One of my favorite aspects of traveling is exploring the varying ideals of beauty held in different cultures. This will be my first installment in a series on beauty around the world – my perspective is based on my own observations and experience, so I welcome further insight from readers.
I’ve spent the past year between the UK and Asia, and I love observing how concepts of beauty can vary from place to place. There are some common themes – for example, everybody is keeping up with the Kardashians, and fair skin is an ideal throughout South Asia – but a place’s history, culture and ethnicity can have a more enduring influence on concepts of beauty than popular ideals. I remember having a discussion with someone in the UK who felt that the ideal for curvier women in some cultures was dated, or even wrong – they hadn’t caught up with what was now fashionable – and while in some places that may be the case and ideals are changing, on the whole many societies have standards that are too entrenched to be affected by trends.
I find that refreshing in a way because sometimes I wonder to what extent the standards of beauty that we – say in the UK and US – uphold are what we ourselves find beautiful rather than what we are told is now beautiful. Beauty ideals seem to change all the time based on what’s fashionable – the androgynous waif in the 60s, feminine glamour in the 70s, powerful amazonian the 80s, emaciated heroin chic in the 90s – each of which had a specific body type. Beauty in the 21st century seems to be dictated by popular culture more than ever, often with a worrying trend for the super-skinny and general obsessiveness.
I’ve been coming to India since I was a baby and some ideals have proved to be timeless. For example, the desirability of fair skin is a staple of Indian beauty – brands like ‘Fair and Lovely’ have been around for decades, and in recent years global brands have jumped on the bandwagon with their own fairness lines marketed specifically to the Asian market. I can’t imagine this is an ideal that will ever go out of fashion in India – it’s far too deeply-rooted in Indian culture, not to mention that now it’s an extremely lucrative industry. On the plus side, it also means that women here are vigilant about protecting their skin from sun damage so it could be seen as a healthy pursuit in that respect.
|” I like being wholesome. Maybe today being attractive has more to do with the relatability factor.” – Katrina Kaif
Another concept of beauty that is inherently Indian is modesty – here, it’s still a virtue. Except in particularly liberal sectors of society, clothes are never too revealing and public behaviour adheres to underlying moral codes that belie India’s socio-economic progression. Even in the public eye, the most successful Bollywood stars are those who are effortlessly demure and classy. Ideals remain similarly traditional for physical beauty. Even though the skinny trend has gained some popularity, a ‘womanly’ figure – large bust, curvy hips and rounded tummy – still holds strong mass appeal.
When I come to India, I automatically adjust my appearance to suit Indian sensibilities and weather. The way I dress becomes looser (in a structural, not moral sense!) and more covering, and my makeup is similarly altered – in such hot weather it’s impractical to maintain a shine- and blemish-free complexion with heavy makeup. Mainly for the health of my skin, I prefer to simply embrace the environment by sticking to minimal makeup (including essential SPF) and I find that most of the women around me seem to adopt a similar approach. Given that luxury branding is a rapidly-growing industry in India, not least in the cosmetics sector, I’ll be interested to see what impact this will have on Indian women’s attitudes to practicing beauty.
|Keeping cool in India
For now, natural beauty is still widely favoured – it doesn’t hurt that Indian women are ethnically blessed with beautiful strong hair and nails, and they make the most of their natural attributes through immaculate self-maintenance. As well as a strong ethic for health and well-being, beauty parlours are everywhere and affordable so it’s commonplace for women here to have long, shiny hair and neatly manicured nails. To my eternal disappointment, I didn’t inherit the Indian genes for thick hair and long nails but but I’ll leave you with an Indian ad for Dove shampoo which will illustrate my point – granted, these are models, but Dove is a brand that celebrates natural beauty and I know enough Indian women with amazing hair to confirm that this isn’t too far off the mark.