Monday, June 04, 2007

A Culture of Beauty

On May 28th, Japan's Riyo Mori was crowned Miss Universe in Mexico City. No, I didn't watch the pageant, but the fact that Miss Japan won has been a topic of some discussion here in the Land of the Rising Sun the past few days - the perfect lead-in to my assignment for this week - to write about beauty.

Actually the elusive question of beauty has been something I've been mulling over for some time, since reading Scott Westerfield's UGLIES. (I highly recommend his books in this series: UGLIES, PRETTIES and SPECIALS.) In Westerfield's futuristic world, children are raised to think of themselves as ugly until which time as they can undergo an extensive operation that will make them beautiful. The books give rise to the question: exactly what is beauty?

In Prettytown, beauty is defined as having clear skin, symmetrical features, silky hair and perfect, nubile bodies. This ideal is drilled into the heads of pre-operation children ('uglies') so much so that they willingly submit to giving up their individuality in order to become pretty.

Though the technology in Westerfield's world is more advanced and the emphasis on beauty taken to an extreme level, I couldn't help but draw parallels as I was reading to the very real pressures our societies place on being beautiful and the artificial lengths we will go to to achieve that beauty.

We may think we have come a long way from the old Chinese hobbling of women to achieve a dainty, small foot, or the Victorian corsets that displayed an abnormally-small waistline, but we still pander to our societies' definition of what Beauty is. In the Western world, we paint our faces and lacquer our nails, poke holes in various parts of our bodies to display jewelry, prick dye into our skin to adorn ourselves with art, inject toxins into our muscles to eliminate wrinkles and even submit to the knife to change our appearance.

What does this have to do with Ms. Mori?

Interestingly, when she was awarded the crown in the largest beauty pageant in the world, reactions here in Japan were diverse. Naturally, many are proud to see Asian beauty on display. Others question whether Ms. Mori, who attended school in B.C., Canada, is simply an Asian version of a Western ideal.

The latter I find very interesting because exactly what the ideal for beauty is in Japan these days is very confusing. Gaijin (foreign) models are often used in commercials and advertisements. Dolls and posters feature children with round, light-colored eyes. Many younger women bleach their hair. My daughter, who has blonde hair and blue eyes, was the darling of her Japanese elementary school. "Big eyes" are considered beautiful - eyes very unlike the traditional Japanese almond-shaped eyes. To what Asian ideal was Ms. Mori to aspire?

What differences in what is considered beautiful have you noticed in various societies/parts of the world?

What do you consider beautiful?

Does it even have to do with looks?

*(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)