Perceived beauty is said to be a matter of facial symmetry. In early times, people whose faces were perfectly symmetrical were more likely to be healthy. Scientists theorize that because of this, humans are more likely to choose mates or at least who we find especially attractive based on symmetry. Beauty is narrowly defined, but faces that are perceived as ugly can come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and features. This week’s episode of Taboo explores the extremes of ugly. However, one culture’s version of beauty may be another person’s taboo. Beauty ideals are sometimes taken to the extreme, to some becoming an example of ugly.
A tribe of people in Burma value the length of a woman’s neck as a sign of beauty. Kayan women, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Burma, wrap brass coils around their necks at a young age, adding rings as they get older. The weight of the coils presses down the collarbone and ribcage, compressing them and making the neck appear elongated. The women wear these rings continuously, only removing them to add new coils, which is a time-consuming process. A group of Kayan refugees now live in Thailand where their small village is considered a tourist attraction. Some people feel that this exploitation, while others argue that it gives the Kayan’s an opportunity to support themselves. The Kayan women’s ideal of beauty is controversial.
In New Zealand, the Maori people sometimes adorn themselves with elaborate swirling face tattoos called, “moko”. These tattoos are considered beautiful, but more than that they are considered sacred and traditional. The Maori culture has had resurgence in the last 20 years and the moko is a piece of their mythology as well as identity. The moko is said to have come from the underworld as a gift to the Maori. Every moko contains ancestral information that is specific to the wearer. Within the symbols is the wearer of the moko’s family and tribal affiliations as well as their place within the social structure and their social standing. While other cultures find the heavily tattooed faces of some Maori to be taboo, it is an important expression of identity to the people.
In Mauritania, women who are overweight are prized as wives and considered beautiful, but the Mauritianians take it to another level. In a country where food is scarce, a woman who has stretch marks and full curves is considered healthy and in child-bearing condition. However, mothers in rural Mauritania are force-feeding young girls for marriage the West African country. The larger the girls are the more likely they are to find a suitor and so their mothers force them to eat in excess, even to the point of abuse. Some girls have even died from gastric distress and pancreatitis.
What is beautiful and what is ugly is as they say, “all in the eye of the beholder.” Humans though, seem to love extremes and we have a penchant for taking extremes all the way into the taboo. Tune in the Taboo: Ugly this Sunday July 22 10pm et/pt.