Somehow, this is one of those topics that always gets me. A) Almost everyone has an ideal that they call beauty, B) Many fewer believe that they are at that ideal, and *importantly* C) Ideals for beauty change from culture to culture.
I experienced this cultural relativism on several occasions in Burkina Faso and other West African countries. Before I went, I had certainly read plenty concerning culturally relative values and general perceptions in my philosophy coursework. However, it still threw me for a loop the first (, second, and third [*at least*]) time(s) I heard someone tell a female volunteer I was with that she was fat while wearing the smug look that says they’ve done a good thing and expect to be somehow rewarded.
For context, in recent history, Burkina has fluctuated up and down among the bottom 5 countries globally according to its Human Development Index (in 2012 it ranked 183 of 186 measured). Among other things, this means that much of the population make their living through agriculture/livestock/etc. and a great majority live far below the poverty line and regularly endure the physically demanding realities of subsistence living. To the casual observer, this results in a country of abnormally physically ripped individuals. Upon closer inspection, it is often observed that while the muscle to fatty tissue ratio is extraordinarily high, and this results in a good deal of muscle definition for both the ladies and the gents, this comes with the caveat that (almost) everyone also has a below desirable BMI.
Also, as it takes money to eat (especially in excess), and an office job (<—desirable) to keep the weight on, overweight in BF is seen as highly desirable. For these reasons, tanties (literally “aunts” but basically large ladies) are encouraged as a cultural ideal, sought after for marriage, and frequently (compared with the rest of the population) found in mid to high-end government jobs (or selling food). In other words, what is seen as obese and thus a medical concern in the US is encouraged and called healthy and beautiful in Burkina. Thus the confusing “compliments” about being fat.
For the ancient Greeks (esp. those in the school of Plato/Socrates), beauty was an ideal form like any other thing of value. Specifically, beauty was seen as a certain type of geometric ideal. Symmetry, no blemishes, and smooth.
And of course, we don’t really know if a caterpillar actually dreams of becoming a butterfly. But barring the likelihood that it will become another insect/animal’s snack before it is grown, caterpillars are at least about as destined as any to go on to fly one day with intricate, delicate, and fantastic wings.
Life is short. With medical technology, we can artificially extend its length, but we can’t guarantee it will be as interesting/desirable as it was when we were more youthful. As such, all other things being equal, I don’t wish to encourage unhealthy behaviors (such as over-weight, under-weight, etc.), but all other things are rarely actually equal. Perhaps there is something particularly healthy in accepting who we are and striving to fulfill our present living situations rather than drudging on with the constant unmet desire to alter ourselves into things we are not. As a wise lady (GaGa) once said, “Rejoice and love yourself today, ’cause baby, you were born this way!”