Beauty's geography

Did you know girls in different countries think different parts of their bodies are the most beautiful? 

In Arab countries a girl's eyes are seen as her most prized asset, and they need to be big and dark! But this actually started when ancient ladies used to paint around their eyes with dark kohl to protect the sensitive skin from the sun. In Mauritania, Africa, they laugh at the idea of liposuction, because they’re teased at school if they’re skinny. Instead girls are sent on 'fat camps' to plump up. In southern Ethiopia, Karo girls cut their skin to create scars. Some Balinese women have their teeth filed into points, and without pain-relief!

If we believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then how come different eyes see beauty in opposite things? Beauty is obviously tinted by the glasses each culture gives us. 

Beauty ideals often have sad stories behind them but if we understood their history and cultural context a bit better, we might be happier with who we are. Aussie girls prize tanned limbs, but when I visited Cambodia recently the girls all stroked my fluorescent white skin (I don’t tan, I go white-red-peel-white), and asked if they would become beautiful and white like me if they moved to Australia. I didn’t destroy their dreams by explaining they’d just go browner in Oz, but I was struck by the fact that they coveted a body attribute that I’d always seen as a flaw. They’d tell you it’s because white skin is more beautiful, but actually it comes from ancient times when women who worked in the fields got very brown, so dark skin meant a girl was poor, whereas rich girls who stayed inside all day were whiter.

On the other hand girls often believe it’s important to cover up different parts of their body. If you were taking a bath and someone walked in on you, what would you cover?

Your bellybutton?

Your girly bits?

Your ankles?

Your face?

Your knees?

Your legs?

You might think the answer is obvious… but across the ocean a girl’s answer might be very different from yours. In the UK a girl would probably cover her girl bits, a Sumatran would rush to cover her knees, while her pen-pal from Samoa would carefully cover her belly button. Each would protect a different part, because each culture around the world has very different ideas about which parts of a woman’s body are beautiful and which are private.

You might be thinking, so what? But in a culture that is obsessed with beauty, and intent on making us buy stuff (in the belief that this can make us more beautiful), it’s super important to understand what beauty is really all about! It’s insane the lengths we will go to, to feel more beautiful. 

Perspectives on women’s bodies change from woman to woman, depending on body type, personality, the country they live in, what they believe, what era they’re born in and their age. So rather than trying to find out what will make us more beautiful, we’d be better off learning to value what we already have. We need to have a look around and learn to appreciate and empower women to care for their bodies by seeing their beauty, acknowledging the power it gives them, and protecting that beauty out of respect for themselves and those they live alongside.



In 1970 there was a mini-skirt ban in Malawi because apparently they were causing an increase in traffic accidents. Women who ignored the ban were deported.

Being 'bigger' in Zambia is one of the highest compliments a woman can receive, and hers is a body type that is envied and wanted by others.

Beauty is not one’s own, but a reflection of one’s culture
— Zambian saying
If there is character, ugliness becomes beauty; if there is none, beauty becomes ugliness.’
— Nigerian proverb


In the middle-eastern country of Iran, nose jobs are  seen as the best way to get more beautiful. Women wear their bandages with pride and some even get fake bandages to draw attention to their newly perfected noses,. Other beauty trends seem to focus on kohl-lined eyes and perfectly threaded brows. Some Israeli Jewish women wear a sheitel (a wig or half-wig) to respectably cover their own hair.

Everyone wants to be young and skinny. This is awful. Curves are marvellous. Wrinkles are hypnotising. Why not just be happy with who you are?
— Alber Elbaz (Israeli fashion designer)


Spanish gals take dressing up to another level. It's not unusual to step into a restaurant downtown in Spain and find women in beautiful evening gowns any night of the week. And their men like to wear three piece suits as well. No shorts and joggers in these eateries!

In Spain they’ve made a law that anyone in beach attire, on roads not immediately adjacent to the beach, will be fined up to $1000, so don't leave the beach in only swimmers!

Beauty is not considered to be skin-deep, but as deep as a bottomless heart
— Spanish Proverb


Women in traditional saris show their bellies (midriffs) without a second thought, but never their shoulders or knees as these are seen as important areas of skin to protect and value!

The perfect matching accessory for your sari is not jewellery but your smile
— Sunny


In Asia it's cool to have snaggleteeth (kawaii or cute fangs), and they'll even have dental procedures to have fake and custom-fitted capped teeth to make them broken or protruding.

The Japanese will go to extreme lengths to keep their skin milky white (bihaku), using whitening (bleaching) creams, or wearing gloves that cover up to their armpits and carrying umbrellas, especially on super hot days. Eep !


Imperfections are what make us beautiful
— Japanese saying