The diet and fitness expert explores ideals in other cultures

By Harley Pasternak
July 03, 2013 03:00 PM
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What makes a perfect body?

I live and work in Hollywood – ground zero of thin, lean, toned. Home of Pilates, juicing, colonics, Botox, cleanses, Bikram yoga, and Spanx everything and anything to pursue the perfect body!

With last weekend’s heat wave, I decided to catch up with my favorite TV show, HBO’s Vice. I watched an incredible episode that focused on the women of Mauritania, a desert country in West Africa, where obesity has long been the ideal of beauty.

In this culture, parents force-feed their daughters as young as toddlers through a feeding known as “gavage.” Parents encourage their daughters not to exercise so that they can grow to be fat by the time they are of the marrying age, because in this particular culture, being fat is associated with wealth and therefore aspirational.

How is this possible, you might ask, in a region where 20% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day? The answer is camel milk, millet, and oil and a lot of it. Some girls consume up to 16,000 calories a day, in fact. That’s the equivalent of 29 Big Macs!

This Mauritanian tradition led me to research some other unique cultural beauty ideals to share.

• In Ethiopia, the elders of the Karo tribe cut scars on the stomachs of young women, starting in childhood, to make themselves more beautiful and attract a husband.

• On the border of Thailand and Burma, the women of the Kayan tribe elongate their necks using brass rings. The more rings a woman wears, the longer her neck, the more beautiful and noble she is.


• For centuries, members of the Maori tribe in New Zealand have used Moko, or tattooing, to accentuate beauty and promote a sense of community. Today, Moko are common on the lips, chin and throat of men and women.

• The Mursi people of Southwestern Africa are one of the last African tribes to still use labrets, or lip plates. A young woman’s lower lip is cut by an elder woman in the tribe and held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. Then, using progressively larger plates, the wound is expanded. It is often implied that the size of the lip plate is correlated with her worth as a bride.

The above examples merely touch on how the “ideal body” is pursued in different cultures. Often, these rituals go far beyond esthetic and venture into religious, sociological and other arenas, and I am in no way claiming to be an expert on them. I just think it’s interesting to take a step back and acknowledge that a beautiful body is truly subjective. What looks good to us might not appeal to someone else, and vice versa.

So, the next time you look in the mirror and critique yourself, ask yourself whose beauty ideal you are comparing yourself to. After all, as the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

What is a beautiful body to you? Tweet me @harleypasternak.

Check back every Wednesday for more insider tips on Hollywood’s hottest bodies – and learn how to get one yourself! Plus: follow Harley on Twitter at @harleypasternak.

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