Her name is Mu Lo, meaning ‘Black’. Her parents gave her that name because they thought she was a very dark baby, but her friends call her Zember because Zember rhymes with December…. The month of her birth.
Born and raised in the village of Padaung in Northwest Burma, Zember is now 18 and, fortunately enough for her, strikingly beautiful.
Her beauty has not been entirely due to good fortune however. No, Zembers beauty is due to the diligence of her parents, who began adding those heavy brass rings to her thin and delicate neck since she was 5 years old.
Over the years more rings have been added and as the weight increased, so too the downward pressure upon her collar bone and as her collar bone became more and more compressed, so too did her rib cage.
This deformation of her clavicle created by the multitude of rings that now sit upon her shoulders, creating the illusion of a spectacularly long neck, has earned Zember the title of being the most beautiful woman in her part of the village.
Men’s eyes follow her as she strolls through the village carrying her coloured fabrics which will later become scarves and wraps at the work of her own hands. Deals are done between parents with money and land offered in return for the beautiful Zember as a gift to an un-wedded son.
Other women stare at her. Some stare in scorn ‘She thinks she is so perfect with her 23 rings’ Some stare in jealousy ‘If only my parents had the money to provide more than the meager 15 rings I wear under my own chin’
Others stare in hope ‘One day, if father sells enough land, I too will be able to have 23 rings, and then I will be as beautiful as Zember”…
Her name is Tijanniya. She is 17. Her parents are livestock dealers in this country of Mauritania.
At one-and-a-half times the size of Texas and blanketed in desert, Mauritania is both a huge expanse, and unforgiving in nature.
Hot. Dry. Poor.
Though Tijanniya enjoys sports and hand painting the walls of the new huts built by the mud and straw and hands of the local Mauritanian men, there is little time for that now, as she is about to be sent away in order to be transformed into the ultimate picture of beauty in preparation for marriage.
It sounded like a fantastical holiday.
“Darling” Her mother boasted “You will be going on journey to the middle of the desert to meet other girls your age, and to eat sweet food“
Tijanniya was excited. “By the time you return home Darling” her mother continued, “You will be a beautiful woman.”
And so it began. This anticipated yet apprehensive time in Tijanniya’s life where she was sent away to isolation to endure the practice of Leblouh — intensive force-feeding. Day in and day out she chokes down goat’s milk and oily couscous shoulder to shoulder with other wide-eyed and homesick girls, until she feels unwell. Her bloated stomach, cradled by her ever-swelling arms is given no rest. Though at the point of passing out, there is no pause before thick gruel and pounded millet follows in this deliberate and unrelenting regime. She dare not give in to the nausea, as she had seen girls beaten and forced to consume the vomit their bodies had betrayed them in giving up onto the dusty foundations of the isolated huts when they simply could not hold onto the enormity of food consumed.
Days turn into weeks…weeks into months. The feeding is ceaseless and merciless. But as her legs widen and her belly becomes round, eventually spilling into roll upon roll, and as her skin becomes more and more shiny with the oil from the 16,000 calorie per day diet, she smiles. “Mother was right” She thinks to herself ‘I am becoming beautiful’
When Tijanniya returns home she is welcomed as a queen. The rolls under her chin, the shine on her skin and the stretch marks upon her thighs, breasts and belly are all lusted over by the local men who line up in hope of being the one chosen by Tijanniya’s father as being fit for his daughter.
Tijanniya is finally, strikingly beautiful.
Other women stare at her.
Some stare in scorn ‘She left our village a tall, thin nobody, and now returns a fat and oily beauty and thinks she can take all our men, I bet.’
Some stare in jealousy ‘If only my parents had the money to send me away to experience the time of Lebouh, then I too could return in glory to my village as the round and heavy princess’
Others stare in hope ‘If I can practice self control and endure the diet, then I too might one day be as fat and beautiful as Tijanniya’
To the Mauritanians, a fat wife (much like fat livestock) is a symbol of a man’s wealth, proof that he has enough riches to feed her generously while others perish in the drought-prone terrain. The more stretch marks and belly rolls a man can claim his wife to have, the more envied and respected he is amongst his fellow man. Tijanniya is now the most eligible young woman in her village. Women want to be her; men want to be with her.
But not everyone can be fat and beautiful like Tujanniya…..
Her name is Penelope, though her friends and family refer to her as her ‘Penel’ because her father couldn’t stomach it being shortened to ‘Penny’ -the name of his 4th grade music teacher who used to beat his hands with a ruler during piano lessons.
Penel lives in Los Angeles, in the great United States of America.
Penel is, fortunately for her, strikingly beautiful. But not all her beauty can be claimed simply by good fortune. Though 18 now, her parents have been diligently shaping her beauty since only 14 years of age. At 14, typical to tradition, the parents of this white American girl has her taken to what they call an Orthodontist. The Orthodontist applies metal wires and glue to the young woman’s teeth and over the days and weeks twists and turns those wires, which in turn, cause the teeth to move and shift in the bone of her jaw until they are aligned. Aligned teeth are a symbol of beauty amongst the Americans. Though Penel enjoys singing and dancing, there will be no time for that now as she has to prepare for the most important event in her life to date. The senior’s ball, where the ultimate label of young adult society will be announced… “homecoming Queen”.
In preparation for this she has embarked of the traditional western beauty regime. A strict diet of 500 calories a day is adhered to with a ritual of ‘dance like’ actions they call a Workout, the success of which is measured by how much sweat the young woman can bleed onto her fair skinned back and brow.
As days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, Penel refers back to her ancient bible of beauty called ‘Marie Claire’ and sees that as her ribs begin to show and her eyes begin to sink deep into her skull that yes ‘I am becoming beautiful’
In the days before the ritual of Homecoming queen nomination, Penel endures a brutal practice where her nails are covered over with a substance the Americans call Acrylic and then painted. Penel is then undressed and forced to undergo what the people call a spray tan, where a brown residue is blown onto the skin to give the appearance of being Tanned. Having light skin according to the Americans, is a sign of ugliness.
Her face is then painted with beiges and blacks and reds and hair is applied to the lashes above her eyes to make her eye-lashes look longer, another sign of beauty according to the Americans.
A piece of traditional clothing called a push-up-bra is worn which pushes the breasts up and makes them swell, for in the west, a swelling chest is also a sign of beauty.
The traditional garments are put on, a dress, which show Penels swelling chest and thin waist, and then, she is ready to compete against the other women. Yes, Penel is strikingly beautiful. As she walks into the room women stare at her. Some stare in scorn ‘She thinks she is so perfect with her size zero dress’
Some stare in jealousy “If my parents had enough money, I too could have had aligned teeth like Penel.”
Others stare is hope ‘If I can practice self control and endure the diet, and work out and get acrylic nails, then I too might be beautiful like her….’
Reader, what is beauty? You think I have listed all the variables? Hardly!
There are cultures where chalk-white skin is beauty, there are others where fat lips and wide noses are beauty, and others again, on islands where traditional tattoos around the mouths and lips of women is the ultimate sign of ‘beautiful’….to lands where people won’t look twice at you if you cannot fit a plate in your lower lip, and laugh at it now, but after you finish sniggering, think about it.
What. Is. Beauty? Can you define it?
If beauty is defined as a complete contradictory definition depending on where you happen to be on this planet, then can physical beauty be defined?
No. Physical beauty is relative.
If one people say that a rolling belly and stretched marked breasts are the trade-marks of beauty, yet others objects only to say that a flat stomach and flawless skin is beautiful, then who is right?
So if physical beauty cannot be defined, then what kind of beauty can be pinned down?
The beauty in character.
Remarkably enough, though physical beauty varies as much as language and custom depending on where you find yourself on this planet, the definition of beauty in character hardly changes at all.
While so many of us spend hours upon hours, days upon days trying to chase that ever elusive physical beauty (Which is ever changing depending on trend or location) the beauty in Character which does not vary, which is a beauty that can be understood in any language, in any culture, in any country, is being neglected.
For the amount of money and hours spent elongating those lashes, tanning that skin, filing those nails and pining that hair, have you spent even one hour reflecting on the state of your character… In other words… The TRUE state of your beauty.
If you were born with the genes that made one boob bigger than the other, or perhaps, like me, the genes of no boobs at all, or if you were gifted upon birth with the DNA to cause your nose to grow big, or your hair to grow too red or your height to only reach X feet tall, then apart from many hundreds or thousands of dollars, you can’t change that.
But this is relative beauty!
What of the beauty in character which is free to alter! Free to change! Free to perfect!
And the investment lasts so much longer because friends, when we are all 70, one wrinkle is going to look just like another, one grey head will be no more remarkable then the next grey head. It will be the beauty of our CHARACTER, which will set us apart, and you may challenge “Fair enough to say that for the time we grow old. But what of now’ What if you are the woman who feels so damn unpretty in her own land and feels that she cannot attain that ever changing and elusive appearance that her own people have confirmed as being ‘beautiful’
To you I say this: When you stop everything and begin to perfect the beauty of your character, it will shine from you and through you and be so contagious and attractive because that kind of beauty has become nearly extinct in a world that no matter if its plates in the lips or rings on the neck or fat on the chin or bones on the hips has been lost.
How many people do you see each day in this western world that match that physical definition of beauty? Many.
How many people in this western world can you say you know that are Loyal. Honest. Kind and charitable?
It is a rarity.
It is an untapped resource and if you can begin to develop your character to become that kind of beautiful, then you will be that rarity. The diamond in the rough.
And if you think that people will not notice the girl or the guy whose physical beauty is not in line with the definition of your local ‘people’ then think again. People are changing. So wearied by being heartbroken or betrayed or let down by ‘beautiful’ people, we, as a people are turning more to appreciate the inner beauty. Not because we are deep and spiritual and have had an awakening, but because as a people, we are understanding more and more than its no good if his nose is straight and his arms are strong, if he isn’t Loyal, Honest, kind and charitable’ Then what is the point?
You may remember that I had an affair with the 50’s a few weeks back at the ‘Cooly rocks on’ weekend in Coolangatta.
On the first night, I bumped into a woman who I adored the look of so much, I all but worshipped her. Blue hair, caught up by vintage pins. Red lips framed with piercings and this rockabilly outfit that I would never in a million years put on myself.
Then it hit me:
“Woah woah woah! This woman has Blue hair Ness, She has piercings all over her face and you know damn well you would not be caught dead in what she is wearing now”. So why did I find her beautiful?
Because she walked with confidence and self esteem and this presence was around her that I found so attractive and in that moment all my stereotypes of beauty went out the window. I went up to her and gushed like a Beiber fan that had just been trapped in an elevator with the boy himself and I stood before her looking her up and down and telling her that I found her completely and unequivocally beautiful. BEACAUSE SHE WAS.
It was her character I saw that night. Her confidence, her respect for herself. It was hard NOT to see. It shined from her. Not from her perfect body (She did not have a perfect body) and not from her perfect face (she did not have a perfect face) but from herself.
Beauty is available to anyone who is mature enough to first understand what it is in the first place, and then make the time to develop.
Sure you will face tomorrow with the barrage of fashion magazines and MTV music videos which object to everything I just said, but since when were any of those music artists or models wasting away as a sack of bones happy anyway? Hmmm?
Let me take an honest moment with you now. I have battled with self-esteem and trying to understand beauty, and then trying to understand why it has ‘eluded me’ all these years since before I can remember. I am not speaking from a position of attainment, as if I am at the top of some mountain calling down to you saying ‘Come up here! The view is AMAZING’
But rather I am at the bottom of that hill, looking up, wondering what the view must be like. This post, just like the last, was ultimately for myself. Begging myself to change my frame of mind and urging myself to realize something I have not yet been able to realize. But if you have realized anything from this, would you share it with me? Because this is a very PG rated post compared to the post I will have to one day write to you on my struggles with self esteem, and why I do, but if you have made sense of it, perhaps you can share your sense with me, and we can all figure this out together.