Hey lovelies! I can’t believe this year in Mongolia is almost over, and I *of course* came back from Korea and got super sick. But since I can still read (thank god!) and walk, I have been spending the previous few weeks getting ready for talks, and immersed in books, transcriptions, and 12th century adventurist writings.
Since I am a firm believer in the embodiment of gender norms through beauty ideals in any society, I thought it would be interesting for me to track down some beauty icons during Mongolia’s long and intense Soviet stage to see if the policy of gender equality had any significant effect on concepts of beauty during that time period. I was also really interested in comparing concepts of beauty during the Soviet era to modern concepts, to see how radically everything changed in the last 20 years once the country ‘opened’ to the West.
Mongolian Communist Gender History
A little gender history for those who don’t know the first thing about Mongolia’s Soviet era (and I am guessing there are a lot of you), Mongolia, or the Mongolian People’s Republic, formed with support from the Soviet Union in 1924. This traditionally nomadic, pastoralist society then underwent the Soviet-style process of collectivization of property in a novel way; they collectivized all livestock into agricultural cooperatives called nedgels. Each person was required to complete a certain set of work units in the nedgel each week: men had 150 work hours, and women, 100.
The open party line was of absolute gender equality (Mongolia’s second constitution of 1940 stipulated that citizens’ rights be enjoyed by both sexes, and outlawed polygyny) and the nedgel did raise women’s position in various ways (education, work, maternity leave). However, the work divide was highly gendered and “women became worker-mothers with double work while men had a higher-status role to play.” And women were commonly seen as ‘weaker,’ while men with harder, dirty jobs were commonly compensated by being officially recognized as state heroes (Ashwin 2000).
Iconic Mongolian Communist Beauty
Ok, so obviously it wasn’t absolute gender parity, but it did re-traditionalize women’s roles and conceptions of beauty in Mongolia. So, I decided to try to track down two of the icons of beauty during Mongolian’s Soviet era, Tsogzolmaa and her daughter, Suvd, to see how they felt about beauty, body and women’s roles.
Tsogzolmaa was born in 1924, at the turn of the revolution, and is considered by many Mongolians to be the pinnacle of Mongolian Soviet era beauty. She starred in the movie Tsogt Taij (“The Spirited Knight”..?) in 1945. Her daughter, Suvd, born in 1948, was the lead in the film Mandukhai Tsetsen Hatan (“Wise Queen Mandukhai”) in 1989. I am constantly told everywhere I go that they were then and are still considered two of the most beautiful women in Mongolia.
Yes, Mongolia is small enough that through two degrees of separation you can obtain the phone number of practically anyone in the country, even the most famous of Mongolians (I kinda love this). So, I got in contact with Tsogzolmaa through a teacher’s grandmother, but Tsogzolmaa (who was born in 1924 when Mongolia became the ‘republic’ and is now at the tender age of 88) has been too sick to go anywhere or see anyone. However, she gave us her daughter’s number without hesitation, and so I follow with a few quotes from my interview with Suvd, and a few from a similar interview on beauty and fashion done with Tsogzolmaa a few years ago.
Let me just say that this was the easiest interview I have ever done. Usually I have to sometimes wrestle answers out of taciturn people, but all I did was tell Suvd what I was doing and she proceeded to talk for 20 minutes. (Note: The lovely Nomin helped me transcribe, and the translations are mine, altered a bit to sound better in English).
On the standards of beauty in Mongolia during her time:
“According to the traditional Mongolian standard of beauty, a good demeanor and an intelligent mind are highly regarded. This may possibly be the case all over the world. Also, especially to Mongolians, a person’s status was traditionally really important.”
About physical appearance during that time:
“Each group of people on this earth has their own conception of beauty. According to tradition, Mongolians like round faces, complexions white as snow, and a round faced woman was looked at a lot, for example. External forms of beauty change with the times.”
You can compare this to the similar answer given by her mother (who is only 24 years older):
In my time, women only really looked at the face and clothing. It’s not like now. Well-defined eyebrows, red cheeks like fruit, etc. were sung about. A woman with a big face, narrow eyebrows, and red cheeks was esteemed as beautiful.
On the changes in beauty ideals through globalization:
“Now, a great deal of beauty standards are becoming similar, since economies are universalizing through globalization, and thus things are carried out the same way all over the world. Through globalization, [Mongolian] beauty standards are now changing to the way it is in other countries, which I don’t like. And thus, my daughters are now aspiring to be thin, have long legs, and be slender… they really have been trying to conform themselves to this standard.”
“However, Mongolians on average still don’t overly look at the external appearance, which is a vestigial of our traditions, and is still lingering on. Now, percentage wise, I would say it’s about 50/50. Generally, the focus on the external appearance is rising… if people all around the world become the same it is incredibly boring. Everything is heading towards this, I think this world lifestyle is boring and we are all going in this direction and thus life is becoming very boring to me. I live like this now, I went to America and lived like this and to Germany and lived like this, and it is all the same. There is nothing interesting or novel about it. Everywhere there are super thin girls who live similarly, all wear the same clothing, have the same face, have had plastic surgery, and children watch the same films like “Tom and Jerry,” and as soon as we all become like this, I feel there will be nothing interesting left. Now everyone has plastic surgery and gets the same eyes, the same nose, etc. When I now watch films, I can’t tell the difference between the contemporary actresses, I can’t tell who is who.”
On the evils of the modern media:
I asked if she agreed with the statement that beauty was much more internal during the Soviet era in Mongolia, and has now become much more external, especially in the city:
“I agree, I agree. We are now in the transition phase. During our era, the country was closed, right? We didn’t have the opportunity to see foreigner singers, like the beetles, and watch foreign movies….there wasn’t a lot that was allowed. And the blocked stuff was super interesting to us, and we would find it, listen, and watch anything we could… [but] we knew that these forms of media were part of its system and connected to it…. It was promoted to us as bad, so when we watched it we could see the good and the bad elements to it and view it objectively. Now, generally, this media is contemporary and supposedly all good, none of it is bad anymore, so like water, it can’t be filtered and 100 percent of it gets in.”
On why it is important for Mongolian women to maintain their appearance:
“There is this Mongolian wise phrase, maybe you know it: You enter the yurt through the husband’s name, but how you leave the yurt is dependent on the wife’s name (This implies that the husband is the public sphere and allows you to enter, but the care you receive and the respect you show is up to the wife). In this manner (needing to care but also entertain), a woman gets pleasure from being both internally and externally beautiful… her mind is sharp, her mien expressive, and the external is not only her complexion, but also her clothing…a woman’s external must be maintained…[which they] learn from a young age, and has been the custom until now.”
On why, despite women’s increased education, most power positions are occupied by Mongolian men:
“I also think this is connected to tradition…usually Mongolian women have regarded their husbands as higher and superior. The husbands, in return, highly respect and cherish their wives. But these days, the higher ones are propelled to the top. This is our psychology, and women still consider their sons as superior… yes, this is tradition.”
My follow up question: So, because of that traditional respect, it’s still easier for men to become members of parliament than it is for women?
“Yes, maybe. It is possible.”
Recently while in Korea, I had the impression that a lot of people I was encountering had very black and white images of what women and men think of as beautiful. Maybe it is because I am locked away in this country where the female bonding ritual of ‘fat talk’ between women (you know the type: “omg I look so fat in this,” “omg no you don’t, but I do in this,” “on shutup you look fantastic” etc.) is something non-existent, and I have thus become overly sensitized. Anyway, some of the statements I heard about all women supposedly wanting to be thin, and diet, and be pretty got to me, and these two answers from Tsogzolmaa were geared towards this (as well as the above statements from Suvd):
I was quite large at one point: 80 kilos. In order to get thinner, I worried a lot and after doing a lot of strength activities in my home, I automatically got thinner. Getting thinner was a subject for the woman of my time. Athletes officially were made to do a lot and worried a lot. During our time excessively large people didn’t exist.
One side of the standard was we thought that if we just used natural things, everything was ok. A peaceful disposition, joy was important. It was called an ‘unhurried disposition.’ The other side was that eating a lot wasn’t good, and using a lot of make-up was said to be bad, especially when older. And being overly thin was also inappropriate.
So what is Soviet beauty?
So, in general it seems that Mongolian women thought about their appearance during the Soviet era, but not nearly as obsessively and externally as (city) women do now. Being thin might have been a topic, but excessive thinness was not viewed positively, and most appearance factors focused solely on the face (round), the skin (white with red cheeks), and the eyebrows.
This is super interesting when you consider that the most commonly operated on body parts in modern Mongolia are the eyes (to make them bigger – which wasn’t even a topic 20 years ago!), the nose, and the lips. The focus on which body parts are considered important amongst Mongolians have changed radically in the last 20 years with the free-market.
But throughout the two interviews, both women continually stressed the internal and collective nature of beauty; Tsogzolmaa in her longer interview talks about several women who were considered georgeous in her day due to their behavior, but did not try to dress up and look overtly feminine. To this day, when I ask others why Tsogzolmaa and Suvd are considered knockouts, they tell me it is because of the respect they show others and their demeanors. They have ‘royal’ demeanors; when I interviewed Suvd, she had this way of folding her hands, tilting her head, and smiling in a very fuzzy, warm motherly way. Really, their attraction then and now to all Mongolians is that they are nice-looking, peaceful, classic and warm people; nothing sexy, showy or dangerous about it.
Suvd went on a nice long rant about the evils of media and how Western media is changing beauty standards, which I appreciated. As someone who has been considered a beauty icon and had a mother who was a beauty icon, she has been inundated and surrounded by this topic since day one. So, her ascertainment of beauty in Mongolia as transitioning due to global market processes making universal beauty standards uniform, is accurate and refreshing (that I am not the only one saying this stuff!).