When you hear the words, “Your body is a forest”, a certain image will spring to mind. Your forest might be an oasis of waterfalls and free flowing streams. It might be densely vegetated, with exotic flowers erupting from the earth. It could have just a few tall trees, made beautiful by the intricacy of their patterned leaves. The forest is yours to nourish and tend to as you please. But what happens when we are all handed the same gardening book and set of tools. It is repeated over and over that if our trees are not a specific height, our plants not a specific color and our birds not of a specific breed, then our forests cannot be considered beautiful. What happens when we are given a definition of beauty that is so narrow, that 97% of these unique and extraordinary forests are ostracized and neglected? The concept seems ridiculous, and the solution appears obvious. But if that is the case, then why, when “beautiful women” is typed into the Google image search engine, do the first dozen pages look like this:
Why is it that The Sims, a game played by children, has a beauty contest that allows players to create characters with cheekbones they could balance a book on and eyes like a squirrel? Why do online beauty quizzes that require the input of information such a hair colour, texture, body weight and height even exist. Who exactly set these standards, and why are they being applied universally?
We all want to feel beautiful, and it is human nature to enjoy being coveted and complimented. But it is now a fact that up to 12% of teenage boys are using unproven supplements or steroids, and 80% of 10-year-old girls have dieted. These facts show that there is a standardised process to obtaining beauty, perpetuated by a cultural hegemony that dominates the global media.
Cultural hegemony refers to the fact that a culturally diverse society can be heavily influenced by one of the social classes. The ideals of this class eventually become the norm and are perceived as universal ideologies. However, a little bit of research shows that cross-culturally, the definition of beauty is as fluid as our forest streams.
In Mauritania, sagging stomachs, rolls of fat and silver stretch marks are all a sign of extravagant beauty. The excess flesh is said to provide a comfortable bed for a husband, and some women are force fed up to 16 000 calories per day despite the fact that the recommended daily intake is only 1 500. Though the polar opposite the western concept of thin as beautiful, this practise is equally as damaging to a young girls health and self-esteem. Parents will send their children to “Fat Farms”, where they are made to eat oily couscous and fattening foods such as nuts and dates to ensure that they return fat and “beautiful”. The strain the excess consumption puts on young bodies has often proved fatal. Yet those who survive are proud of their figures, are likely to send their own children to Fat Farms, in a desperate attempt to squeeze them into the cultural box labelled beautiful.
Mauritanians are not the only ones willing to erode their forests to the point of extinction. Skin whitening has become common practise in Thailand and has the potential to be permanently disfiguring. In China, men are believed to be attracted to small, pointed feet, and young girls have their toes broken and pushed up against the sole of their foot. In Burma, long necks are considered desirable, and brass coils are worn around the neck despite the great discomfort they may cause. In New Zealand, both men and women of the Maori tribe have long imprinted their face with swirling tattoos called Ta Moko. Since the early 1990s, moko has had a revival in the culture, though now most often, a tattoo machine is used instead of the traditional chisel, which carved grooves in the face.
Despite the fact that bodies are put under different pressures in accordance to the culture in which they are bred, there does appear to be a common denominator- wealth. Mauritian women over 300ls are considered ideal because their weight alludes to the fact that they can afford to eat well. Within western civilizations wealth is portrayed through perfectly groomed hair, straight teeth, and pedicured toe nails and a toned body that clearly has a gym membership. In Victorian England, people with a pale complexion were considered beautiful because they could afford to have people do outside labor for them.
Physical beauty is an allusive and multidimensional concept that varies across countries and eras. There may be no concrete definition of what is means to look beautiful, so perhaps it is better to focus on feeling beautiful. Avoid over watering the vegetation so it drowns, or leaving trees so undernourished that they begin to wilt. Do not force your forest to grow in a certain direction, like the mangled branches of a tortured bonsai tree. Your forest is your responsibility. Infiltrate the toxins and soak up the sunshine. Be proud of your flaws, for they are beautiful. Build bridges and carve a path, so that visitors have access to the incredible creation that you are. Let your roots remain firm, but let your branches stretch high into the clouds. This is your body, your forest, so let it flourish.