Term Paper: Identity Loss at Risk

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Western Beauty Ideals: A Cultural Change Perspective

The Realities of a Global Village

When Marshall McLuhan introduced the concept of the 'global village' in his 1967 work The Medium is the Message, he established a precedent that still rings true decades after (Martens, Dreher, and Gaston 575). The world as a 'global village' is a metaphor that has never been more appropriate for the culture of thinking that's currently prevalent assumes the degree of closeness and interaction that McLuhan had predicted (Dixon 2). Technology had extended our senses so much that it is virtually impossible to not be affected about what's happening beyond a country's borders.

The blending of ideas and information though is not necessarily limited to the discussion of political issues. Although the process of infusion is certainly influenced by the manifestations of ruling ideas -- the product of a political public sphere, so to speak -- this is not to say that it is the only domain by which information could be disseminated and reflected upon (McGuigan 2). Cultural standards of identity are certainly affected by the intermingling of ideas gathered from different walks of life. Borders are now 'porous' in a sense that it is now easier for ideas to pass through and be received through difference channels.

Simply said, it is now easier to for individuals to be influenced by supposedly foreign ideas. Although it is still the right of each individual to become responsible for what needs to be assimilated or accommodated into his or her notion of identity, the fact that other options -- those that are out of the bounds of immediate cultural standards -- are open mean that there is at least a glimpse of other realities that could still be obtained.

It is the objective of this paper to explore this very process, a study into how the mechanisms of influence are played out given the characteristics of a global village. Dixon had already pointed out that cultural domination is a major factor into the standardization of ideas by which individuals could compare their own thoughts of self-identity (4). Simply said, the trends posted by the dominant culture would essentially be most influential given its capacities as hinged on sovereign power.

In this case, it makes sense to delimit the understanding of the process by choosing one aspect of culture and one example of a dominant cultural zeitgeist. With this in mind, delving into the concept of beauty as portrayed by today's dominant trends might shed light into the matter.

The Changing Perceptions of Beauty

For quite some time, eastern cultures seemed largely impervious to the western standards of beauty. However, as the world has become more and more globalized, this is obviously no longer the case. With the most recent evolutions in new media, it was only a matter of time before western ideals could completely seep into the general cultural mindset of other countries.

One specific example of this transformation can be observed in Kuwaiti concept of beauty. In old Kuwaiti Bedouin poetry, women are described as being fair skinned, having a voluptuous body, and jet-black hair. In simple terms, this can be seen as indicative of the localized aspirations for beauty. This runs parallel with the classical aspirations for beauty that ultimately prefers the voluptuous body, far different from the 'skinny' ideal of today. There are, however, recent indicators that tell a different story. In one study about somatic disorders (i.e. mental illnesses concerning a person's maladaptive perception of his or her own body), single Bedouin mothers have expressed a perception of beauty that is mismatched with their genetic heritage: when asked about their ideal self, they quickly point out that they aspire to be a 'blond and thin woman' (Huss and Cwikel 8).

Surprisingly, even western cultures themselves are not immune to the dysfunctional effects of believing in such a criteria for physical attractiveness. For example, the modeling industry, itself seen as a primary vector for spreading this kind of ideal, is replete with stories of professionals showing signs of having mental disorders brought about by the insistent demand for keeping up with the present criteria for beauty. In fact, their eating disorders seem to be viewed as quite 'normal' in their industry. Celebrities are also not inoculated against this kind of maladaptiveness for the pressure to keep up with these standards are even higher -- aside from acting skills, their bread-and-butter is hinged on physical attractiveness (Hilary 34). The truth is that this expressed western standard of beauty may have become so ingrained in the female mind regardless of whether or not it is a healthy ideal.

The Mechanisms of a Widespread Misconception

How did this happen? Martens et al. would explain this phenomenon as a consequence of cross-cultural interaction (4). In this case, the awareness brought about by porous borders of information would initiate not only an understanding of differences between cultures but also of the similarities which might pave the way for further adoption and, ultimately, change (Martens et al. 5). This process of adoption is amplified by the fact that cultures are exposed to different facets of modernity. McAdams describes modernity as a cultural modality that encourages open mindedness and the preference for widespread change (96). Given this, aside from being bombarded by the current trend of idealized western images, people around the world are also being exposed to a new mindset that is more accepting of these ideas. Dixon echoes the same conclusion in saying that even as America is being faulted for its imposition of its culture to other nations, so should the countries themselves who reinforce this same ideal within their borders (2). Simply said, even if there is a dominant culture that seems to be perceived as a better alternative, it is still the main responsibility of a culture to figure out how it integrates to its own framework. What this means is however porous the borders of a country may be for new ideas, the strength of adoption is still dictated by the nation.

However, there are matters that complicated this kind of analysis. If borders of a nation would be considered 'porous' in the context of the proliferation of ideas, then does this mean that any idea has the capacity to penetrate any kind of cultural mindset regardless of tradition and history? This is in line with Anderson's proposition that a nation should just be described as imagined community that is both inherently limited and sovereign; limited for members of a nation only has an imagined communion with the majority of its fellows, and sovereign because it constitutes rules and philosophies that are undertaken by its citizens (4). Given this, the 'porous' borders of a nation is not only circumvented by technology or by dominant ideals, it is the communities within itself that reaches out to others, forming other 'imagined communities' that follow the thread of similar circumstances.

In this case, the 'imagined community' of women who are being exposed to modern ideals becomes the main vector for spreading the word about the current standards of beauty. Through the different connections that technology affords for different individuals from different cultural backgrounds, another 'imagined community' has been put into place that works to grow and spread these idealized standards. Acquisti and Gross, in their research about Facebook communities and online social interaction, had pointed out a similar account in explaining that access to technology and social networks create new bonds that incubate the development and spread of new ideas (4).

But this mechanism of imagined community, porous borders, and a ready mindset is not necessarily new. Feminist media analyst Annette Kuhn had already observed a phenomenon that actively pursues this in older forms of media such as television and film (4). 'Cinepsychoanalysis', or the act of delving into the effects of media into the psychic characteristics of gender and sexuality makes it possible for different forms of media to affect the general standards of beauty as dictated by the mundane desires of the flesh (Kuhn 6). This is not necessarily an accurate representation of the behavioral signature of the mechanism, but what this explains is that there is already a tendency to accept standards of beauty by way of media connections even before. Modernity had already seeped in into the global psyche, so to speak.

What is Beauty Today?

The images that are being promoted by Hollywood are generally the images people see as the standard of beauty today. Kuwait, then, is no different than any other country being infiltrated and bombarded by American television shows. Since these television shows generally promote the standard of the thin, blond, tanned woman as that of the ideal, suddenly, that is the standard embraced by Kuwaiti women even though it is completely opposite to the standard that had been engrained in their culture for hundreds of years. This western standard is nearly impossible for most western women to meet, and therefore also impossible for Kuwait women. However, they still try… [END OF PREVIEW]

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