Welcome to year two!
On March 3rd, 2017, I launched the New Worlds Patreon project, to fund an ongoing series of essays on different aspects of worldbuilding. In that first year, we covered all manner of things: folk magic, rites of passage, fictive kinship, mourning customs, calendars, natural disasters, residence patterns, the afterlife, and more. I’m delighted to say that twelve months later, the project is still going strong — and human culture is such a broad and varied thing, I am far from running out of things to say. So thank you to all of my patrons, and let’s dive in with this week’s topic, which is beauty!
The recent release of the Black Panther movie, and the fantastic discussion around the visual look of the film’s setting, has me thinking about beauty: the ways different societies have viewed it, and the things people have done to try and enhance it.
This is actually a deeply weird topic. Some things are nearly universal; biology encourages us to respond positively to the visual markers of good health. (On the other hand, that hasn’t stopped people from admiring consumptives or the “heroin chic” look of mid-’90s fashion models.) Many other aspects of beauty, though, are distinctly culture-bound, as local circumstances cause certain features to be admired — even features that look distinctly bizarre to someone not embedded in that framework. We think of our own standard of beauty as natural and logical, and other cultures’ standards as strange.
In truth, they’re all pretty strange. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t patterns and reasons.
Let’s start with that idea of health. Clear skin is usually more appealing than acne or scars; bright eyes are more appealing than bloodshot ones. I always look at the parade of Olympic athletes and think they’re all attractive: maybe not supermodel gorgeous, but they’re all incredibly fit (in a variety of ways), and that comes through. Some people claim that facial symmetry — not just in the macro sense of “you don’t look like a Picasso painting,” but the much more fine-grained measurements of eye size and placement, etc. — is a biological marker of good health, but there’s been at least one study disputing that interpretation. It’s undeniable, though, that we tend to interpret more precisely symmetrical features as more attractive.
Or how about youth? The lizard brain that groups the whole world into three categories — “it can kill me,” “I can eat it,” and “I can make babies with it” — thinks young people are pretty because they’re of reproductive age. But that doesn’t mean greater age is without its own beauty; especially in a society that reveres elders, grey hairs or laugh lines have their own appeal, lending character we might call “distinguished.” So although youth is often attractive, one person might look at a young man and think “he’s in the bloom of his youth” while another thinks “he’s too soft and unfinished.”
Hair can signal health, too, or youth, or both — which is why we sometimes go to great lengths to make up for its deficiencies. Malnutrition can make hair brittle and thin; so can advanced age. Strong, thick hair says you’re well-fed and in your prime. But this runs into pragmatic considerations, because while growing your hair very long helps you show off that feature, shorter hair is often more practical in daily life. The result is that many societies have encouraged young unmarried women to display their long hair — much in the same manner as a peacock fanning out his tail — and then tuck it away under hats or kerchiefs or at least into braids once they wed. But hair care and styling is a complex enough topic that it’ll have to get its own essay some future day.
Skin color is a particularly contentious area when it comes to discussing beauty. Thanks to centuries of racism, there’s a deeply ingrained tendency throughout the West and even into other parts of the world to value the skin tones we associate with “white” ethnicity, and see less to admire in darker skin. It’s striking that as I read my way through a novel-style rendering of the Indian epic Mahabharata, the language used to praise the various beautiful women takes the form of phrases like “as dark as night.” Nowadays, I’m given to understand that Bollywood actresses have an easier time of it if they come from the paler parts of the country.
But racism is only one of the factors at play here. Historically speaking, many jobs involved working outdoors and traveling anywhere meant doing so on foot or on horseback, i.e. out in the sun. Because of that, paler skin (for whatever values of “pale” apply to your ethnic group; that would differ between India, Japan, and Norway) could be a sign of wealth and leisure: it meant you didn’t work, or your work was the kind of thing we would call “white collar” nowadays, and you could afford to travel in a palanquin or sedan chair or carriage. This has undergone a weird reversal since the Industrial Revolution; as a lot of work shifted indoors and enclosed transit became available to lots of people, having a suntan has become the way of signaling that you belong to a more wealthy and leisurely class.
Similar shifts have happened with weight. Look back at Renaissance paintings, and you’ll find plenty of nude women with big hips and butts and breasts who would be classed as “overweight” now. Meanwhile, our modern trend toward extreme thinness would be massively unappealing in the Renaissance — such women would look half-starved! Economics plays into this again: it used to be that plumpness showed you were rich enough to eat well. These days, it’s more likely to mean you can’t afford the fresh fruits and vegetables and gym time required to maintain the ideal “beach body.”
So what is valued in your fictional society will depend in part on economic circumstances and what types of activity are valued. In a warrior society, big muscles say you can hold your own in a fight, and a scar or two says you’ve survived some fights; a slender, beardless youth with perfect skin looks vulnerable and immature by contrast. Hop over to the Regency, though, and those muscles say that you spend your time in uncouth pursuits like labor — something no gentleman of quality should sully himself with. (If you must go to war, you should be an officer, not a front-line soldier.) Skip ahead another two hundred years and that ripped bod might or might not have ever been in a fight, but it sure as heck has spent a lot of time at the gym.
All of these things are situational to a greater or lesser degree, not iron, universal rules. They vary between societies, and between groups in a society, and between individuals; one person’s ideal can be another one’s “meh” or even “ugh.” I mentioned consumptives before: you would think having an obvious wasting disease is not attractive, but tuberculosis came to be associated with art, and its symptoms were taken as evidence of a romantic soul. If coughing up blood can be appealing, damn near anything can be sexy, if the right eye is beholding that beauty.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. In the coming weeks I’ll break this down further by discussing the various methods people have used to enhance their beauty — which in turn highlight the decisions being made about what is beautiful and why.