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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

What makes a woman beautiful? 6,000 kilometres from WALA’s German headquarters, in a country that consists primarily of desert, a woman is considered beautiful when she has a plump, well-rounded figure. In the West African country of Mauritania, body mass symbolises health – meaning that full figures are seen as being attractive and bewitching. This is borne out by a local saying that holds that "the more ample a woman’s figure, the greater her place in her husband’s heart". This ideal is rooted in a time several centuries earlier, when most Mauritanians were nomads. Back then, a plump woman was a living testimony to her husband’s wealth, an indication that he could afford to keep her well fed.

Beauty throughout the ages

Since the dawn of civilisation, all cultures have had their own notions of what constitutes beauty. These vary to a substantial degree, particularly as regards ideal weight. While mediaeval German men were still in thrall to willowy girls with slender figures, their Renaissance counterparts enthused about large thighs, wide hips and ample bosoms. It was only in the 18th century that slimness began to become en vogue. While young women with graceful figures were revered in the Sturm und Drang proto-Romantic movement in German literature and music, the delicateness of the female form was also admired during the Romantic era. This prompted women to start drinking vinegar and lemon juice in order to keep their figures in check. The Victorian age revived the notion that portliness was an indication of prosperity. But all of this came to an end in the 20th century. Personal weighing scales were invented, exercise became all the rage and values changed radically, with firm bodies suddenly being seen as an indication of successfulness and self-discipline. With brief interruptions – such as in the aftermath of the Second World War – this outlook has held sway to this day.

Western winds of change

According to Austrian sociologist Waltraud Posch: "Beauty has always been that what is hard to attain. History clearly shows that, during times where food was hard to come by, well-fed figures were seen as being more attractive than thin ones." In times of plenty, however, restraint is the order of the day. A Canadian study at the end of the 1980s revealed that the status of women also had a role to play. Particularly among successful professional women, the number of exceptionally thin figures is well above average. However, just as fashions can change overnight, sometimes ideals of beauty can be redefined within a short space of time. The winds of globalisation are carrying Western values all over the world. A case in point are the Fiji Islands, where full figures have long been admired. This changed abruptly with the arrival of television – having been exposed to US TV series, young girls suddenly found themselves too fat. Mauritania, where the first gym for women recently opened in the country’s capital, may well be in the throes of a similar change.

The trend towards authenticity

Our concept of beauty is shaped by what we see every day. Which, for the most part, is slim, unwrinkled young (or at least young-looking) women on advertisements and posters, on the front pages of newspapers and on our TV screens. According to Waltraud Posch, recent years have seen the advent of a further social imperative: to be authentic, to remain true to one’s own type. These days, the trick is for make-up to be so subtle that it is barely noticed. The same discreet approach is often taken with cosmetic surgery, which now aims to make women look "fresher", as if they had just come back from holiday, rather than 20 years younger. Instead of showcasing the unattainable beauty of professional models, certain well-received advertising campaigns and magazines have featured regular "girls next door".

Generally speaking, people don’t like conforming to norms – they like letting their individuality flourish. Ten years ago, a survey conducted in Germany asked people whether they felt under pressure from ideals of beauty. Although almost 80 claimed not to be, we are still loath to stray too far from accepted norms. Over half of respondents did not wish for their looks to fall short of what was expected in their circle of friends and working environment. Many women who wouldn’t dream of having cosmetic surgery still pluck their eyebrows, shave their legs and tint their hair as a matter of course. When women are asked why they go to all this trouble, they generally say that they are "doing it for themselves". However, sociologist Waltraud Posch believes that we have already internalised social norms to such an extent that we view them as our own: "These days, the corsets are in our minds".

The look of love

Symmetrical features, smooth skin and sleek, shiny hair are seen as beautiful all over the world – they are a visible promise of fertility and good genes. However, the notion that beauty invariably leads to happiness is an unfounded one. US studies have shown that pretty women are only marginally happier than their less attractive counterparts. Even models are plagued by self-doubt. The phenomenon is essentially similar to that of wealth: people soon become used to what they have and begin to want more – be it more money or an even more flawless face and figure. However, there is a certain kind of beauty that does correlate with happiness. And it doesn’t matter how shapely your legs are, what shade of blue your eyes are or how much you weigh. The secret is that finding yourself attractive has the potential to make you happy. This has been proven by psychologists at Chemnitz University. Similarly, many 50-year-olds surveyed for a US magazine claimed to be more attractive than they were aged 20. In this case, it is their sense of self-esteem that has risen. Our well-being is less dependent on what other people think of us and expect from us than on how we feel about ourselves. You might say that the people we love are automatically beautiful – and this applies most of all to ourselves.

This article was first published in via WALA September 2012.