Daily Archives: May 19th, 2013

Beauty standards are arbitrary and culturally mandated

Short piece in the Observer magazine today, about how, in Ghana, leg, chest and facial hair (but not under-arm hair) are considered attractive in women.

This bride had chest hair – lots of it. On her budget, the epilation options would doubtless have been numerous, but she had shunned them. I looked around, wondering if anyone else was a stunned as I. No one batted an eyelid. Since then I have become an amateur collector of mental images of Ghanaian women who flaunt their body hair with pride. It is becoming a rather crowded library. It’s getting to the point where if I see a pencil-skirt suit and stilettos without a generous layer of leg hair, it feels as if something is missing.

It just goes to show how arbitrary beauty standards actually are, and how much bull-shit ‘evolutionary psychology’ (the ‘just so’ stories that have replaced religion as a means of justifying the status quo) explanations are.

Unfortunately, it looks like the trend may be dying out, due it colonial, homogenising beauty standards.

This stretches far back into Ghanaian tradition, older ladies have told me. They tend to lament the trend among younger women to wax and shave and pluck. And I can see why – even though I still do a double-take at bridal chest hair, I’m realising there is something tragic about the growing number of women who embrace the razor, feeling so ashamed of their own cultural heritage. “In my ignorant younger days of raw cultural beliefs, hairy legs (eek!) were the beauties,” a Ghanaian convert to shaving wrote on her blog. Her disdain almost transforms women who leave their body hair intact into the poster children for a radical act of post-colonial defiance.

And, of course (since Ghana is hardly some feminist utopia), there is a double standard at play:

flaunting facial hair is a dangerous line to tread. While some men find it beautiful, others take it as a signal that a woman is a witch.

The same thing could easily be said about lip-stick, or body piercing – the point is that this is a game that women can never really win.