Subjective Beauty: Cultural Perspectives, Gendered Expectations & Body Modifications

The screening of Liz Mermin’s The Beauty Academy of Kabul in class today was a clear example of the ways in which beauty standards travel imperialistically across borders in a sort of homogenizing beauty colonialism. The idea of beauty presented in the film was obviously that ingrained in the Western conscience as the “norm” and not particularly considerate of local conceptions of the beauty. This subjectivity of beauty got me thinking about body modifications and the way they are received across cultures. It is so ingrained in our beauty culture that piercings and tattooing the body is potentially detrimental to one’s success to the extent that many occupations require that applicants be free of visible piercings or tattoos in order to apply, as if the way someone looks affects their work ethic. In addition it’s interesting to considerthe way in which some piercings and tattoos seem to be gendered or in some way revealing of hidden characteristics about an individual’s identity.

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(Photo by Patrick Arias)

Whenever I research new piercings I always seem to come across some blog posts where someone is asking the forum if a a certain piercing would be considered “gay” or “weird” if a guy got it. The one lobe piercing on men, for instance, was a practical way for gay men to identify one another before society became somewhat more open-minded. But what’s so curious is that asking a question like that to the public, especially over the Internet, invites so many subjectivities because people from difference cultures will have different opinions they can express side by side. It’s almost as if the person asking knows that their desired piercing is taboo but that want someone, anyone, to confirm that it is in fact going to marginalize them if they get it. I’m sure people in China wouldn’t think twice is they saw a guy with one ear pierced, or consider that that piece of metal hanging from his ear relates in any way to his sexual orientation. Nose rings are another example. In America they are viewed as something of a right of passage for coming-of-age hipsters and punks but in India they are a symbolic characteristic related to womanhood. Tramp stamps are yet another example. It’s commonly believed that women with tramp stamps are promiscuous and rebellious. Stretched earlobes are yet another. In America stretched earlobes are viewed as part of an alternative subculture but in many African tribes they are an essential practice of the culture. When is body modification culturally appropriative?

What really got me thinking about all this was meeting a beautiful woman named Maganda at a party at the Museum of Sex this weekend. She is absolutely stunning and happens to have a forehead tattoo, chest tattoo, and hand tattoos. There’s this stigma for women to be “natural”. Obviously this is just a standard set by men who want their women to be unique but not push boundaries too much. In what ways can body modification be considered self-care, and, especially for women, body reclamation?

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(Photo by Ostin Torre)

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One thought on “Subjective Beauty: Cultural Perspectives, Gendered Expectations & Body Modifications

  1. Your post left me with a lot of thoughts about body modification and the hypocrisy some people go about commenting on it with:

    One of the biggest problems of projects like “Beauty without Borders” is that, much like colonialism, it imposes the thought that all women should see beauty work as having the same set of hairstyles, makeup routines, look, etc. This does not take into account the beauty culture and standards of these people, or question what kind of styles THEY would like to work on.
    When it comes to body modifications such as piercings or tattoos, I find it very interesting how one culture’s normal practices become another culture’s “subcultural” or “taboo” practices. I remember in high school, one of my best friends who is Indian told me how her mother was pressuring her to get a nose piercing, while according to my parents, if I got a nose piercing, people would think I was “trashy”. It is crazy how some people sometimes associate tattoos and piercings (at least, in this country), with being low-class, promiscuous, or dirty. I once had an experience with a hairdresser who had her eyebrows tattooed on, who proceeded to tell me how she thought tattoos were ugly and low class, and “why would you mark your body like that? It’s unnatural”
    I find this dissonance so interesting, because many women have no problem tattooing “perfect” eyeliner or “perfect” eyebrows, and don’t consider it body modification as they would, say, an artistic tattoo.
    Much like we have discussed about plastic surgery arguments, that if someone is having plastic surgery to “correct” something on their body to seem more “normal” in the eyes of society (aka braces, breast reconstruction after mastectomy, people born with non-life threatening facial abnormalities), we tend to shrug it off as being okay. However, when we see people who have plastic surgery to enhance or drastically change a body part simply for “cosmetic” purposes, we tend to denounce it as being “unnatural.”
    The tattooing of makeup comes somewhere in between the two of those points. Many women who do it, do it because society imposes this look of a “normal” women-with perfectly shaped eyebrows and flawless “natural” looking makeup–and they simply do not want to spend their time every morning trying to achieve this look. In a way, for them, it is “correcting” their flaws. However, it also is a way of enhancing a body part with something that is not naturally there to begin with. So it IS indeed, body modification, and I believe that while it is not the same as tattooing a quote, a flower, or a piece of artwork on your body, it is the SAME process and pain one must go through.

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