The phrase mentioned in the title, биедее таарсан махтай, is one of the most common answers I get from nomads when I ask them what beauty is. My research in the last few months amongst Mongolian nomads has revealed to me a concept of beauty completely different than the one touted in the West and that even reigns in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar.
I am a Western woman, and as such, am not free from the body focused culture that Western women and men are raised in. Asking someone the question, “What is a beautiful woman?” almost always invokes ideas of physical attributes and rarely elicits purely internal qualitative comments. Even as a member of a subculture, I have a form of dress that I tend to find is more attractive than others, and am not completely free from judging based on these external attributes (as I am sure very few people raised in body-focused cultures are).
But nomads are raised in a veryveryvery different environment, relatively free from the constant medial presence (most Mongolian nomads have only received TV in the last 5 years) and cultural prescription of what it means to be ‘beautiful.’ So, I have been traveling around asking nomads and countryside Mongolians precisely what ‘beautiful’ means.
What I have found out is that the economic livelihood, subsistence forms and functionality are the keys to determining what a society or group of people think is beautiful. In a pamplet I was given by a professor in UB on traditional requirements for husbands and wives, I found the phrase ‘ууц нь тэнүүн махлаг’ (A woman’s body should be wide and fat) as a requirement for a beautiful Mongolian woman. Tell that to all the waif’s walking around downtown UB.
‘Wide and fat’ and ‘meat that fits your body’ are kinda typical answers I receive from nomads regarding beauty ideals. In fact, most nomads -man or woman- give me next to no comments on external body appearance when I ask them what it means for a woman to be beautiful. The most common answers are “good heart and mind,” “well-behaved,” “pleasant,” and “hard-working.” They like fat because, as I was told, it is ‘warm to cuddle with in the winter and offers shade in the summer.’ And almost every nomadic man tells me that a woman can be pot-ugly externally (really!), but as long as she is good inside, he would marry her and love her. So… why is this so different from the city?
Functionality, functionality, functionality. What good is a thin woman in the countryside of Mongolia? Every nomadic woman has to wake up at 6 in the morning to light the fire in the ger, go out and get the goats, and head with the flock to the well to lift up a 20 kilo bucket of water 30 times to feed all the goats. In the winter, she has to go outside in her deel (traditional dress) to milk all the livestock everyday in -40 degrees. And in the spring (the hardest season in Mongolia), she has to milk all the livestock and batten down the ger hatches, even in the hardest of sandstorms (which are very common during Mongolian springs). A thin woman can not heat her body long in -40 degree heat, can not lift up at least 30 buckets a day and thinner women have a lot harder time birthing kids (which are an asset and a great help when you have a LOT of physical work to do everyday of your life). Her makeup would stream down her face from all the work, and -as my first home-stay mother demonstrated to me- she would lose any jewelry or status object in the hustle of nomadic life.
In fact, the hardness of traditional Mongolian nomadic lifestyle deeply affects the beauty and gender ideals amongst Mongolian nomadic women. When asked what the role of a woman is in society, all countryside people first say ‘to have kids’ and then ‘to maintain the ger.’ From a Western perspective, this seems like the cliched answer that has historically limited women’s participation in society and kept them subdued in the gender hierarchy. However, in the context of Mongolian nomadicism, this answer seems like a completely logical one, which also is completely in line with their female body ideals.
Life out on the steppe is hard. Really hard. I have now lived with over 5 different nomadic families, milked goats in rain or shine or hail, chased baby camels up and down mountains, gathered dung several times a day, almost been run over by *really* pissed off wild horses, and lifted buckets of water over and over and over…. In this lifestyle, you need to work, and you need to do a lot of really hard bodily work. In contrast to the definition of work in ‘modernized’ societies, a definition largely mentally based (i.e., an executive can sit in front of a computer and lift barely a finger all day, but still be considered hard-working), the definition of work is very bodily focused. Thus, the description given by many people that a beautiful woman is ‘hard-working.’ Cause, man, if you don’t work, say goodbye to your flock and livelihood.
In the massive and constant workload, children are really important. Especially as nomads age, which they do very quickly (more quickly than most Western individuals who don’t have the constant weather stresses that nomads have), they needs kids and a large family to help them maintain their livelihood. So, the birth of a child is viewed as a very very important and significant event. It allows for a sharing of workload and eases the load on all individuals in the family. And thus it’s immense significance to Mongolian nomads and the description of a woman’s chief importance as a child-bearer.
Furthermore, the role divide in the traditional nomadic lifestyle is also a function that developed as a result of the hard work in nomadicism. Of course, this divide (man who does heavy lifting outside the home and a woman who is constantly cleaning the ger) is somewhat fluid, especially when life gets hectic (I have seen nomadic men do all sorts of cooking while the women have to chase camels for milking). However, women being largely in the ger to entertain, raise kids, milk, clean and cook, while the husbands grab horses, shear the livestock, and build gers has developed to lighten and simplify the workload on each of them. (*Note: this is no call for or justification of traditional gender divides, just an explanation of how these developed amongst Mongolian nomads and thus modern Mongolian culture and is linked to ecological circumstance.)
Thus, with this definition of work and gender role due to the lifestyle, it is no wonder that nomadic women and men are less image focused. To maintain your livelihood, success, and health, you need to work hard and have many kids, which allows you to make more milk products and have more livestock. Your success is almost completely equivalent to how much your body works. And thus, a woman’s internal abilities become much more important than external features: how much she can work, if she can have kids (which is easier with the natural fat storage women develop around the hips and waist), if she can get along with all the neighbors (so that people will help their family in hard times), and if she can be a good partner and mother are the key factors that assure a nomadic family’s success and thus are the true definition of ‘beautiful’ amongst Mongolian nomadic women.
But, unfortunately and fortunately for us, most of us live in capitalist, consumer-driven societies, that lay immense significance on meritocracy and individualism, thus teaching us that our beauty is a direct result of how much we consume and invest in it. Furthermore, gender roles also change, because day to day stresses no longer make this gender divide a necessity, and with the changed definition of work (the shift from body to mind), women become just as capable as men.
I still have another month of research amongst nomads (my next nomadic family is one of the richest in the area, which will be interesting since I have only been with poor or middle-class families thus far), but am really excited to go to the city and interview all the women that let themselves get plastic surgery (this is INCREDIBLY common in UB, more so than in any country I have lived in thus far) and make teenagers draw pictures of what they thick beautiful is (hehe). The contrast to the nomads will be incredible.