This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fifth Web Papers
On Serendip

Musings of An Anthropologist

Elizabeth Newbury

It is hard to create a definition about beauty that could be applied universally when one is only looking through the lens of one culture. As beauty is arguably one of the more elusive constructions of humanity, it is vital to not only look at how beauty manifests itself in different disciplines within the academia of Western culture, but how it manifests itself within other cultures. The social sciences, those sciences devoted to the understanding of humanity as whole, are a vital tool to learning about beauty and gaining a broader understanding. Perhaps what urges me to think thusly is that, as a student of anthropology, a discipline that prides itself with the ability to study humanity in whatever form it may present itself, I was virtually pulling my hair out at times as we tried to define beauty, but did not try to cast a wide net to create a holistic view of beauty.

Thus it is that I decided to shoulder the heavy burden of attempting to provide a crash course on beauty with an anthropologist's eye. It should be made clear, before I press on too far ahead, that in the pond of anthropology, I am a tadpole. I am by no means an authority in any way, shape or form. I cannot speak for my field as a whole. I can speak from the limited experiences that I have had in my limited studies thus far. This paper is by no means supposed to be taken as a doctrine for anthropological theory and beauty.

Let me state simply the acknowledgements, or rather, assumptions that I am making in this discussion of anthropology and beauty. The first assumption is that everyone understands that there are a wide variety of human experiences, and that anthropology, nor any discipline, could ever hope to cover all variances of the human experience in a lifetime, let alone a single paper. The reason this assumption is important is that is means I make no presumptions that there is no golden rule when it comes to human thought and the perception of beauty. Human experience is unique to each individual. This falls under the guidelines of the cultural relativism view, which I will explain later.

Following that, the second assumption is that humans are not born with a definite sense of what is beautiful. They are not born knowing what to find beautiful. It is their exposure to culture, the process of learning their identity as a person and a member of society, that creates the standards of beauty in their mind. Therefore, they are not born knowing that blonde hair is beautiful, but must learn it from the onset. Granted, babies are like sponges, and quickly absorb this information, at such a rate that there are many studies that would argue that some stereotypes are born before a child can even articulate these stereotypes. This series of assumptions can never be tested. There is no means of isolating a baby from all humanity, and then coming back a few years later to see if that same child, had it survived, would have any innate perceptions of beauty. There are a multitude of reasons why such an experiment would never work, the primary one being that it is entirely too inhumane for anyone to consider.

The final assumption I make is that the reader has had very limited exposure to anthropology, let alone anthropological theory. Therefore, before I press ahead with my analysis of various cultures, I'll cover some of the basic terms that I will be throwing around. I'll try to get through this as quickly and painlessly as I can.

When it comes to anthropology in there here and now, everything is relative. Culturally relative, that is. This concept of 'cultural relativism' is moderately new to the field, having only been introduced as a theory in the late 1930's and early 1940's by Franz Boas. Today, anthropologist are making a die-hard effort to remain a third party observer in whatever they are studying. Cultural relativism and importance to the field is immeasurable, for cultural relativism calls for the anthropologist to consider cultures with a grain of salt.

Prior to the introduction of cultural relativism, societies were considered to be on a path of evolution from primitive social groups to industrialized societies. In short, the Western culture was the ideal society, and groups such as the Native Americans were entirely inferior to their way of life. As cultural relativism was introduced, anthropologists began to identify their ethnocentric biases and have made valiant efforts to not apply Western standards on other cultures. Yet even know we, members of Western society, nevertheless find ourselves falling into the same trap of holding other cultures up to our standards.

What I find most amusing about this notion is that this seems to be a human characteristic. Other cultures that anthropologists have studied, such as the Native Americans, consider their own culture to be the height of humanity, the center of the perfect model for our species, and as a result pity our culture for being unable to reach their level of perfection. In other words, while we should try to remain culturally relative, we shouldn't kick ourselves too hard if we miss the mark a few times.

In the following few paragraphs, I'll attempt to describe some of the rudimentary forms of thought that anthropology has concerning the purpose of material items in a society. The reason I have to go into this bit of nitty gritty is that beauty is generally applied to either objects within a culture (material culture) or the modes of adornment on the human body found within the culture. To this end, I will skim over the theories of functionalism, structuralism, and cultural ecology, three theories that I think can be applied to nearly every culture in some way or another.

Functionalists believe that culture develops around the biological needs of the individual. For instance, the purpose of marriage is to reproduce, the purpose of a house is to provide shelter, and thus those are the reasons for marriage and houses. A very popular theory, even today, in part due to its barebones simplicity. Under this theory, the reason for clothing could be to provide protection from the elements, or it could be to try to attract a mate, and therefore people come up with a wide variety of ways to adorn themselves in order to accomplish these tasks. Expanding this to material culture, the reason for creating a painting would be in order to increase your status in order to obtain food, shelter, or a mate; or even to provide you with a basic biological pleasure.

On the other hand, structuralism believes that it is through the analysis of objects in a culture that we can derive their true meaning and delve into the psyche of the culture that created them. For instance, the language of the culture is a reflection on what is important to that society. If there were a culture where there are more terms to describe kinship relations, then kinship is very important to the culture. With our culture, we have a wide variety of terms that we can use to apply to visual qualities, like color and shape. A structuralist would take this to mean that visual stimulation is very important to us and our way of life.

Then there is cultural ecology. Under this theory, the qualities within a culture develop as a direct result of the environment that we exist in. Cultures use what they have available in order to make their material culture, and in turn, as humans are prone to do, they shape the environment around them due to their demands on the environment. One could go as far to say that what people within a society find beautiful will be dependent on what they are exposed to, and what is available to them. Obviously an individual cannot learn that, again, blonde hair is beautiful when they have never been exposed to blonde hair.

Now that that's out of the way, let us turn our attention to more pressing matters, and more tangible arguments.

One of the things we failed to discuss in class was the evolution of mankind. When we are working with such as integral part of our culture, beauty, it is important to at least in passing consider why it may have developed within our society. The Quest for Human Beauty is a fantastic reference for the following argument. One of Robinson's primary arguments is that humans could have created beauty for entirely sexual reasons. For the purposes of furthering the species, we seek out the ideal mate. The ideal mate, primitively, was defined as a healthy individual. But either as our brains developed or we became more selective in our process, we came up with higher standards, and thus the seeds for beauty were created. These standards of what the 'ideal mate' would later become what is beautiful to our eyes.

It would also create competition, and pressure to become these ideology so that we could participate in the furthering of our species. Competition lead to creativity, and no doubt it was for these very reasons that our predecessors began to experiment with adorning themselves. It's a very Darwinian argument, as well as a very functionalist one, that being that we are beautiful in order to fill the basic need of mating.

To our contemporary mind, awash as it is with Adam Smith theory, this explanation seems fitting. In order to get the best resources, the best mate, an individual will have to be better than its peers, who are also after the same resource. To this extent, you have to become the most beautiful, the most desirable individual around.

Pursuing something along those lines would have greatly added to the course, I feel. It would have provided a background, a foundation for us to build upon. Obviously there are a plentitude of counter arguments to the evolutionary theory. Theology could be brought into the mix, whether some other being created us with an ideal beauty in mind. My retort to that is that, if one universal being had created humanity with one ideal beauty in mind, why are there so many variations? But then again, I'm not a theology student, and evolution is a pretty vital assumption to my field.

So far we have hit upon the theories in anthropology, but now let us apply them to actual cultures. Bearing in mind that I am still only a tadpole in the great lake of anthropology, I will turn my attention to describing a few concrete examples of beauty in different cultures that I have encountered in my studies, that could be applied to the class and contribute to a better understanding of beauty. The first among these are the Native Americans.

The Native North Americans, classified as a cultural group, are not as cohesive as one might assume based on that ethnographic classification. Indeed, there is a great diversity amongst the Native Americans, as the name encompasses hundreds of unique tribes that occupy many different geographic regions; from the harsh climate, cold climate of the Artic, to the swampy recesses of the South East, to the vast expanse of the Great Plains, and so forth. Due to this geographic and consequently ecological diversity, it would seem near impossible to discuss the similarities amongst the different tribes as far as beauty is concerned. For the purposes of this paper, I will only consider the Artic and Sub-Artic region.

The primary issue to understand about the Artic region is that there is very little resources with which to construct things from. Particularly with the more northern regions of the Artic, there are virtually no trees, no woodlands, and very little vegetation to work with. Nonetheless, the Yupiks, Inuits, and Eskimos that inhabit this area have managed to create an abundance of beautiful objects.

What I find the most interesting about these tribes is that, while they do create objects out of ivory and driftwood for pleasure and religious purposes, even their basic material goods, such as boxes, baby bundles, bowls, and weapons, are made beautiful through ornamentation. They not only apply dye to the functional objects, they apply meaning. A bowl is not simply a bowl, it reflects the spirit of the sea otter or the whale. In their religion, each animal in this world has a spirit, and this is a way of honoring the spirit so that they will the blessings of these animals in future endeavors, such as hunting, or simply just good luck in their lifetimes.

As a consequence, there is a lot of animal imagery in the Artic material culture. But they aren't simply depicting a sea lion or a sea urchin as they see it on the beach or in the ocean. Utilizing the limited color palette that they have at their disposal -- most of Inuit objects are painted in blacks, reds, and possibly green or blue -- they use the natural colors of the wood and outline the animal they are trying to depict, fashioning an image that is not only a representation of the animal itself, but of the spirit. Animal faces sometimes seem to take on a human quality in their artwork.

As a result, one could conclude that the Inuits find spirit animals beautiful. Another interpretation could be that they find geographic designs beautiful, as they seem to utilize a very rigid, geometric style in their artwork. Yet that's only scratching the surface. When I as an anthropologist look at these objects, I see an appreciation for the basic necessities in life. Everything to the Inuit is beautiful, from the smallest comb to the canoe. This sense of beauty no doubt blossomed from a long history of having to scrape by from year to year, of being victim to the elements and the migration of animals, but in the end it is a sense of beauty that we could all draw from.

Going across the Pacific Ocean now, let us turn our aesthetic eye to East Asia, specifically Japan. The Japanese have a long history of traditional art forms, all of them beautiful, from kabuki theater to ikebana, the art of flower arrangement, to calligraphy to ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. But we will hold off on diving into these traditional forms, and consider a less conventional form of beauty that I have grown particularly fond of.

Martial arts.

What's this, you say? Martial arts? That's hardly a form of beauty! But martial arts is beautiful to the culture. It is an icon of the culture, and it represents more than just memorizing a series of motions for combat. Martial arts has a long history of preparing individuals for combat both physically, mentally, and spiritually. An individual learning martial arts is, in effect, learning a belief system that is tightly connected to Buddhist and Confucius ideas. As with the Native Americans, the beauty lies in that everyone in the culture recognizes the significance of the action. With martial arts is a way of seeking not only cool kicks, but also enlightenment.

Consider this. In our culture, we consider ballet to be a beautiful art form. It's graceful, it's eloquent. The ballerinas are exerting masterful control over their bodily movements in order to express a piece of music. Like in ballet, it is important in martial arts to have control over the body, and, again, not simply for the effectiveness in a fight. In forms such as aikido, which translates roughly as 'way of harmonious spirit', the movements are as graceful as any ballerina. Just as the ballerina is an extension of the music, the movements in aikido are an expression of a spiritual meaning.

Yet despite all of these examples, you may still doubt the abilities to integrate social sciences into this pursuit of beauty. Let me then pull from the shelf the example of Muslim women. In my studies, I had the great fortune to run across the book entitled Veiled Sentiments. It was the description of one anthropologists journey with a Arab family, a Muslim family. The anthropologist, a woman, lived with this family, and by living with them discovered the disparity between women and men in the society. Or perhaps, not discovered, for we have always known that there is a hierarchy in Muslim society between men and women, favoring men. But through the eyes of a woman, we were able to look at the woman's world, and the twisted beauty of the veil.

In Muslim society, a woman is an object of sin, for she is a sexual object. She represents primal lust. In order to prevent sin from occurring, the women must consequently wear a veil to hide their faces and bodies from the world. So long as she wears the veil, she is showing not only respect for her family and representing them will in the society, but also that she is acknowledging her religion. She is acknowledging that she is an object of sin, and that she is doing her part to prevent sin from happening. When she wears the veil, if she is following cultural norms, she will remain silent in the presence of men, and only speak in the woman's world. The veil is an integral part of the woman's identity.

Is the woman therefore beautiful? It would seem that the woman is only beautiful when she is acknowledging her inferiority. When applying this to the class, it is very much like the argument that we, as women, are acutely aware of the male gaze upon us. These women, aware that the man's gaze is upon them, must wear the veil, must become invisible to the world. In this cultural sense, I would argue that the woman is not the object of beauty. The object of beauty is the veil, for it represents the religion, the sacrifice of the woman for the betterment of her family and society. It is not an aesthetic beauty, but it is a beauty nonetheless.

It is hard to create a definition of beauty, even to apply within one cultural group. There are too many ways for humanity to vary, too many instances of exceptions to the rules one would wish to apply. But if one will step away from the lens of their own culture for a moment, and consider the wider realm through the eyes of an anthropologist, you would find a beautiful variety of different perspectives on beauty, and perhaps even a glimpse at the inner beliefs of the society that created those views. Through the culture, you can find the beauty of the human spirit.

Bibliography and Recommended Literature

Pictures: Inuit Gallery

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