Thursday, March 13, 2014

Curves of steel: beauty ideals set in stone

visitors and salespeople around the Meenakshi temple
Madurai, India
I've just visited a fantastic and enormous Hindu temple in the city of Madurai, in south-central India, a country of 1.4 billion people, most of whom are poor. Poor, as in they need to worry about tomorrow's food supply.

Most poor people live in rural villages and depend almost entirely on their ability to plan for and negotiate the monsoon rains that dominate life here. It's dry for months at a time, then suddenly things are drenched for several months (usually May-August).

I'm wasn't in a rural village, and, in fact, many people I saw there were overweight. That growing (sigh) problem across the globe.


The Madurai temple is visited by roughly 15,000 people each day, and I think I saw all of them -- it was Sunday, which is a free day and a family day for many. People streamed into and out of the temple all afternoon, and the chaos resembled a major city at rush hour, but with more incense.

The temple has two main parts, dedicated to the god Shiva and his wife, Parvati (here known by another of her 64 names, Meenakshi), respectively. She is usually green, often with multiple arms, a testament, perhaps, to an appreciation of diversity in ancient Hindu culture? Shiva also takes on multiple forms, making identification by non-Hindu tourists a perpetual challenge.

the Hindu god Shiva and his wife, Meenakshi (in green).
note the narrow waist - chubby tummy combination on each of them


I noticed that throughout this and other Hindu temples, they and the other gods are depicted with fanciful, curvy and generally sexy faces and bodies. Their idealized forms usually had impossibly slim waists yet a little bit of pudge in their stomachs.

I think this is a dancing Shiva again, but not 100% sure
Other gods, particularly, Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of good luck and problem solving (and son of Shiva), are downright chubby, which made me consider the views on chubbiness in different cultures and eras (credit to my friend Roopa for the original idea).

Views of beauty, even just a single aspect of beauty, such as body weight, are many and varied, and societies' senses of health and appropriate weight and beauty have changed repeatedly in different places at different times.

For one, the modern thin ideal is just that...modern. The curves associated with heavier women were key features of attractiveness up until the 20th century.

Why am I mentioning this? Charles Darwin believed that animals had features that did not help them survive but made them more attractive to potential mates, which, in turn, helped them breed either more frequently or with a partner with "good" genes.

bringing sexy back?  Hinduism never lost it
Darwin and his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, actually each developed a theory of evolution by natural selection (traits that help a species survive stay on in subsequent generations, but Wallace believed that features would not be seen today if they only made an animal attractive and didn't also help it survive.

In other words, those wide hips may help women give birth more easily, and those big shoulders help a guy throw a spear farther or beat off an intruder.

Do these ideas apply to all features? Do the tremendous curves and highly unlikely breast perkiness help Meenakshi and her lady friends survive? Would their thin waists help them have more or healthier children?  Or just catch a studly guy?

And what about guys (excluding Shiva, who, as Hinduism's chief god, can probably catch anyone he wants)?

Does a man's penis size really matter for survival? Does a man's body shape or facial hair improve his survival, or just his reproductive success?

does size matter?  what about number?
(probably a temple guardian)
spider monkey demonstrating usefulness of many limbs
photo: Endangered SpeciesTAHS

Does either of these theories of sexual selection still apply today, since most people that want to get married and have children, regardless of shape?

And what about those multiple arms?  Do they help their owners multi-task?? It helps monkeys for sure - what about people?

Stay tuned for a follow-up post on views of body shape in different times and places.

an aerial view of the impressive Meenakshi temple complex in Madurai, India, filled with worshippers
photo credit: எஸ்ஸார்(seriously!)


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