Thursday, March 25, 2010

Charisma Fused Into the Age of Beauty

The Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus defines ATTRACTIVE as "aesthetically pleasing" (captivating, appealing, luring, good-looking). This definition runs the gamut when applied to reality. Ask any male or female whom they find attractive and most would agree on similar criteria varying only in degrees from person to person. It does not matter whether the two people have dissimilar features. Actors Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise have nothing in common-physically, but it would be a toss up by American women in defining whom they find more appealing. The same would apply for actors Boris Kodjoe and Shemar Moore. But where do these concepts of who is hot and who is not come derive?

First, it would behoove us to start from the beginning when beauty was seemingly non-existent. John J. Macionis in his book "Sociology", outlines that the primate order among mammals is believe to evolved some 65 millions years ago of which humans are believed to have originated. Scientists believe that man emerged from the great apes some 12 million years ago. The first creature with identifiable human characteristics lived 3 million years ago. Our species homo sapiens (thinking person) evolved 250,000 years ago. According to Macionis, Civilization based on permanent settlements, which human culture and biological evolution is linked, has existed approximately 12,000 years. As we became more social, we created a culture, which has been transformed over the years to what we have today. All cultures have at its base: symbols, values, norms, language and tools. Over the years, within our culture came the concept of beauty.

Every culture that signifies the aforementioned attributes determines what is attractive and that becomes a value of that culture. One might believe that what we value in American society is valued throughout the world. Not so! In our culture, women value thin bodies while men value large muscles. In other cultures obesity is valued so much that individuals go out of their way to gain weight. Authors Peter Brown and Melvin Konner under the online article The Reader: An Anthropological Perspective on Obesity (pp. 401-411) asserts that in many societies, fatness is linked to self-worth and sexuality, which is culturally defined by them as beauty. Further, High status Efik pubescent girls in traditional Nigeria spend 2 years in seclusion getting fat. Other fattening farms are found in other parts of Africa. The Tarahumara of Northern Mexico consider fat thighs as the first requisite for beauty according to Brown and Konner. Consequently, what we deem as natural is often learned behavior created by culture.

Contrast this notion with a USA Today newspaper article entitled, “Fat or Fit? By Nanci Hellmich (Health Section: January 8, 2001) taking from the upcoming February, 2001 issue of Men's Fitness magazine that identified the 25 fittest and fattest cities. Among the fattest were Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Columbus, Ohio. Among the fittest were San Diego, Honolulu, San Francisco, Seattle, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jeff Lucia, executive editor of Men's Fitness said, "We know not every body is going to be happy, but obesity is a serious health problem." In the same article, John Foreyt, an anti-obesity crusader and director of the Nutrition Research Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston says, "I don't think it's fair to single out Houston…Every city is fat and has its problems." Most of the respondents blamed junk-food as the culprit for the fattening of cities, while an environment of healthy eating and exercise was given for the fittest cities.

Based on these splintering points of view, it goes without saying that beauty or attractiveness is culturally defined. What we may gleam from this notion is that what we believe to be true is relative. That is, it depends on how you look at it. If you are Nigerian, the notion that you must be obese is as significant as being thin and muscular in the United States. If this is the premise, there must be a flip-side to this. Studies have consistently shown that obesity is a large contributor to health problems as well as death in the U.S. However, in the U.S., millions of people suffer from some type of eating disorder largely caused by attempting to fit into our normative idea of beauty. The point is that there is a price to be paid for whatever perspective we embrace. The question becomes how much is too much? The price that Americans pay for "battling the bulge" seems to be at a great cost. If you take the idea that Americans are being hit with a double whammy of being physically overweight with the psychological abuse that goes along with not fitting into our concept of beauty, it becomes an ongoing battle. Many women and men have professed that after they have lost the weight they still suffered from the debilitating effects of having been overweight. Consequently, under their thin bodies lives a fat person.

It seems inescapable to divorce ourselves from the dictates of culture. When a society deems what are its priorities, as social beings, it becomes increasingly challenging to go against its norms without being characterized as an outcast. The strange phenomenon is that individuals who stray away from what is culturally defined quite often find themselves coming right back to the thing they disliked with a new spin on why it's now acceptable. The isolation is too much, besides the fact that it is human to seek the pleasure of life and avoid the pain. In the U.S., it is often painful not to be attractive and those who have overcome the pain have fought a great psychological battle.

The stakes are always being raised. Once the standard of beauty has been expanded, intangible traits like “charisma,” become even more important. Try if you will, but being a social animal comes with its “upside” and “downside” and by societal dictates, you’re never enough.

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