To many of us, it may seem that certain standards of beauty – like thinness, for example – reflect an objective reality. We’ve heard it so often that it just feels true – being thin is absolutely better than the alternative. But this is not the case. Cultural standards of beauty are arbitrary, and are often quite different, depending on where in the world you’re located. Here are some insights to keep in mind.
No more stick figures
In Spain, the ideal figure is not necessarily one that is stick thin. A government study there, which measured the bodies of more than 10,000 women to help create new guidelines for the clothing industry, concluded that most women have either an “hourglass,” “pear,” or “barrel” shape. While this might be oversimplifying things a bit, the study nonetheless places an official government seal on the fact that we all have different bodies—and not all of them are super skinny!
Fattening rooms in Nigeria
According to BBC News, wealthy Nigerians sometimes visit facilities that offer “fattening rooms” where they can eat, sleep, and pack on the extra padding that’s considered attractive. Clearly, being skinny is not a universal standard of beauty.
Body image disparity
Another study that compared the body image of men and women in Ireland and the United States found that Irish men were more likely than American men to wish their bodies were “larger” than they currently are, whereas American women displayed a greater desire to be thinner than Irish women. This suggests that there are different cultural expectations in terms of beauty standards in the two countries. Irish men may experience more pressure to be “large” or muscular, whereas American women are bombarded with media messages telling them they need to lose weight.
In addition, the researchers noted that their study echoes many other studies that have found that certain body image concerns are more intense within the U.S. than elsewhere. This is yet more evidence to suggest that the pressure American women face to look a certain way is not the result of a universally accepted beauty standard.
How we present ourselves
A Women’s Health Magazine poll asked women around the world what kinds of outfits they’d consider appropriate, and what behaviors – like sleeping in the nude – they would do with a romantic partner. The responses differed dramatically across national borders. For example, while 72% of Brazilian women would wear “a sheer top over a lacy bra,” 61% of Turkish women would not. Clearly, this kind of attire sends a different message depending on the cultural context. What is considered attractive in one locale may be seen as too revealing in another.
Similarly, while 59% of women in China and 58% of women in the U.K. answered “no” to the question, “Do you think you’re beautiful?” 92% of women in Indonesia said “yes.” This seems to suggest that perhaps places like Indonesia have a broader definition of beauty than certain other locations.
Beauty changes over time
It is important to note that, not only do standards of beauty vary from culture to culture, they also evolve over time. We’ve all seen images of, for example, Marilyn Monroe, who was of course considered a great beauty in her time, though she was significantly “curvier” than many of the famous actresses of today. For another example of changing tastes, take hair styles. In the 1960s, long, straight hair was fashionable, but by the 1980s, big, curly perms were more popular and straight locks were called “limp” or “lifeless.”
The important point here is that whatever we see as “ideal beauty” is completely arbitrary. There is no objective standard of physical attractiveness. Someone who may be considered “too heavy” in the U.S. may be seen as having the ideal body type somewhere else. The same body type that’s “in” one decade can be “out” the next — and then back in again a few years later.
So the key to truly being happy with how you look is not to try to lose weight, change your hair, or buy a new wardrobe. Instead, learn to love yourself, and remember that none of our cultural beauty standards are based on any kind of real truth, so there is no point in trying to conform to them. At the end of the day, we all have different bodies, and they are all completely beautiful, just as they are.
Become a Mind Body Eating Coach
Now enrolling for October 2023.
Make real, lasting change - in your life and the lives of others using eating psychology coaching tools.
Subscribe to The Psychology of Eating Podcast
Get notified when new episodes go live.