Taboo Beauty

The text The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror by Mimi Thi Nguyen explores the role that the burqa and beauty discourse play in the formation of geopolitics. The body is seen as the site for which women can restore their self-esteem and independence. Neoliberal ideals put the responsibility on the individual to work on their selves. Through the emphasis placed on the individual to fix their bodies, they conform to normative beauty standards and buy into the consumerist society. One of the central topics in the text is that beauty politics simply reinforce Western or Eurocentric beauty ideals. This clip from the second Sex and the City film exemplifies some of the arguments being made in the text. This compilation of Samantha’s moments from the film show the bias regarding the Middle East and the burqa. In the majority of the clips, Samantha’s sexuality is always on display. Her libido and sexual acts are compared to the supposedly prude Arabs.

The text reminded me of differing beauty standards and practices that are observable all over the world. Body modification is a growing subculture in today’s society. People all over the world are exploring their bodies and their limits. While at first people rebelled by getting piercings and tattoos, they are now pushing the boundaries and creating new methods in which to express their identity. However, this is not to say that people did not modify their bodies before this new wave of popularity hit in the 60’s, due in part to the modern primitive movement. Cultures have been practicing body modification for centuries. The majority of these practices began as ancient traditions and religious or sacrificial behaviors. This subculture has grown and expanded, from ancient to modern times, becoming an extremely controversial topic, and even taboo to some. The National Geographic program Taboo portrays how cultures beauty and body standards vary drastically. Beauty standards are culturally relative. Differing beauty standards greatly impact morality as well. Other communities view differing beauty practices as linked to immorality. In one episode of Taboo titled “Extreme Bodies”, modern beauty practices are highlighted, showing that these things happen not just in remote corners of the world, but also right here in the United States. One example of modern beauty practices that have taken on new meanings after reappropriating older cultural practices is scarification. African tribes have been using body modification in the form of decorative scarring for thousands of years as well, using this ritual to mark the start of adulthood. The scars also symbolized national and tribal identities. They acted as a mark of identity that would distinguish one tribe from another, as well as exemplify their beliefs and values. However, this practice has been appropriated by people in other developing countries, such as right in the United States. When tattoos became too mainstream, and piercings too routine or boring, people turned to scarification for a new way to make the body beautiful. This painful process, which some may view as mutilation or disgusting, is one of the ways in which beauty practices vary not only from culture to culture, but also from individual to individual. Other examples of extreme body modifications are tongue splitting, transdermal implants, and bagelheads. Bodybuilding is another type of body modification that is seen by some as beautiful, and by others as excessive and disgusting. To this day, the body modification subculture is influenced by ancient and tribal practices. People have adopted the ancient ritual of hanging by the flesh as a rite of passage and modified it, making it about an experience as well as the feeling it produces. Many tattoo parlors and piercing shops specialize in tribal prints and designs. Tattoo artists have adopted the designs and make them as authentic as possible, without actually reproducing the ritualistic experience for the customer. Customers come in asking for symbolic tattoos or piercings, dating back hundreds of years from native tribes all over the world. They say that their motivations are spiritual, or that they arise from tribal origins.

The cultural variations on beauty standards is evident in this clip from Taboo titled “Body Modification”. This clip explores other country’s cultural practices and how they are inextricably linked with socio-economic ideals. Beauty practices are never isolated from the environment in which they exist in. Body modification as a means of showing position and status can also be observed in the PaDaung women of Thailand who stretch their necks with metal rings. Girls start wearing these rings at the age of 5 or 6 and continue to have one ring added each day until they marry. The number of rings directly correlates to the status of the woman’s family. Another example of body modification that is linked with socio-political issues is the pressing down of female breasts in African tribes. For many, beauty practices are tied in with issues of status. Especially for women, there are certain provisions set in place that make it difficult for them to survive or thrive if they do not comply with these beauty standards. As Nguyen writes, “Beauty’s force can become a medium through which forms of power connect beauty with morality and biopolitics with geopolitics” (362).

Beauty practices is an act “othering” cultures. The burqa, as the author Nguyen points out, is seen by many as the “absolute negation of life”. The burqa is observed as a symbol of barbarism and the subjugation of women, as well as a violation of not only women’s rights, but human rights. The “other” in the form of fashion and beauty practices, positions those that are deemed foreign as ugly and different. European aesthetics are seen as beautiful, and others as barbaric. This represents a divide between the “West” and the “Rest”, as the text points out. One of the things that the burqa represents to the rest of the world is a denial of individuality. Beauty is seen as the path to give one individuality. Beauty practices are seen as restoring identity to the individual. However, these beauty practices are only from the perspective of the West, and thus the ideals of personhood are Western-centric. Other culture’s beauty ideals are seen as taking away from individuality and personhood instead of giving it. As Nguyen writes, “The cosmopolitan West is identified as the standard against which to measure cultural competence…the standard knowledge formations and aesthetic sensibilities that circumscribe some persons as particular sexualized and racialized selves” (379).


One thought on “Taboo Beauty

  1. Taboo is a show that I have never watched before. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the clips that you shared. Elaine Davidson’s 8,000 body piercings were particularly interesting to me. As you stated, beauty practices/body modification practices are determined by cultural norms and values and also the individual. Davidson, left her family, home and cultural fetters in Rio behind in pursuit of an aesthetic in the UK that would fulfill her childhood dream; appearing in the Guinness Book of World Records. The fact that she made and felt that she had to make such a drastic move, speaks to how embedded beauty standards and cultural norms are.

    Without any intention of being harsh, I paralleled her display of self with that of circus displays in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of freakish human bodies, particularly while we she was doing street performances. Conversely, she feels beautiful and empowered and really could not care any less about what people think. Although, paradoxically, it seems that not only were the piercings a pursuit of beauty, but also a pursuit for fame/attention, as it plays out in the episode. So I find it interesting that she says she does not care what other people think of her. If people completely ignored her or if she were never to grace the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records how would the meaning of her body modification change and place of self, as she did leave Rio in pursuit of her childhood dream; to have the most body piercings of any other human and appear in the Guinness Book of World Records. Would it then be a case of body modification gone wrong?

    The fact that it brings to light the limits that people transgress in pursuit of beauty is compelling. Moreover, the nuanced internal paradoxes about what is valuable/invaluable about her beauty politics are interesting as well…I do not care what people think about me, but think enough of me to make me famous.



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