The practicing of tattooing, scaring or marking the body stretches through history and between cultural boarders. Designs, methods and backgrounds vary largely in line with the context. Tattoos can be interpreted as stories to be told, carriers of a symbolic message or meaningful reminders to the bearers. According to a study from 2015, 30% of people in the UK between 25-39 years have at least one tattoo (Statista, 2015).

Hence, for some it may be an empty signifier but most people declare having a reason behind their tattoo. Swallows represent freedom, anchors stand for stability and eagle tattoos mostly express a patriotic love to an idealised America. However, the art of tattoos can go beyond individual choices, as we have witnessed during the holocaust where jewish people were robbed their names and strictly referred to as the number tattooed to their flesh.

Another element of tattoos is the belongingness of a certain group. Membership can be illustrated with a shared symbolic meaning and bodily pain. Prison gangs and other criminal groups are good examples of this. Many of the members of the Japanese criminal organisation, Yakuza, have full-body tattoos made with non-electrical tools. The ink injected in ones skin represented a commitment and loyalty towards the syndicate. Given the overall negative approach to tattoos existing in the Japanese society, the fully inked bodies are even more captivating (Yamada, 2009).

Alfred Gell said that “Tattooing (and conversely non-tattooing where tattooing is expected and normal) is a very specific and recognisable way of modifying the body, and, via the body, reconstructing personhood according to the requirements of the social milieu” (Gell, 1993). Just as Yukuzu's expectations to undergo tattooing, the marks of one body can function as a mirror of ones culture or society. One can however question if Gell's words are applicable on the Western form of tattooing where the emblems mostly reflects an individual marking and not an recognition to a specific group. Differentiating the tattooing of adolescents in the UK to a group like the Maori people of New Zealand therefore seems fundamental when aiming to understand tattooing on a deeper level.

The Maori people are known for their inked body parts, foremost the faces. They use their art of tattoo as a consolidating element between body and culture (Pritchard, 2000). Patterns are carved into the skin in moko and design leaves many spectators stunned. Records of acknowledgement of the 'incomparable art' and 'remarkable faces' dates as far back as to in 1770 when Captain James Cook arrived to the continent. The further interpretations from Cook's botanist on the reasoning behind the face scars are however deeply impregnated with highly ethnocentric judgement (Ellis, 2008).

Alongside with the moko art being an important cultural element are the tattoos also a question of aestheticism. The pigmented skin fascinates, seduces, terrifies and acknowledges the culture simultaneously (Te Awekotuku, 2002). A way to express one self. Within the Maori society a well tattooed face signifies beauty. Immanuel Kant on the other hand, when reflecting over the recognition of beauty, considered that the simple Maori patterns where to compare with the natural beauty of flowers but that a separation from the face is fundamental to perceive it (Kant, 1724).

As we have seen earlier, the notion of beauty is deeply associated not only to an individual's context but also deeply rooted in subjectivity. Tattoos may go beyond appearance as with the Maori. They can signify belongingness or simply just a question of personal decoration of the body. Kant perception of the moko tradition is only one of many instinctive judgements of another person's body.

From upper left, group of Yakuza members, a traditional Maori face tattoo, an American eagle and an anchor tattoo.


Bell, C. 2014, Cultural Memory Inscribed in the Skin: Symbols of Nation as Tattoo Art in New Zealand, Kultura (Skopje), Vol.4(6), pp.43-50

Ellis, J., 2008, Tattooing the World, 3 Another Aesthetic: Beauty and Morality in Facial Tattoo, Columbia University Press, pp. 74-95

Gell, A., 1993, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia Oxford Clarendon Press.

Kant, I. 1724-1804, Critique of the power of judgment; edited by Paul Guyer, Cambridge University Press, 2000

Pritchard, S. 2000, Essence, Identity, Signature: Tattoos and Cultural Property Social Semiotics, Vol.10(3), p.331-346

Te Awekotuku, N. 2002, Ta Moko: Culture, body modification, and the psychology of identity, The Maori and Psychology Research Unit, University of Waikato

Yamada, M. 2009, Westernization and cultural resistance in tattooing practices in contemporary Japan, International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol.12(4), pp.319-338


Blog using your mobile phone - One of the best blogging apps on the market - Click here



In the beginning of 2016 a thai advertisement for skin-whitening pills caused strong reactions. The video showed an actress named Cris Horwang who clearly hints that the reason behind her success can be explained by the product. Standing next to another young fair-skinned model she slowly turns black at the same time as she says that her fame will fade away if she does not take action towards it. A narrator explain that the skin-whitening pills will help you not to become black and that “white makes you win”. The racist message was undeniable and after storms of critic, the company behind the product, Seoul Secret, apologised and decided to remove the video (BBC, 2016).

Skin-whitening products and treatments are used and advertised in many countries over the world. A quick search on “skin whitening” on youtube gives us close to 1 000 000 results. The controversial advertisement by Seoul Secret is far from being the only commercial promising skin lightning within a short period of time. The message is clear - the lighter, the better.

According to a study from 2008, the countries around the African continent reports the highest use of skin-whitening products. The table underneath shows the prevalence of skin lightening in different countries for women. The most used compounds are also noted on the right side. The numbers of participants and prevalence vary and may be disputed, but the overall impression is that many women consume skin-whitening products (Glenn, 2008).

There is no single general reason behind the application of skin whiteners but the associations to historical racism and the potential socioeconomic benefits linked to a whiter skin tone is undeniable. The belief that a whiter version of oneself would engender privileges, social status, work advancement and better chance in finding a partner is widely stretched (Davids, Van Wyk, Khumalo, Jablonski, 2016). One example is South Africa, where a massive increase of skin lighteners took place after the 1960's. Even if it cannot fully be associated to the political context, it is hard to believe that only marketing strategies would cause the marketing peak. The links between power and a lighter skin are unquestionably attached to the recent colonialism and apartheid system (Thomas, 2012).

Some may call it a product curing low self esteem – but even here can links be traced with dependence and subordination. Edmonds explains that when there is limited access to education in society, the largest source of power will be the body (Edmonds, 2007). The skin whitening treatment then becomes a way to climb the socioeconomic ladder when no other means are possessed. However, we can not conclude that all individual's and societies turn to lightening products as a result of aspirations to western appearances. The female emiratees in United Arab Emirates declare that a whiter skin signifies returning to a 'traditional' self and distinguishes themselves from other nationalities living in the same society (Parkhurst, 2013). They reject all connections to a Western image.

But does the practice itself become less 'discriminatory' with the sole reason that one wants to embrace a traditional, pure identity? Is escaping otherness not just another excuse to superiority? The message that stands out is that a whiter skin is better than a dark and no justification can defend the racial undertone in that.


Edmonds, A. 2007, 'The Poor have the Right to be Beautiful': Cosmetic Surgery in Neoliberal Brazil, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol.13(2), pp.363-382

Glenn, E.N. 2008 Yearning for lightness: Transnational circuits in the marketing and consumption of skin lighteners. Gender Soc. 22(3):281–302

Parkhurst, A. 2013 Excerpt from Chapter 5: Wearting White, Bottled Identity (235-260) In Genes and Djinn: Anxiety and Identity in SE Arabia

Thomas, L.M. 2012 Skin lighteners, black consumers and Jewish entrepreneurs in South Africa. Hist Workshop J. 73(1):259–283



Earlier blogposts have discussed female beauty as an element of self-transformation and unattainability of the public. Whether it is plastic surgery, skin whitening or other body modifications, the overall attitude towards altering appearance to become more appealing is positive. In Brazil, cosmetic surgery is partly funded by the National Health System and increasing number of people declare to be open to undergo surgery to obtain self-confidence and prosperity for a better socioeconomic situation (Edmonds, 2007). Cosmetic surgery is surely not a new practice but as a result of technological innovations and advanced methods the boundaries of human transformation constantly expand. Today one can, for example, permanently change the eye color with an artificial iris implant (BrightOcular), receive beard transplants (The Private Clinic) or create fake dimples in the cheek.

The steady rise of possibilities in the medical and technological world forces us however not only to form an opinion of the ongoing process of aesthetic transformation but also leads us to consider a potential future situation of remodelling our bodies. The concept of 'post-humanism' can briefly be defined as the transformation of humans by technological advances or evolution (Oxford dictionaries). Even more simply put - a combination of organic and mechanic. When applying this information to the aesthetic aspect of transformation one quickly ends up reflecting upon eugenics, the belief of improvement of the human specie. We ask ourselves about the ethics and morality. What are the consequences of a post-human society? Is choosing the eye-color and nose shape of our future babies any different from Hitler's aim to ameliorate genetic quality and selectively breed a 'perfect' race?

Francis Fukuyama, known for his highly negative view of post-humanism, argues for the potential risk that biotechnology would bring. Fukuyama promotes regulation on a political and institutional level and underlines the importance to distinguish enhancement and therapy. Donna Haraway, a post-human feminist, gives us a deeper, and less intimidating, view of the trans-humanism and cyborg culture, by playing down the whole notion of post-humanism. She means that cyborgs may be the key to a society where we ignore the cartesian dualism and the typical boundaries between men and women (Haraway, 1995).

Another concern of the post-humanism in relation to an ideal female body is the development of robots. In the video posted further down in this post we see how Matt McMullen creates a sex robot. He is one of many (mainly men) who have engaged in the construction of the beauty myth. Once again we are reminded of the unrealistic body ideals existing. The sex robots in the video are all 'normatively beautiful'. Regardless if the reasons behind the dolls are fetishism, lack of capacity to create human bonds or an uneasiness to handle female sexuality, facts remain that we are modifying human relations (Banerji, Paranjape, 2016). The phenomena of sex dolls takes narcissism to a new level, giving people the full potential to be autonomous without engaging with other humans. It creates a sense of individual control which, paradoxically, stands in stark contrast to the post-humanistic uncertainty (Hayles, 1999).

The wish to create 'perfection' by improving the human being clearly engenders many questions. Whether it is technosexuality, genetic manipulation or cosmetic procedures, the notion of nature is compromised. The limits of acceptance are changing with time and what was estimated unethical yesterday might be standard procedure tomorrow.


Banerji, D., Paranjape, M.R. 2016, Critical Posthumanism and Planetary Futures, Springer India

Edmonds, A. 2007, 'The Poor have the Right to be Beautiful': Cosmetic Surgery in Neoliberal Brazil, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol.13(2), pp.363-382

Haraway, D. 1995, A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s, The Postmodern Turn, pp.82-155

Hayles, N.K. 1999, How we became posthuman : virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics, Chicago, London, University of Chicago



Similarly to the incomprehension and subjectivity towards many trends in our own society, beauty standards that involve “extreme” body modifications around the world raise questions. Nose plugs, long earlobes, neck rings are some examples that people easily rule out harmful traditional practices just by viewing photos of the practitioners. But just as foot binding, as touched upon in an earlier blogpost, was associated to prestige and beauty in imperial China, is there more behind many body modification practices than simple aesthetic motives.

The Mun in southwest Ethiopia are one group of people who has had their cultural traditions labelled as harmful according to the government. However, the role of lip-plates of clay, together with body painting, are deeply rooted in the identity and beliefs of the Mun. The “plates”, usually made of clay, are used by girls with start from the age of puberty. Mun believe that sexually matureness is reached once the lip is perfectly stretched. This symbol of womanhood can therefore be viewed as the final achievement of a rite of passage.

The lip-plate is manifestly closely linked to fertility but the practice of wearing clay is also an embodiment of the relationship with the earth. In the same way as Evans-Pritchard explained body painting with clay and ashes amongst the Nuer as an expression of unity and solidarity, is also the clay a central element for the Mun. During healing ceremonies the Mun apply clay to the skin to scare or prevent diseases. It is believed that earth, clay and ashes are substances that keep the body healthy. The lip-plate is therefore an incarnation of the land and fertility.

(to be continued)


​​Fayers-Kerr, K.N. (2012) The 'Miranda' and the 'Cultural Archieve': From Mun (Mursi) Lip-Plates, to Body Painting and Back Again, Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, Frobenius Institute, pp.245-259



Jo Farrell, a photographer and cultural anthropologist, held a TED talk in Hong Kong, 2015. Farrell speaks about how beauty standards are linked to aspirations to be part of ones societies and an attempt to increase the chance for a better future. She also touches upon how ideals before tended to be more attached to individual cultures but as a result of today's globalised world, we have a more standardised view of what defines beauty. The highly influential role of media and the rise of the internet have played a key role in this expansion of beauty standards.

Foot-binding is one practice that people tend to rule out as torture and barbarism at the same time as the common view of high heels on women are associated to attraction. However, we do not have to dig deep to find the similarities between these to habits. What makes the symbolism of wealth and beauty amongst Chinese women different from the ongoing trend of leg extension achieved by stilettos?

Many cultures have had beauty standards that are unattainable for the general public. A recent example that has been criticised is the American Vogue cover for March 2017. The magazine aimed to recreate an iconic image from the 90s and wanted to highlight diversity and inclusivity. The question of diversity has however been raised asking how including the picture of seven beautiful women in the not so useful combination of hot pants and turtleneck really is. Given the fact that the 'average' woman in the US falls between the sizes of 16-18 gives us even more reason to doubt. Once again we see how the standards does not correspond to the attainability of the public.

The common denominator more likely seems to be exclusivity. Whether it is about the corset during the Victorian era or todays Kardashian inspired trend of a tiny waist and a big butt, the key word is definitely not accessibility.



Many of us probably think of an animal loving, independent and kind person when hearing the name of “Cinderella”. Yet, the story about a young woman, beautiful inside and out, who loses her glass slipper at a palace ball has to some a whole different meaning. In Japan, the story of Cinderella reflects self-transformation and the ability to achieve one's dreams.

One aesthetic salon that early understood the power of the 'Cinderella Body' was Takano Yuri Beauty Clinic, who has salons over the whole country. By using a form of beauty Taylorism they strive to transform their clients and turn them into slimmer versions of themselves. No matter if it is the hips, legs or breasts that is in need of a change, the salon claim that everything is possible. The ideal body is slim and slender and the way to get there implies a combination of strict diet and frequent beauty treatments at the salon.

The popular icon and movement of self-transformation has even resulted in a beauty contest called Aesthetic Cinderella Grand Prix held by the Takano Yuri Clinic. The crown goes to the woman who has lost the most weight during a short period of time. As a final episode of the competition the winner shows of her achieved beauty in the official swimsuit and a tiara (see picture).

The message is clear, everyone can become Cinderella, as long as they follow the right diet and get the right amount of aesthetic treatments.

Disney's Cinderella and Takano Yuri Beauty Clinic brochure, 1996.

References :

Miller, L. (2008) Japan's Cinderella Motif: Beauty Industry and Mass Culture Interpretations of a Popular Icon, Asian Studies Review, Vol.32(3), p.393-409

Image consulted at : 1 February – 2017

Image consulted at : 1 February – 2017



The saying that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder suggests that attraction is subjective. However, many studies have been dedicated to examine to what extent people's perceptions of beauty really differs. One example of this is Judith Langlois who found that people across different cultures share values regarding what makes an individual attractive (Langlois et al., 2000).

What stands out from numerous researchers results when examining appealing features across cultures is the common importance of sexual dimorphism, averageness and symmetry when regarding the face (Gangestad, S., Scheyd, G., 2005).

Certain studies have shown that terms such as “womanly” and “femininity” are crucial in women's faces for men to find them attractive, according to Perret, May and Yoshikawa (1994). Others have gone even further claiming that the appreciation of femininity is associated to “babyness” (big eyes, small chin) and therefore also the need of care (Johnston, Franklin, 1993). Not unexpectedly, the baby argument has been largely criticised and rejected by many. However, the estimation that femininity translates to attraction remains. The fact of having feminine features are highly associations to reproduction and existing energy to take care of an eventual offspring.

The female body can be interpreted in a similar way – keeping reproduction and energy in mind. A low waist-to-hip ratio is generally preferred (Pawlowski, Grabarcyk, 2003) since it is linked to a greater fecundity. A high metabolism, assuming that this can be perceived from the glance of one's eye, is also seen as a sign of good motherhood.

Two other preferences that have been observed between and across different cultures and societies, are facial symmetry and averageness. The notion of familiarity has showed to play a large role to the perception of beauty. A face that deviates from the average reflects an unfamiliarity which one might have trouble embracing and which in turn might be registered as “bad genes” (Zebrowitz, Rhodes, 2004).

The definition of attractiveness from the studies above mostly comes down to traits that hint about one's ability to reproduce and take care of the future child. A women who appears to be a potentially good baby maker is perceived as attractive, regardless of the culture. The perception of beauty still seem to be in the eye of the beholder - even if it is all subconsciously about reproduction.


- Gangestad, S.W., Scheyd, G.J. (2005) The Evolution of Human Physical Attractiveness, The Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol.34, p.523-548

- Johnston, V.S., Franklin, M. (1993) Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?. Ethology and Sociobiology, Vol.14(3), pp.183-199

- Langlois, J.H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A.J., Larson, A., Hallam, M, (2000) Maxims or Myths of Beauty? A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review, Psychological Bulletin, Vol.126(3), pp.390-423

- Pawłowski, B., Grabarczyk, M. (2003) Center of body mass and the evolution of female body shape, American Journal of Human Biology, Vol.15(2), pp.144-150

- Perrett, DI ; May, Ka ; Yoshikawa, S. (1994) Facial Shape and Judgements of Female Attractiveness, Nature, Vol.368(6468), pp.239-242

- Zebrowitz, L., Rhodes, G. (2004) Sensitivity to "Bad Genes" and the Anomalous Face Overgeneralization Effect: Cue Validity, Cue Utilization, and Accuracy in Judging Intelligence and Health, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, Vol.28(3), p.167



The ideal body type has not only changed throughout history but is also highly attached to ones cultural context. There is no common definition of physical attractiveness and beauty standards differs largely. In this blog, I will observe how ideals of the human body distinguishes between different cultures, religions and geographically distant locations. By taking part of examples on the perception of the perfect body, I hope to create a broader understanding on how ideals are produced and how they influences an individuals way of life.

The two images above are the result from a study of 'Perception of Perfection' where graphic designers from different countries modified the original photo of a woman/man to correspond to the beauty standards of their country. The international differences are remarkable. However, the results should be taken with a grain of salt given that the pictures are based on individual's contributions and the opinion that these countries have one common body ideal.