Beauty Perception and Culture

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One of the most memorable episodes of “The Twilight Zone” television series begins as a woman chats with a doctor in a hospital room with her head covered with gauze. This woman has undergone a procedure to make her look normal and she is anxiously waiting to see her face without the bandages. "I never really wanted to be beautiful”, she tells the doctor. “I just wanted people not to scream when they looked at me”… “I want to belong; I want to be like everybody else”. However, the doctor warns her that because she has undergone so many procedures, it will not be possible to try again. If the procedure proves unsuccessful, she will be sent to a special area where people of her kind have been exiled. The doctor removes the bandages from the final surgery, and he and the nurses are horrified to discover there has been “no change”. When the woman’s face is revealed to the camera, however, we see that she is beautiful by human standards, but, to our surprise, when the camera turns to reveal the faces of doctors and nurses, we see that they are hideously deformed. The message is clear: Beauty is in the “Eye of the Beholder”.

Throughout history, people in every culture have sought to change the natural appearance of their bodies. They reshape and sculpt their bodies and adorn them with paint, cosmetics, clothing, and jewelry. These customs, however, are diverse and particular to a culture at a specific time. The diversity of body costumes has led anthropologists (e.g., Douglas 1970; Strathern 1996) to conclude that a body is both a physical and a symbolic artifact, forged by nature and by culture at a particular moment in history (Sullivan, 2000).Social institutions, ideology, values, beliefs, and technology transform a physical body into a social body. Bodies, therefore, provide important clues to the mechanics of society (Sullivan,2000).

Body customs have social significance. The body can be a site for the expression of power in a culture and for communicating...
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