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Cultural Differences in Weight and the Beauty Standard

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes it is in the eye of the culture. When it comes to beauty, what is accepted as beauty socially is often very different from what is accepted in different cultures. According to the textbook, defining culture as a separate thing from society often breeds cultural stereotypes, because there are no definitive ways to pinpoint cultural behavior to any one set of people. Nevertheless, there are noticeable distinctions, though not definitive; when discussing what is beautiful sometimes produces controversy, as evidenced in an article recently published and removed from the website in Psychology Today entitled “Why are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” Historically, a well-rounded, female body was a symbol of health, wealth, and fertility. In today’s society, a slim, petite woman, is often the feminine idea of beauty, however, some cultures still prefer a more curvaceous silhouette.

At one time in European culture, a well-rounded body was a symbol that individuals were wealthy and well fed. It was a sign that proved that the individual was in good health and did not suffer from the deadly diseases that plagued the country. A thin person was often thin and viewed suspiciously as a disease carrier. The poor were also tanned because they worked outside and were easily distinguishable between the pale, soft figures of the wealthy. After a time, the wealthy began to feel that the well-fed look was an ostentatious display of their wealth. Eventually, enculturation changed the way the Europeans aristocrats looked. Wallis Simpson, an American socialite, was famously quoted saying, “You never be too rich and too thin”. This European standard of beauty was eventually socially learned and is still a very prevalent idea today. Instead of pale, fleshy bodies, they are now thin and tanned. It is mostly people of Asian and European descent whom mostly display this schema.

People from African, Hispanic, and Pacific Island ethnicities are more like to prefer a larger woman over a smaller one. Historically, these ethnic groups also viewed a well-rounded body as a symbol of wealth, fertility, and prosperity. Although the media is saturated with European standards of beauty, creating a cultural hegemony in some instances, these cultures still majorly prefer a more curvaceous or larger silhouette. Samoans and Hawaiians often deliberately gain weight to attract the opposite sex. Being overweight and obese is usually a norm in these regions to the point of being folkways and mores.

The differences in what is viewed as beautiful in different cultures often cause controversy and stereotypes to develop between cultures. As mentioned above, the article from Psychology Today created a worldwide controversy and an outpouring of anger from African Americans, as well as people from other cultures. Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa published his study theorizing that White, Asian, and Native American women were more attractive than African American women because they were fat, had more testosterone, and contained a multitude of mutated genes. He attempted to prove with his research that African American women were objectively unattractive. His pseudo-science eventually resulted in him being fired. Psychology Today first attempted changing the title of the article, and then deleted the article from its website because of continued backlash. Beauty is subjective and is based on beliefs, ideology, and perceptions; therefore it was impossible for him to find an objective solution for his research.

In conclusion, there is no universal standard of beauty. Despite the media, cultures still have their own beliefs and views about beautiful. Cultural universals do exist and other cultures are influenced by external cultural ideas, but it has not created an overwhelming reversal of social learning or enculturation in diverse cultures of perceptions of beauty. Instances of people surgically altering their appearance to change or remove an ethnically physical feature, are not unheard of. For example, some Asians alter their eyes to appear less Asian and use skin bleaching creams to lighten their skin. Even though situations like this happen, it is not to the point that cultures are losing themselves to some type of universal standard of beauty, but that the widespread reaches of the media and advertising influence some changes in people who are generally unhappy with their overall appearance. Beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, culture.


Frazier, Christopher. “Dynamic Beauty: Cultural Influences and Changing Perceptions”.
Hohonu: A Journal of Academic Writing. 2006, Volume 4, Number 1
Kautsky, John. The Politics of Aristocratic Empires. Transaction Publishers, 1997 Temple University. “Ideal Weight Varies Across Cultures, But Body Image Dissatisfaction Pervades.” ScienceDaily, 23 Oct. 2007. Web. 11 Dec. 2011.

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