For the majority of world history, what was considered beautiful varied wildly from culture to culture to say the least, but they shared one common factor in that beauty was determined by local standards. What I mean by that is people in China determined the beauty standard for Chinese people and people in Ireland chose the beauty standard for Irish people. To be even more specific beauty standard cold vary drastically from village to village and region to region within the same country. A good example can be found within pre-colonial North American indigenous tribes where the beauty standards and physical characteristics of the southwestern Navajo tribe were quite different from the beauty standards and physical characteristics of the Midwestern Coer d’ Alene tribe.
This is not to say that certain practices of body modification for beauty and sex appeal weren’t painful and debilitating just because they were by the people and for the people. The ancient practices of foot binding in China, the leg and neck stretching of the Ndebele women of South Africa, and the Ampallang penis piercing of Indonesian males are good examples of the old adage “pain equals beauty”. but what I am saying is that these practices illustrated just how differently cultures around the ancient world manifested their image of what beautiful and healthy was.
The world’s political and economic turn towards globalization had a dramatic affect on the concept of what was considered beautiful and healthy all over the world. As time went by and western modernization reached all corners of the globe, so did the now accepted western concept of beauty. This meant that the images and ideas of what was beautiful and healthy were no longer determined by local culture and you now had the majority of cultures, tribes, villages’, and ethnicities from around the world attempting to mold themselves into the image of beauty that was formerly found only in the region of Northern Europe. In other words, the beauty standard one tribe has become the enforced beauty standards of every tribe.
The story of body image and beauty within the United States is very similar. Like the various cultures’ fond in the indigenous population, post colonialization US was large enough by the 19th century to have such a variety of cultures’ and ethnicities' within her borders that you begin to see a subtle variation in what was considered beautiful and healthy from region to region.
Heavy concentrations of German and Polish immigrants in the northeastern United States meant that the ideals of beauty and health were much more different than in Louisiana with its population that sprouted a high percentage of French, Spanish, Africa, and multi-racial people. Also, take into account that what was considered the epitome of health and beauty in the rural areas of the USA, with its emphasis on the strength of body needed to run a farm and raise a large family was quite different from the industrialized areas of the Northern, or even of the ruling classes in pre-civil war Sough. With the exception of Louisiana with its sly wink and nod stance on interracial dalliances, the common factor in the standard of beauty found throughout these regions, urban and rural was that you had to be white.
Fast forward to the flapper era of the 1920’s and we begin to see a developing trend in the idea that one standard of beauty should apply to everyone within the US regardless of your social and economic status. In other words, the beauty standards found within the village of the ultra wealthy leisure classes with their emphasis on tanned caucasian skin (which is not to be confused with dark skin that you’re born with), and extremely thin bodies started to become the enforced standard of every village, rural and urban.
With a brief deviation in the 1950’s, little has changed in the United States’ concept of beauty and health from the iconic flapper of the 1920’s. The visual image that many people conjure up when they think of a “healthy” body on a woman is pretty carbon copy of the flapper with the exception that DD breasts that are now added via Photoshop. The image of what is considered a healthy male has fared little better in that the ideal physique of a man is depicted as that of someone who obviously has the money and time to spend endless hours in the gym to attain the hyper sculpted figure of a “healthy person”.
The concept beauty and body image among people of color within the United States is fraught with the complexities and emotional landmines that come with trying to fit a mold of beauty that DNA has pretty much rendered impossible. African Americans in particular face a unique split within the community due to the fact that dark-skinned black men are now considered part of the ideal male body image while dark-skinned black women still remain at the bottom of the mainstream society’s beauty totem pole. Add to this the commonly believed myth that black women don’t suffer from body image issues like their caucasian counterparts and you get a pretty good picture of how the concept of body image is a complicated issue within our country to say the least.
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