Layers of Silk, Cow’s Blood, and Beauty Standards.

Renaissance artwork depicting seven nude women standing in a row
Renaissance artwork by Hans Baldung titled “The Seven Ages of Women”

By Chloe Rigg 




These words seem to have no connection at first glance. But, they are actually different female body shapes. These classifications tie into modern beauty standards and body image. Today’s society wants women to strive to have porcelain skin, be tall, and skinny but with some curve. These body standards exclusive to the diverse multicultural world we live into today. One might think that beauty standards have always looked like the traits previously described. Looking back into history through different cultures will prove this completely wrong. What society defines as beauty is a fluid idea that could change at any moment.

So, what traits portrayed the “ultimate” beauty throughout history?

Japanese artwork depicting a female warrior in armor
Japanese artwork titled “Tomoe Onna, The Woman Warrior”

Well, I’m here to answer that question, starting with year 794 in Heian Japan. In this time, women were exceptionally beautiful if they had long hair, silk robes, and specific makeup. Heian Japanese women would grow their hair as long as possible. (The record being 23 ft. in length!) These women wore their hair straight down their backs. Which seems like the only possible style when you have floor length hair that weighs a tremendous amount. Their makeup routine consisted of using rice powder to paint their faces white and adding sharp contrast by drawing their lips bright red. Shaving off natural eyebrows and smudging black powder just below the hairline was also common beauty practices. The last cosmetic routine sounds most bizarre when compared to 21st century standards. Women would paint their teeth black, to add more contrast with the white face and red lips. Black teeth were also desirable for resembling the women’s black hair. The cherry on top of the Heian Japanese style were the elaborate silk robes. The most common style consisted of twelve layers of robes, however higher-class women were said to wear as many as forty layers! The first layer was usually red or white, which was only visible at the neck. The second, was a plain robe on which ten to forty layers were placed upon. The top layer was made of the finest silk and displayed elaborate detailing. Thankfully, women today don’t need to wear multitudes of layers or paint their teeth black to be viewed as beautiful.

Qajar Iranian artwork depicting two lovers with similar features and clothing
Qajar Iranian artwork titled “The Lovers”

Even more unique beauty ideals were prevalent in 1780’s Qajar Iran. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, describes how beauty ideals were practically synonymous for men and women: “…beautiful men and women were depicted with very similar facial and bodily features. Sometimes only the style of headgear distinguishes male from female in visual representation.” Feminine centered descriptions such as: “rose faced, sugar lips, tulip cheeks, and crescent eyebrows,” were used to define both male and female beauty. The start of a mustache that signified an adolescent was also a very desirable Iranian trait. This Iranian culture had a distinct difference between the one being desired, and the one to do the desiring. The trace of a mustache was viewed as desirable because it was a sign of blooming manhood. Full facial hair symbolized the one doing the desiring, though beards were not a main distinguishing factor for manhood. This idea probably leads back to the fact that women with facial hair were also desirable. It follows that facial hair would have aligned with sexuality over manhood. This trend can be seen in today’s culture with “lumbersexuals” who desire facial hair. However, facial hair is not the most highly desirable trait and women with facial hair is unconceivable.

Three Ethiopian tribal men wearing warrior style clothing of colored robes
Ethiopian tribal men wearing warrior style clothing

An Ethiopian tribe still prevalent today uses competition to show us a marvelous beauty standard. This one is for men. The Bodi tribe of Ethiopia celebrate the Ka’el ceremony each June, where men of the tribe compete to gain the largest belly. (Which doesn’t sound all too strange, until you learn the exact preparation for this ceremony.) Six months before each ceremony, families have the option to enter an unmarried man into the competition. These men then reside in a hut for the duration of six months following three rules: to not move or have sex and they must live on a diet of milk and cow’s blood. Serious competitors, will drink this foul combination all day, in hopes of growing the largest belly. After six months, the men don ceremonial dress. This consists of covering their bodies in white clay and ash, wearing headdresses of shells and feathers, and beaded necklaces. They then walk from their huts to the ceremony, which is a tremendous strain for the men. Some even require full assistance because they are immobile. Once arriving at the ceremonial site, the men then parade around a sacred tree and are watched by spectators who rub them with alcohol and wipe their sweat. The women of the tribe then inspect the men for potential husbands. Large bellies are attractive, and fatness is seen as a good attribute in a spouse. Luckily for the men, this straining process isn’t a 24/7 standard. Once a winner is chosen, the men’s lives return to normal and they lose the gained weight. The winner is regarded as a tribal hero and becomes the most desirable bachelor.

In conclusion, as we can see in these examples, beauty truly does lie in the eye of the beholder. What defines beauty standards can be boiled down to a “mirror mirror on the wall” situation. The mirror might show beauty as forty layers of silk and twenty-three feet of hair, or androgynous features with desirable facial hair, or even bloated bellies from drinking milk and cow’s blood. Though easier said than done, beauty standards shouldn’t affect body image because everyone has their own unique features to be praised. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Women and men usually feel the need to conform to societies’ wants and desires.

If we take a step back and understand beauty standards are highly subjective and have vast variety from culture to culture; we can accept ourselves without having to align with “ideal” features, because everyone is different and beautiful.



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