neck around the age of 12 when girls first compete for the attention of boys.
The necks aren’t actually stretched, but their collar bones are gradually being crushed, to give the illusion of very long necks.
A fully stretched neck can be 10-15″ long, and they cannot tip their heads back or else they will tip over and be unbalanced. That means drinking from a straw not from a cup.
The rings are only removed once, ceremonially on their wedding night for a ceremonial neck washing.
Other than that, the rings stay on forever, because the muscles are unable to support the neck alone.
Today, in modern Burma, women wear the rings solely to attract tourists and make money from photographs. Sometimes, it’s the only way to make a living.
China: Lily-Footed Women (or Lotus Feet)
This is a custom practiced on young girls and women for approximately one thousand years in China, beginning in the 10th century and ending in the early 20th century.
One theory is its desire to emulate the naturally tiny feet of a favoured concubine of a prince, or about am empress who had club-like feet and it was in fashion at the time.
Still, the strongest evidence comes from a custom before the court of the Southern Tang dynasty in Nanjing.
They had famous dancing girls, renowned for their tiny feet and bow shoes.
What is confirmed is that food binding was first practiced amongthe very elite and in the wealthiest parts of China to represent their freedom from manual labour as well as the ability of the husband to afford wives who did not need to work outside the home, but only to direct household servants.
This kind of economic and social attractions translated into sexual desirability among elite bachelors.
Zhou Guizhen, 86, says she regrets binding her feet. “But at the time, if you didn’t bind your feet, no one would marry you,” she says.
This produces lifelong disabilities for most of its victims, and the practice waned in early 20th century.
If caught early, and corrected, there are less severe deformities, but some effects will still remain especially if a girl’s arches or toes had been broken or other drastic measures taken in order to achieve the desired smallness.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, some elderly Chinese women still suffered from disabilities related to bound feet.
Mauritania – Very large, obese women considered more beautiful
Obesity is revered among Mauritania’s white Moor Arab population that the young girls are sometimes force-fed to obtain a weight the government has described as “life-threatening”.
It is the sign of wealth that a girl is born fat and stays fat, rather than thin and therefore poor.
Girls end up at 60-100 kilograms or 132-220 pounds “with lots of layers of fat.”
They are force-fed as children, and it’s one of the few African countries where on average girls receive more food than boys.
A generation ago, over a third of women in the country were force-fed as children – Mauritania is one of the few African countries where, on average, girls receive more food than boys.
Some families even send their girls to fat farms:
“I make them eat lots of dates, lots and lots of couscous and other fattening food,” Fatematou, a voluminous woman in her sixties who runs a kind of “fat farm” in the northern desert town of Atar
“I make them eat and eat and eat. And then drink lots and lots of water,” she explained.
“I make them do this all morning. Then they have a rest. In the afternoon we start again. We do this three times a day – the morning, the afternoon and the evening.”
Fatematou said that it was rare for a girl to refuse to eat, and that if they did, she was helped by the child’s parents.
“They punish the girls and in the end the girls eat,” she said.
“If a girl refuses we start nicely, saying ‘come on, come on’ sweetly, until she agrees to eat.”
Fatematou admitted that sometimes the girls cried at the treatment.
“Of course they cry – they scream,” she said.
“We grab them and we force them to eat. If they cry a lot we leave them sometimes for a day or two and then we come back to start again.
“They get used to it in the end.”
However, nowadays it’s becoming seen as old-fashioned, so only one in 10 girls or 11% are treated like this.
“Traditionally a fat wife was a symbol of wealth. Now we’ve got another vision, another criteria for beauty.
“Young people in Mauritania today, we’re not interested in being fat as a symbol of beauty. Today to be beautiful is to be natural, just to eat normally.”
Some men are also much less keen on having a fat wife – a reflection of changes in Mauritanian society.
“We’re fed up of fat women here,” said 19-year-old shop owner Yusuf.
“Always fat women! Now we want thin women.
“In Mauritania if a woman really wants to get married I think she should stay thin. If she gets fat it’s not good.
“Some girls have asked me whether they should get fat or stay thin. I tell them if you want to find a man, a European or a Mauritanian, stay thin, it’s better for you. But some blokes still like them fat.”