14 November 2007

Standards of Beauty:
But... they're BALD!

By Bonnie Vanak

Ancient Egyptians were extremely intelligent, articulate and educated, but they were kind of a weird lot. Face it, for all their sophistication, (they had the first toilets, how’s that for advancing humankind?) they looked strange.

They wore white linen kilts. Were bald beneath those extravagant wigs. Shaved their heads. Makes sense, given the lice and fleas setting up housekeeping in human hair, but still...

Bald. As cue balls.

And the men's liberal use of kohl for eye liner would make Jack Sparrow blush. Sure, they did it to reduce glare from the brutal sunlight, but still...

Bald men. With eyeliner. In skirts. Somehow, that doesn't make me think whoa, hot Alpha male warning ahead. Steaming hot manly man.

And yet, these men were an ancient Egyptian woman's ideal of hunk. Put a bald, cosmetics-draped guy before her and she'd go weak at the knees as if her limbs turned to cooked noodles, like a teenage girl drooling over Justin Timberlake (the younger version).

Beauty is in the eye of the cultural beholder.

The theme is significant throughout my May 2008 Egyptian historical, The Scorpion & the Seducer. I wanted to touch upon a very real aspect of the Edwardian period; the prejudice of English aristocrats against Egyptians. Jasmine, the heroine, is Egyptian by birth, daughter of a despot sheikh and his former concubine.

Thomas, who falls in love with her, is an English earl who was raised to consider Egyptians as inferior. His fellow peers regard beautiful women as the wealthy, fair-skinned and slender English women of their class. Yet Thomas breaks a social moray to spend time with Jasmine, even at the risk of losing status among his social set. He sees beauty not with his eyes but with his heart, past the seemingly insurmountable barriers of race, class and culture.

In Egypt, Jasmine is deemed lovely. With inky black curls tumbling down her backside, full breasts and swaying hips, midnight eyes and nut brown skin, she's a classic example of Egyptian grace and beauty.

Put her among the peaches and cream women of Edwardian England and she's an ugly duckling. And like the ugly duckling, she's chased straight out of the pond by squawking ducks claiming she doesn't fit in.

Victorian and Edwardian English society considered Egyptians mentally deficient. Literature from the period describes Egyptians as stupid and ignorant peasants. In desperately trying to assimilate into a new land and culture, Jasmine runs headfirst into this prejudice. Try as she might, she can't batter down the heavy doors barring her entrance into high society.

Not when the cream of the beau monde calls her "the brown scorpion."

Standards of beauty are a funny thing. What one culture or class considers lovely can be regarded as plain, or even downright ugly, by another. Just like me pondering those ancient Egyptian men with their shiny domes, kilts and eye cosmetics.

Then again, come to think of it, Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments as Ramses, hmmm, very masculine. Sexy. A hunk. Kohl and all. Ok, changed my mind.

Beauty is in the eye of the cultural beholder. And sometimes, if you look hard enough, you can shatter the barriers encompassing your own standards of beauty.

What about you? What do you consider a standard of both male and female beauty when you write, or read a book?