An extra large pierced lip. An extra long neck. A super slim waist, or deformed feet. These may be weird looks in one culture, but the signs of ultimate beauty in another.
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholders, and differs with time and culture.
"Before Marilyn Monroe became a global icon of beauty after World War II, beauty used to differ from one culture to another," said Pachat Tiptus, project manager for a new exhibition at Museum Siam.
Long before Thai women felt compelled to transform the physical characteristics they were born with - before they felt the urge to have pearl-white skin, a pointed nose and blonde hair - Pachat said that typical Thai beauty, as reflected in Thai literature, favoured delicate and feminine looks based on our Southeast Asian features. Meanwhile in other cultures, the ideal beauty included unusual characteristics - at least to people outside such cultures - such as deformed feet known as "lotus feet" in Chinese; the "lip plate" in Africa; or the disfigured waistline of European women.
"We've been brainwashed to hate the body we are born with," pointed out Pachat. Common standards for being beautiful, especially in Asia, are fair skin, a pointed nose, wide eyes, slim body, long legs and large breasts.
Beauty is being examined in "The Body Project: Beauty, Brutality, and the Reasons Behind" at Museum Siam until Sept 29. It is presented as a factory where dozens of mannequins hang on a conveyor belt representing "beauty" being reproduced, and Monroe is used as a symbol of standard beauty. Divided into 10 sections based on the perception towards beauty in different cultures and periods of time, the sections are "Stretching", "Deformity", "Mutilation", "Tightness", "Largeness", "Fragility", "Bulk", "Porn", "Fakeness", "Others".
In the "Others" section, an image of a typical Thai woman with dark skin, flat nose, small breasts and round face is displayed as a challenge to the modern version of beauty, as showed through images of actresses and models in TV commercials and fashion shows.
"It's not possible for any woman to have such a 'perfect' body and look [without plastic surgery]," said Pachat. Apart from the Western look, Thais have desired to achieve the Korean superstar look, which is largely influenced by Korean TV series and K-Pop.
Pachat said women, beauty and brutality have always been inseparable; a reason behind the intention to be beautiful has always been about sex appeal.
From ancient times to the present, the female body has always been tormented to achieve perfection, for women to either keep their social status or increase sexual appeal. In the past, parts of the body were either deformed or turned against nature. At present, parts of the body are modified by advanced technology.
To have a successful life - which often meant getting a good husband - Chinese women had to have tiny feet, achieved by foot binding, said Pachat, while pointing at a pair of tiny embroidered shoes smaller than an adult's palm. Foot binding was common practice in China until it was banned in the early 20th century.
"The smaller feet a woman had, the wealthier a husband she would get," he said. Women had to endure the pain of their feet being bound and wrapped from a very young age to stop them from growing, so that they would look like a lotus. It took them a while to be able to learn how to walk with deformed feet.
The ideal foot size was three inches, called golden lotus; four for silver and five to six for steel. Those with larger feet weren't likely to get a match or would be married off to the poor.
But such beauty was meant to be admired and understood only in their culture, said Pachat.
The Kayan prefer long-necked women; African tribes admire women with the lower lip pierced and Victorian women had to have small waistlines, achieved by a tight corset.
While most didn't find the deformed feet or pierced lip attractive, they agreed on the standard beauty of Monroe and the Korean look.
"It's a matter of time," said Pachat. In another example, after the 1932 revolution by the People's Party, the administration of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram adopted the concept of a muscular body from Socialist art in Europe. The official endorsement of "beauty" was associated with strength and power - not delicate features. But once the People's Party's power faded, the idea petered out.
Pachat now hopes the mass-production beauty would soon be over - "We don't have to look the same." Before leaving the exhibition, visitors can try on some of the accessories displayed in the "Dressing Room" to feel how it is to be "beautiful". A necklace made from 5kg of screw bolts suggests the weight a Kayan woman has to shoulder on her deformed neck. To feel being beautiful like a Victorian woman, try on a corset that was designed to make your waistline smaller. Of course, you can't feel the pain of having small feet, but you can compare your foot to the ideal golden lotus.
THE BODY PROJECT: Beauty, Brutality, and the Reasons Behind. On view at Museum Siam until Sept 29.
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Writer: Story by Sirinya Wattanasukchai, photo by Pornprom Satradhaya