Older Concepts of Beauty

Burma - The Enn

Growing up in a Westernised environment where concepts of beauty are often that which favours caucasians, it can be easy to forget that this is not the only perception of beauty that everyone has.

Universally, it almost seems, people seem to favour skinnyness and whiteness of skin for a plethora of reasons. From needing ‘whiter’ skin to secure a better life on the behalf of many African American or Aboriginal people in the past, to the idea that whiter skin indicated that these people were affluent and could afford to spend their days inside rather than toiling in the fields in the sun.

Larger eyes are prized in Asian cultures, with many women performing the double-eyelid surgery to get rid of their single eyelid and ‘open up their eyes’ so they don’t appear (apparently) ‘tired’ and ‘disinterested’.

But all these concepts mean nothing to the ethnic minorities. I listened in this evening as my parents watched a DVD on different concepts of beauty in ethnic minority groups, and it was a fascinating look into a different world.

Long, slender necks

The Kayan people of Burma are perhaps the most well-known of these groups, as they wear brass coils around their neck, increasing them throughout the years to produce the effect of a lengthened neck. While it appears this way, however, the women’s necks are not actually lengthened, but the weight of the brass coils pushes down on their shoulders and actually deforms the bones at the base of their neck.

Removal of the brass rings would not be recommended after the age of 25, and even if the girl is younger than this age, she cannot have the rings removed for more than 30 minutes, and in that time is unable to move or do anything as it has great potential to damage her neck. Her neck appears more slender and elegant somehow when compared with the normal female neck, but the copper coils have left bruises and marks against the base of her neck, and there appears to be a hallow just underneath her chin.

I admit, the effect is actually quite elegant, and while I cannot imagine how keeping hygiene and living with the heavy weight of the brass coils would be like, it is interesting to see the extent these people this tradition. Of course, only the women practice this, while the men do not have to.

Many women these days are still continuing on these traditions, but it seems that a few regret their decisions and say that they would not want it for their children. In more developed communities, many are also beginning to remove them either to pursue further education or in protest. It’s another case of foot binding, in another generation — mutilation of young girls’ feet caused them much pain later in life. Concepts of beauty gone too far?

Neck rings on a woman, from The Crowded Planet

Blackened Teeth

Most people I know would probably avoid the look of blackened, rotting teeth and in some situations people even purchase whitening creams and the like to ensure their teeth are sparkling white. Another product of commercialism?

In any case, for the ethnic minority of Burma, the Enn and even the Japanese people until the end of the Meiji era (who called it ohaguro), blackened teeth were seen as beautiful.

Again, this custom is/was mostly performed by women, and teeth dying is like teeth sealant and apparently can help prevent tooth decay. Various herbs I don’t know the name of are used, but the Enn chew betel to colour their teeth and will often also wear black lipstick to heighten the effect. The Enn also have another tradition that is part of the next section, so we’ll talk about that later.

They say that the blackness of the teeth contrasted against the pale skin of their faces is even more beautiful. The Japanese have a superstitions about this that I don’t see other communities having though.

Not only do the Japanese and Burmese minority groups practice this too though, but some ethnic groups in Yunnan, Vietname, Laos, Thailand and Pacific Islands seem to too.

Stretched earlobes

If nothing, they are certainly eye catching. Wearing earrings is certainly something common in our culture, and stretching earlobes can certainly be said to be pretty common as well, growing in popularity.

The Brâu ethnic minority group of Dak Me village is one of these groups who pierce and stretch the lobes of their ears, and the Enn is another, as are lesser known Karen/Kayan peoples. The larger they are able to stretch the lobes of their ears, the more beautiful the effect, yet this has the downside of thinning the skin of their earlobes which means this skin could easily tear.

Children start small, like with the brass neck rings, increasing the gauge of their lobes as they grow older. Some do not ear rings, but wear weights on their ear lobes to stretch the lobe downwards.

Again, this seems to be yet another thing that is isolated to women. Why it is that women always are the ones burdened in making themselves ‘beautiful’ and attractive is something I don’t necessarily understand, when the men are able to dress or do whatever they like more freely. It may not necessarily be to attract the other gender, but often it is based on the males’ values of what is beautiful — or what is seen as what they value anyway.

Of course in this day and age, many men out there will say that women do not need to be skinny, or have big breasts to be beautiful, and in fact a curvy woman is beautiful, but for every man that ‘prefers what they prefer’, there are those that ridicule and criticise women for how they look and feel the need to shout insults to people in the street for no reason at all. It’s an interesting progressing, but I hope that at least we can keep progressing forward, and continue combatting and evolving these ideas of beauty we have today.

Top photographs from Travelfish. Not mine.
Second image from The Crowded Planet. Also not mine.