Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's Beauty?

Who knew that two countries could view beauty in completely different ways? Isn't it weird that what's considered beautiful in one culture is considered the essence of ugliness in another? Some of my students were admiring my mole a few months ago. It took them a while to agree it was a mole since it was brown instead of black, but once they did you would have thought it was a heart-shaped birthmark. A moment later they were pointing out each other's moles and complimenting them. Needless to say, I was shocked. Once I figured out what "mole" was in Urdu, I asked, "Are these beautiful in this country?"
            "Oh yes, especially if they are here," my student said, pointing right above her lip. It took a lot of self-control to keep a straight face.
            I'm pretty sure that uni-brows are also considered beautiful, although no one's told me that directly except our house helper; she says that uni-brows are nice as long as they aren’t harry. I know a Hindu girl who has a small v tattooed on her forehead to join her brows, and although tattoos are often used to disfigure beauty they're often used to decorate as well. In The Kite-Runner, a book that addresses a similar culture to the one I live in, the narrator praises his wife for her uni-brow that "looks like a bird in flight." In the same sentence the author praises her hooked nose. People call small noses mota, or fat, and although I've never heard of anybody liking their nose, all of my girl students with small noses complain about them. All kids who have naturally brown hair dye it black.
            My friend Mary tells me that I'm fat for my age. Considering how thin she is I don't take this as seriously as I'd like to; it's one of those moments when you just have to laugh to endure. Just to test her I asked her if one of our married friends was fat, knowing that the lady wasn't fat at all but wanting to know what her opinion was. Mary paused for a moment, then answered, "she's all right for her age. But you're younger."
            "Mary, I'm American. We're just built different than you."
            "What about American models?"
            It's difficult to explain that Hollywood is in America, not America in Hollywood.
            One of the things I get a lot is that I'm beautiful because I'm so ghora, or white. The whiter you are, the more beautiful you are regardless of any other traits you have. When we first moved here my language helper was a girl about my age, and I thought she was admirably beautiful—tall, dark, with thick black hair, a thin face, and large bright eyes. One day she complained to me that she was ugly.
            "What are you talking about?" I demanded, shocked that she would say such a thing.
            “I’m black,” she answered, and for the first time I noticed that she was exceptionally dark for a South Asian. It drives me crazy how these beautiful girls will put their hands on mine and say, “oh you’re so white, I’m so ugly,” but it gets worse than that.
            I was talking to two older girls a few weeks ago and we casually got into a conversation that all girls love to talk about: marriage.
            “Are you going to marry someone from this country?” Mulan asked.
            “Maybe—if it’s God’s will, and I love him.”
            The girls looked at each other. “You would even marry a Sheeti?”
            Sheeti is the derogative term for Kumrani; they’re a small people group that are the descendants of the Sindhi African slaves. Back in the day when this country had kings and queens, the royal family would take slaves from Africa just as our own ancestors did years ago. One of my closest friends is a Kumrani, and we often go to Kumrani functions with her. More than any other people group I know, they are full of energy, pride, beauty and intelligence. So when my students asked me their question the answer was easy.
            “Well, if it was God’s will, and I loved him, then of course I’d marry him.”
            The girls giggled. “But you’re so white, and he’d be so black!”
            These girls have never seen a Sheeti in their lives so I understand a little where they’re coming from, but it disturbed me that they so quickly discarded an entire race of people because of the color of their skin. But don’t we do that? It may not be skin color, but don’t we discard people because of the way they look? I know I do. I involuntarily ignore the person who doesn’t catch my eye, and am drawn to making friends with people who are good-looking.
            Who made me the judge of God’s handiwork? What right do I have to say one thing is beautiful and another is unattractive? When God says in Genesis that man is very good, he meant that. The point is to see the beauty a person has regardless of the affects of a sinful world. Every person has beauty, because God made man good.
            That goes for how I look at other people, and also how I look at myself. Sure I’m not a model—thank goodness—but God made me beautiful in my own way. We shouldn’t beat our heads against the wall because people think we’re unattractive, because really, who’s judgment is better, God’s or man’s?  Ten to one there’s someone somewhere in the world who thinks you’re beautiful. The grass is always greener on the other side—South Asians bleach their skin, white people get a tan, fat people go on a diet, thin people eat more, straight haired people own curlers and curly-haired people own straighteners. Really. We focus so much on the outside of people as if God could make a mistake.
            God can’t make a mistake. But we can. That’s why when Samuel went king-hunting and kept getting fixed on the strong handsome men, God put his priorities straight: “Man looks on the outside of a person, but God looks at the heart.” We can’t change how we look, but we can change our hearts and that’s what God wants us to focus on.


  1. Very interesting! it sure is funny what different ideas of beauty we have in different cultures.

    1. haha it is. I wonder if there's a slight difference between American and Canadian perspective of beauties, that'd be an interesting project.

  2. Really well written, Bliss. Those are some great examples; I'll be sure to keep them handy for future discussion. I can sympathize with the difficulty to explain that "Hollywood is in America, not America in Hollywood." Where do we get our ideas of beauty, I wonder? How much of it is cultural, how much is natural, how much is from the Fall?

    1. Thanks Sam. I like that tidbit at the end about culture, nature and the fall...that also must be taken into account.

  3. Great blog Bliss..... From your Nanna.... YOU are beautiful to me!!!!