Physical Attractiveness and the Maasai Aesthetic
by Robert Biswas-Diener
When I asked Nataana to describe a “perfectly good-looking man,” I was surprised by her answer. Instead of the usual stuff about muscles and pretty eyes, she told me that Mr. Perfect would “have white teeth, be well-dressed, be a respected member of the community, be friendly, and carry a club.” The bit about the club may not be as strange as it sounds since Nataana is a member of the Maasai, a traditional society living in South Western Kenya and Northern Tanzania. Last year, I traveled to Kenya to conduct research with the Maasai on physical attractiveness.
Because of their proximity to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya’s most visited game park, the visually striking Maasai have become poster children for Kenyan tribal society, and a major tourist attraction. The women wear their hair short, stretch their ear lobes, and cover themselves in an almost impossible amount of brightly patterned, beaded jewelry. The men wrap themselves in distinctive red cloths and carry heavy wooden clubs, both for herding cattle and defending themselves against wild animals. They live in short, windowless houses made of sticks, mud, and cow dung. In terms of aesthetics, the Maasai truly do seem a world away from the skyscrapers, wristwatches, and Gore-Tex of Western culture.
I was fascinated by these cultural differences six years ago, when I first traveled to Kenya. Unable to contain my curiosity, I decided to interview some Maasai living in a “commercial village,” one catering to tourists. I wanted to know what a people who were completely free of the influences of television, magazines, and other mass media, thought about fashion and beauty. What might their attitudes be, for example, toward footwear, gaining weight, and diet? One of the questions I asked, through a translator, was “How satisfied are you with your physical appearance?” To my surprise, everyone in the village regardless of age, number of teeth, or quality of dress, told me that they were completely satisfied with the way they look. They did not always think the other people in the village were perfectly good looking, but they always had a high opinion of their own appearance.
Many Americans I spoke with after I returned to the States were not at all surprised by my findings. To these friends, it seemed obvious that people living in a society where no one has ever heard of Catherine Zeta Jones or Brad Pitt would be satisfied with their appearance. They implied that “social comparison,” comparing one’s self to others, is the major factor in deciding what is beautiful. Although common sense, this often articulated argument doesn’t hold much water. People mistakenly believe comparisons need to be made upward, such as comparing your wealth to that of Bill Gates. But it is possible to make comparisons in the other direction. Compared to Dick Cheney, for example, I look like George Clooney. Also, social comparison arguments rarely take local standards into consideration. Using the example of fashion, it seems likely that the Maasai, blissfully unaware of Hollywood images, would still have their own standards for what’s “in.” Individual Maasai, such as Naatana, would still compare themselves against other Maasai, and perhaps other neighboring tribal groups. Why then, would there be a consistent tendency among the Maasai to rate oneself highly? I tried to think of other theories that might explain the Maasai’s extraordinarily high satisfaction. It could be that the Maasai simply do not know how they look since they have very few mirrors in their culture. Or might the secret to their satisfaction lie in the fact that while they were considering their appearance they were looking at me, a pale-skinned man who was both short and fat by their standards, and therefore thought themselves remarkably good looking by comparison? Four years later, with these questions still nagging, I decided to return to Kenya to explore Maasai standards of beauty in depth.
Was Darwin Good Looking?
Socio-biologists and evolutionary psychologists (scientists dedicated to parsing out how much of us is human, and how much animal) tell us that beauty is not simply subjective, as the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggests. While we might prefer red or black hair on our partners, these researchers argue that much of what we consider good looking is the product of subtle evolutionary mating practices. The prevailing theory holds that certain characteristics are more desirable for mating, producing offspring, and extending our individual genetic lines. Young women, according to scholars of evolutionary theory, are better candidates for coupling than older women because they are better able to bear healthy children. Men in their 30s and early 40s, on the other hand, ought to be more attractive than their counterparts in their 20s because, presumably, they are more secure and better able to provide for a family. Many researchers in this field study such bodily minutia as the “hip to waist” ratio and “facial symmetry,” reporting that physical proportions act as a kind of romantic magic lamp, the correct combinations freeing the genie of lust.
If being reduced to animal mating behaviors and anatomical ratios doesn’t sit well, it may be heartening to learn there is more to attractiveness. Even socio-biologists admit there is more to attraction than simply pheromones and symmetry. Why, for example, do some people like a hairy chest while others would rather eat soap than even look at a hairy arm? If everything had a clear biological explanation, we wouldn’t see such wild variation in what is considered good looking. Fashion, for example, seems to exist outside the domain of evolutionary theory, as evidenced by little backpacks and high heels, both of which seem to actually work against survival. After evolution has been accounted for, the other half of the beauty equation is the part we learn through our culture. Hairstyles, dress, make-up, jewelry, and, to some degree, hair color and body type are all physical features that are influenced by the time and place into which we are born. Whether your idea of “sexy” includes a mini-skirt, ritual scarification, or tightly bound feet is surely a product of cultural learning.
As I discovered in Kenya, the Maasai offer a fascinating look into these cultural differences in standards of beauty. By design or accident, the Maasai appear to have a uniquely healthy outlook on physical attractiveness. They have simple standards for beauty; they focus mostly on those aspects of appearance they can control, and take character traits into account when deciding what is good looking.
Drawing a Bead on Good Looks
While many Maasai mentioned standards of beauty related to evolution (youth, for example), every single person I interviewed mentioned jewelry as being a necessary prerequisite for attractiveness. Intricately beaded necklaces, anklets, headdresses, bracelets, and chokers are a major identifying mark for the Maasai, and are often considered a part of the body. In the most extreme example, one young Maasai told me that jewelry, especially the long beadwork worn around the earlobes, is sometimes fondled during sexual foreplay. Various beadwork patterns signify tribal membership, and certain high-end items, such as metal clubs and digital watches encased in beads, also hint at social status. Because jewelry, unlike that impish hip-to-waist ratio, is something they can control, the Maasai wisely focus on adornment rather than the body itself when trying to appear attractive. Despite person-to-person differences in the quality of jewelry worn, beads are common, easy to acquire, and provide a standard for beauty that does not discriminate against Maasai of lower social status.
The Skinny on Fat
Beyond simple adornments, there are major differences between the way Americans and the Maasai view the actual body. Of the more than 120 Maasai I interviewed, only a single person, western educated, mentioned breast size when asked to describe a perfectly good-looking woman. The physical traits the Maasai tended to focus on were cleanliness, white teeth, short hair, height (tall is good), and elongated ear lobes. Compare this with American college students who typically mention thinness, breast size, hairstyle, eye color, strong facial features, height, and musculature. One of the most important differences between these ideal images of beauty is that many of the characteristics mentioned by the Maasai are those that can be changed. Cleanliness is a matter of washing, short hair a matter of cutting, white teeth of brushing, and long ear lobes of stretching. For the Maasai, these hallmarks of beauty are attainable because they are aspects of our bodies we have easy control over. On the other hand, thinness, breast size, eye color, and strong facial features are largely the result of a genetic crapshoot. The Maasai, for whom eating disorders are unknown, have chosen to value a group of physical traits over which they have power.
Americans, on the other hand, seem hell bent on obsessing about the aspects of our body over which we have limited control. Plastic surgery, fad diets, liposuctions, facial tucks, exercise programs, and breast implants are part of a culture that desperately wants to control fundamental aspects of physical appearance. But, for good or ill, breast implants actually do make breasts larger, contact lenses change eye color, and liposuction removes fat. Americans believe they have more control over how their bodies look than the Maasai do, precisely because technology gives us more control.
In the end, have these marvels of medicine, technology, and cosmetics translated to more happiness? Indeed, they have not. Straight across the board the Maasai report being both happy and more satisfied with the way they look than Americans. What many Westerners fail to realize is that many of our standards for attractiveness are symptoms of underlying values. Large breasts and a tight stomach are benchmarks of youth, health, and fitness, all three of which are prized in American culture. But, while breast enhancement and tummy tucks change the contours of the body, they do not, in fact, bring youth, health, or fitness. Another downside to the widespread belief that we have personal control over our bodies is that when our bodies are less than perfect, as is usually the case, there is a tendency to feel we are personally to blame.
Tall, Honest, and Handsome
Perhaps the most striking difference between our culture and the Maasai, in terms of the way we think about appearance, is the very definition of attractiveness itself. In the Maasai language, the word for physical appearance (which roughly translates as a person’s “goodness”) can also be used to describe their morality. In fact, so closely related are these two concepts that the Maasai typically think about attractiveness in terms of both physical attributes and character traits alike, suggesting that beauty is not only skin deep. When I asked the Maasai about what constitutes a perfectly good-looking person, their answers frequently included friendly, well respected, disciplined, and brave. They consider morality and behavior as much a part of attractiveness as skin tone and height. For the Maasai, social status and a good personality do not enhance physical appearance so much as define it. In short, the Maasai give more than lip service to the qualities that almost all of us agree “really matter.”
While Americans certainly value good character traits, we have a way of separating personality and appearance. We rarely want to “judge a book by its cover,” and are painfully aware of the way physical appearance, especially skin color, has historically been used as the basis of bigotry. However, our language is also full of quirky little phrases that expose a connection between appearance and character. A person can be “handy,” “nosy,” or “big headed.” We don’t like people to be “cheeky” or “lippy,” but encourage each other to “keep that chin up.”
In fact, we often do judge people’s character by their body, hairstyle, and clothing. Doc Martens boots suggest one type of person, a 10-gallon hat another. For Westerners, many accessories, such as watches, jackets, and shoes, are part of social identity, indicating education, income, ethnicity, and occupation. The truth is physical appearance often provides a wealth of information about strangers. But, because it is not always politically savvy to admit that the guy with glasses looks smart, the cop looks like an asshole, or the black guy looks scary, we do our best to suppress and deny this natural tendency.
Although it is often through the purest intentions that we separate character from appearance, it is an act that leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. The fashion industry expertly exploits the Western inclination to divorce character from attractiveness. Advertisements, such as Victoria’s Secret’s “Angel” television commercials, overtly market apparel as character defining, rather than character reflecting. Victoria’s Secret underwear is sold to make women sexy, implying they are not inherently so. The fashion industry works under the impression that life is a costume party, and it is the outfit that dictates who we are. The misguided notion that “clothes make the man” keeps us striving to acquire material goods and distracts us from developing important personal virtues like compassion, sexiness, leadership, and honesty. In Maasai culture, by contrast, it is the person, their behavior and status, that defines what they wear. Nineteen-year-old Lankasana has braided hair and a metal spear because he is a warrior, not the other way around. Ole Empiroroi is not chief because he has a digital watch and expensive ceremonial club; he has these things because he is chief.
Unfortunately, in our socially fluid society, there is an element of truth to the “costume” approach to fashion. People tend to wear different outfits for specific occasions, operating under the impression that the clothes define the person. Depending on whether they are going to a job interview or a protest, for example, people wear a certain set of clothes that denote their social role, for instance, “prospective employee,” or “political activist.” This type of role-specific clothing cubbyholes and disenfranchises with the implication being, returning to our example, that one cannot be both prospective employee and political activist.
Putting Together the Whole Outfit
The Maasai tend to focus more on adornment than physical attributes when deciding what is good looking. When they do evaluate bodily characteristics they tend to focus on those they can easily change. And the Maasai seriously consider behavior and character when thinking about attractiveness. How do these three tendencies work together?
This was illustrated one rainy afternoon when I asked a group of Maasai to look at photographs of American college students. The pictures included the best and worst looking people out of 400 photos used in a previous study of attractiveness at a large Midwestern University. The photos included men and women, as well as Caucasian and African American people. The Maasai generally agreed with the U.S. college students, both groups rating the same photos as good looking. The fascinating thing occurred when I presented the photos of the extremely unattractive people. In one photo, for instance, an unfortunate young woman is afflicted by a horrible case of acne. Although some Maasai wrinkled their noses at the picture, many of them rated this woman as among the most beautiful. How could they overlook such an obvious physical flaw? It was as if they had never read the socio-biologists before! When I asked the follow-up question, “Which elements of the photo did you use to arrive at your conclusion?” few of the Maasai mentioned the face. Sure, they had noticed the acne. Some even asked what it was. But the majority considered the woman’s beautiful long hair and bright red sweater.
Many of the Maasai were willing to overlook the young woman’s acne, dismissing it as a superfluous trait, beyond her control. Instead, they looked at her combed, washed, and styled long hair as a sign of her dedication to good hygiene and commitment to taking care of herself. Further, they focused on her clean and expensive clothing, correctly guessing it reflected her social status. But the Maasai are not Pollyanna-ish, blindly rating everyone as good looking. On average, the hundred plus Maasai rated the American woman as slightly unattractive, most likely tapping in to evolutionary requirements for beauty.
The high rate of satisfaction among the Maasai reflects a very healthy approach to fashion and beauty. By using simple standards for beauty, the Maasai have created an ideal look that is widely attainable. By focusing on aspects of appearance they can control and largely ignoring those they cannot, the Maasai make being good looking easy and avoid needless guilt. And by taking character traits into account when deciding what is good looking, the Maasai successfully imbue attractiveness with an importance that runs more than skin deep. What’s more, this combination of attitudes acts as a kind of inoculation, giving the Maasai immunity to corporate marketing strategies and excessive materialism.
For American society, where norms for beauty and standards for the fashionable may not be as healthy as those of the Maasai, the woman with acne is consistently rated as extremely unattractive, regardless of hairstyle, fashion sense, or personal virtues. It is reasonable to assume she has struggled with self-esteem, and is vulnerable to temptations of advertisers who promise to make her sexier, healthier, and generally more attractive. Although she might be a remarkably intelligent, compassionate, and honest individual, it is likely that this unfortunate young woman has been teased, avoided, and pitied for her appearance. Which is why, from time to time, as Nataana suggested, it might not be a bad idea to carry a club.