by Niti Majethia

Graphics by Esther Shin

“What happened to her? How did she become so dark? Wasn’t she fair-skinned when she was younger?”
“She just started swimming, hence the tan… She’s enjoying it a lot, actually.” 
“Wow, this has to stop! If we want her married, she needs lighter skin. We’re not letting her beauty go to waste like this.” 

This isn’t just my story. This is the story of a majority of young Asian girls who are dictated what they should be before they know who they are. Why? Because being “beautiful” is what makes an ideal woman. But who decides what real beauty is? From skin tone, to facial features, to body types, society has its fixed standards.

As if desirability could be quantified.
As if beauty could ever be defined.

niti majethia, culture, beauty, world
Inspired by a beauty custom native to New Zealand: facial tattoos. Graphic: Esther Shin.

We appreciate curves, only if they’re in the “right” places. If they’re “Kardashian” enough. We let the media dictate how we should feel about our bodies. We follow unhealthy dieting trends without actually listening to our bodies and understanding what we need. We body-shame celebrity mothers who have just given birth and expect them to have that ideal bikini body in just a few days. Because for us, the superficiality of “perfection” is more important than respecting biology.

What’s interesting is how every culture has its own definition of beauty and quite often, some of these ideals contradict each other. America prides itself in selling tanning sprays because tan skin is what’s “in.” But show this spray tan to your average Indian woman, and she will make it disappear faster than anything you’ve ever seen. Porcelain skin is worshipped some places in Asia.

Move over to Japan, where a quirky beauty obsession called the “yaeba,” or the “double tooth,” is all the rage. The culture implies that a crooked tooth is more appealing than a straight one.

niti majethia, culture, world, beauty
The “Yaeba.” Graphic: Esther Shin.

In New Zealand, nothing says beauty like a big tattoo on your face. Surprised yet? Then comes Burma: the longer the neck, the more attractive the woman. Women even stack brass coils around their neck for the illusion of length. Over time, a lot more coils are added and the shoulders are pushed down. These things help women attract men in the tribe.

Then comes Mauritania and Nigeria, where plump women are considered desirable. In this culture, being fat is a sign of wealth. Young girls are sent to “fattening farms” where they are force-fed camel milk (because it’s high in fat, of course).

The Mursi tribe in Ethiopia is rather unusual too. Their idea of beauty includes lip plates.

Niti Majethia, culture, beauty, cultural
Inspired by Ethiopian women adorned with lip plates. Graphic: Esther Shin.

A few days ago, I spent some time with my little cousin. I decided to do an interesting exercise, showing him pictures of some supermodels of the west and asking him what he thought. He’s about 9 now, and I wanted to see if his opinions were as tainted by society as someone older. His response struck me. After showing him pictures of about 5-6 mainstream American models, he said, “they’re nice. But they all look the same. They have the same kind of features. What’s the point if you look like everybody else?”

And those powerful words ring even more true every time I think about it. Everybody wants to reach that unattainable “perfection,” and we all end up being the same because at least in America and even in India, our idea of beauty is narrow and restricted. As proven earlier, the way people judge your appearance will change from culture to culture because beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Some get fat-shamed and others get skinny-shamed. Some places you’re shamed for being “light-skinned;” sometimes you’re shamed for being “dark.” It’s like no matter what you do, you can never win. What’s important to remember is that your body is your canvas. All the so-called “flaws” and “imperfections” are actually important strokes of art that indeed add to your unique masterpiece, whatever that may be: thin, fat, bulgy, dark, fair, thick lips, thin lips, acne, scars, hair, dimples, long neck, short neck, crooked teeth, big nose… These features are beautiful regardless because they are the intricacies that bring you to life. There’s rawness and realness in them.

Niti Majethia, culture, world, beauty
Burmese culture honors an elongated neck, achieved by stacked neck rings. Graphics: Esther Shin.

This body of yours has journeyed with you all along. Recognize it, nurture it, celebrate it. And remember that it is your very own canvas, so fearlessly decorate it the way you want. Wear makeup if you feel like it, wear that red lipstick even though you may not have the “perfect” Kylie Jenner lips, wear that strappy black dress that makes you feel feminine and empowered in your skin.

Once you embrace all that you are, you begin to see the potential for all that you can be. Instead of trying to meet society’s idea of “perfection,” aim to be the best version of yourself. Your authentic, real self. Because that fake tan will fade, that “flawless” skin will soon have wrinkles. Those “big” breasts will sag.

All you will have left are the lives you touched, the love you shared and the experiences that shaped you into the person you always wanted to become. At the end of the day, the ultimate beauty is in the way you lead your life.

Keep on living, loving and learning. I see you, I’m proud of you, and I will be there rooting for you! •

Niti Majethia is a Writing & Rhetoric sophomore from Mumbai, India. In her free time, she can be found eating cake, exploring Austin, binge-watching Netflix or spending time with puppies.

  1. “Because for us, the superficiality of “perfection” is more important than respecting biology.” This is so painfully true, especially in American society. I really enjoyed how you tied together the end by encouraging women to embrace their canvases. No matter the fads or the beauty standards, our bodies are only ours. There’s room for all beauty– the pale AND richly toned skin, the flawless AND wrinkled faces, the perky AND saggy breasts.

    (P.S. These graphics by Esther Shin are PHENOMENAL!)

    Take Care,
    Priscilla Akayla.
    Wonderer. Wanderer. Wxnderer.

  2. Beautifully articulated.Transcending barriers of the age-old belief system. Celebrating uniqueness and looking at the word “Beauty”in a different perspective.

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