Why is looking good so important?

This month we focus on three recently launched stories which look at the ways people change their appearance for social and cultural reasons. In Personal grooming Bronwyn Dalley explores the changing fashions of hair and beard styles; in Tā moko – Māori tattooing Rawinia Higgins shows the importance of facial tattoos to Māori identity; and in Body shape and dieting Caroline Daley shows that the ideal body shape among New Zealanders has been affected by cultural as well as physical factors. In this blog post Megan Cook reflects on these three fascinating stories.

Our Movember portrait gallery features some of the fine moustaches you'll find on our biography subjects

Our Movember portrait gallery features some of the fine moustaches you'll find on our biography subjects

Movember – the 11th month of the year, previously known as November – begins like any other, goes through a messy, semi-groomed phase, then – appearing on the face of a man near you – blossoms into glorious moustaches, often with outrageous sideburns. Grown to raise funds to support men’s health, it’s hair we don’t see much of the rest of the year. It used to be commonplace – a man without a beard was a rarity in the 19th century. With the introduction of first safety razors and then electric razors in the 20th century, facial hair was cut back and a clean-shaven face became the norm.

It wasn’t the first time new technology had changed the face of New Zealanders. Māori, who traditionally made their unique scarred and coloured moko (tattoo) with bone chisels, shifted first to metal chisels and then to needles. The moko that resulted were more defined and detailed, and prompted a resurgence of interest in moko. It wasn’t the last – in the late 20th century and early 21st century, ta moko became an assertion of Māori identity and strength and were no longer a rare sight.

There are many reasons why we might change our appearance: to support a cause, because technology lets us, to proclaim our identity, to look good and because it’s fun. When Prussian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow visited New Zealand in 1902–3 he inspired a generation of body shapers, who used his exercise and diet regimes to develop the perfect body (or as near as they could get to it). Perhaps, while they lifted weights and stretched, they gazed at a photograph of Sandow, who favoured Grecian poses, columns, and leopard-skin loincloths. Those without the patience or inclination to lift weights or diet could make do with a corset.

Corsets, like make-up, were generally worn by women, whose ideal appearance was more mobile than that of men. Over the 20th century hair was long and up, short and sculpted, long and down, curly, straight, and in between. The ideal woman’s body went from curvy to flat chested to buxom to slender, getting taller all the time. Achieving the ideal wasn’t always possible, and in the early 21st century cosmetic surgery was increasingly common – breasts, upper arms, bellies and thighs were the body parts most frequently altered.

Most alterations people make to their appearances are not as permanent as cosmetic surgery. And, to return to the men with moustaches, a great many who grow them for Movember whip them off quick smart come December.

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