Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Memes on Parade

One way to look at the agglomeration of behavior and expectations that make up a culture is to view it is a set of interacting memes: discreet ideas that come to life, propogate, thereby affecting other memes as they do so, and, ultimately, pass into history.

Globalization has not only upset economic apple carts the world over, it has also provided an opportunity to assess the whole notion of memes, by examining how a culture absorbs new idea units.

Especially when it involves sex.

Notions of female beauty vary across societies, and even within the same society over time; the contrast between a 20s flapper and Marilyn Monroe, accomplished within merely several decades is striking.

No more striking, or faster, though, than the transformation sweeping Brazil.

Brazil may well be the most body-conscious society in the world, but that body has always been Brazil’s confident own — not a North American or European one.

For women here that has meant having a little more flesh, distributed differently to emphasize the bottom over the top, the contours of a guitar rather than an hourglass, and most certainly not a twig.

Until some memes invaded, and spread like kudzu.

[That] was before the incursions of the Barbie aesthetic, celebrity models, satellite television and medical makeovers made it clear just how far some imported notions of beauty, desirability and health have encroached on Brazilian ideals once considered inviolate.

The transformation has taken only a generation, going from

... Martha Rocha, a Miss Brazil from the mid-1950s. She finished second in the Miss Universe competition supposedly because her body was a bit too generous in the hips, buttocks and thighs, but since those characteristics were so highly valued [in Brazil], as suggested by cartoons and the popularity of the semi-pornographic drawings of Carlos Zéfiro that circulated, it was the rest of the world whose taste was questioned.

to a proportional inversion:

[Brazilian] Gisele Bündchen, the top model whose enormous international success has inspired the thousands of Brazilian girls who dream of emulating her to enroll in modeling schools and competitions. But very little about Ms. Bündchen’s body — tall and blond, rangy yet busty — connects her to her homeland and its traditional self-image.

This memetic transformation has not stopped at the runway. Girl's dolls have faithfully followed fashion, leading to the near extinction of a "fleshier" plastique to Barbie's top-heavy pneumaticism.

What Brazilians would have once viewed as odd quickly went from nouveau to norm.

Not without cost, it must be said. Anorexia, once practically unknown in Brazil, has claimed six young women within the last year, and diet pills are hurtling out of shops.

As a phenomena, this transformation is interesting enough. However, it begs many questions that the article's author either never addresses, or, at best, implicitly views as a form of cultural colonialism, with The West as the active agent, and brown skinned people as pure, but powerless, victims.

Centrally, Dr. Elisado de Araújo's statement just how far some imported notions ... have encroached commits the sin of passive voice: it eliminates the subject. In doing so, it relieves the writer of having to face the who and the why.

Plunging into Terra Incognita

I shall take up this cudgel, which will require venturing to where monsters lurk, terra incognita: the female mind.

Cue the chord -- is it G-flat? -- portending doom.

For men, deciding upon First Cause is a doddle compared to ascertaining what is going on in any particular woman's brain; indeed, the laybrinthian inscrutability of the female mind is so fathomless as to lend the impression that no woman really grasps what's going on in there, either.

Perhaps, though, peering into the collective female mind, with the calming effect of numbers helping to tame individual vicissitudes that put the zig in zag, just might yield some insight.

Why are trees so tall?

No, this isn't a refresher course in the art of non-sequitors. The facile answer is that trees are tall because they require sunlight to survive. Glaringly obvious, as far as that goes. Go one step further, though. If all trees agreed to be short, then no tree would have to go to the bother, and considerable expense, of attaining great height.

There lies the problem: all trees. Just one defector, and its neighbors have to reach for the sky, and consequently their neighbors, etc.

Just so with women. Being a successful mother -- that is, obtaining sufficiently favorable conditions to allow raising children through prolonged dependency -- is so demanding as to require significant resources and protection from an external source. What's more, since paternity is much more uncertain than maternity, women have to pursue a passive - aggressive strategy in acquiring a mate.

Consequently, women engage in adornment to a far greater extent then men. And like trees, the degree of adornment is driven by defectors.

If all women agreed to forego heels and accessories, none would need them. One defector, though, is all it takes to start the race for the sky. And since the payoff for defection is so great, defectors are a certainty.

Which comes first, the Demand or the Supply?

According to Dr. de Araújo, neither:, “[Brazilian women] want to get thin no matter what, all because of images from north of the Equator. It is a cruel cultural imposition on the Brazilian woman.”

No doubt conducted at stileto point.

This statement perfectly substantiates AOG's assertion that the Left deprives all non-Westerners (although in this case Westerner = Northerner) of any moral agency: the non-Western/non-Northern part of the world is simultaneously noble and passive.

It also highlights the prevalence of self evident intellectual laziness, both among reporters and the reported: in the complete absence of force, just how did this imposition occur?

The good Dr. hasn't a clue, because he isn't asking the right question, and he isn't thinking about how discreet units of cultural information take hold and spread.

Just like trees, all it took was one, or a few women, to act as defectors, thereby garnering for themselves more resources than their non-defecting sisters, who in turn had to join the boobs-race in order to keep up.

Men obviously had to react to this new supply with demand, but just a little examination demonstrates that statement accords to men an active role that is more apparent than real: women continually try new ways to push men's buttons, then home in on the ones that work; in the mating realm, men are puppets, and women search for which strings to jerk.

Why does Barbie trump Ipanema?

In other words, why did these particular memes (or, this particular meme if you wish to consider the several appearance changes as inseparable), so quickly predominate?

There is probably no way of knowing. Guesses verging on "just-so" stories will have to suffice. How about:

  1. The halo effect of all things characterizing the more materially successful culture.
  2. Scarcity value, the same thing that made female corpulence a sign of beauty in times of much less plenty than today.
  3. Mate selection tends to exaggerate existing gender specific differences
  4. The prevalence of Barbie images in the popular culture. (This, too, implies more agency than is actually the case, in that it completely begs the question as to why that standard became predominant in the first place: it is an answer that answers nothing.)

Memes on Parade: Runway Models as Lab Rats

The replacement of one beauty standard by another amounts to three distinct memes -- breast size, hip-waist ratio and buttock size -- permeating a culture in barely more than a generation. This change in memetic frequency is more than a metaphor for evolution, it is evolution.

The "what" is easy to see. Equally, it seems pretty clear that women, rather than being passive victims, are themselves the active agents. This is ironic, though; being the active agent is not necessarily a barrier to acting against interest. Just as it would be easier for trees to be just tall enough, mutual competition ensures tall enough becomes far taller than necessary.

This demonstration of evolution in action demonstrates how irrelevant either a designer or plan is. Recursive systems have no need for such things. It also shows that the difficulty of explaining the "why" part of the problem is also no reason to look for the Divine. Stuff doesn't need our understanding for it to happen.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Maybe news travels slower than we think. Barbie is out, Lindsey is in (I gather from the grocery store checkout stands).

And, of course, it may be that women's shapes are like hemlines. They can only vary along a continuum. Fashion decreesm that they shall vary.

Therefore, hemlines rise and fall and busts swell and shrink.

What else could they do?

July 25, 2007 3:31 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Lindsey being Barbie in the flesh, of course.

Therefore, hemlines rise and fall and busts swell and shrink.


However, I have noticed that the same (i.e., "Western") esthetic is prevalent in Asia, as well.

All of which makes me think Dawkins was on to something.

July 25, 2007 4:36 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, you've covered a lot of territory.

What's in women's minds? A host of different matters just as in men's minds. We aren't like the Borg, honestly, we're all individuals. If you haven't noticed that, you haven't looked hard enough.

Bündchen may a Brazilian national, but she's obviously of northern European heritage, probably German, so it seems unlikely, no matter what girls who don't have her genes do, they'll never look like her, nor should they want to.

Teenage girls want to look like the impossibly skinny models and actresses. Luckily that's a stage that passes quickly and most of them find their own look and go on with their lives.

The good doctor stopped short of blaming us for forcing our culture on the defenseless world. I'm pretty sick of that meme. To my knowledge, we haven't sent in the marines to force people to eat big macs or buy barbie dolls.

July 25, 2007 6:59 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Maybe the demise of the bottom-heavy Brazilian ideal has been exaggerated. Matthew Polly went to Brazil about a year ago, and reported on what he'd seen and done in Slate, beginning on Aug. 14th, 2006.

Here are some (possibly NSFW) pictures that he took on the trip:

Here and here.

They don't seem indicative of a Barbie-worshipping culture to me. They seem supportive of the traditional view of Brazilian beauty.

July 25, 2007 10:40 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Also, to my eye, there's not much difference between the Brazilian beauty queen named in the article, Martha Rocha, and Marilyn Monroe, with regard to "generosity of hips, buttocks and thighs", so I don't know what the Miss Universe judges were on about.

July 25, 2007 11:07 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Perhaps I am misinformed -- I get all my information about popular culture from the covers of National Enquirer -- but I thought Lohan was among the anorexics.

July 25, 2007 11:12 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Not anorexic, but sadly, LiLo appears to be terminally addicted to drugs of all kinds, any kind. The threats of termination of her career, and of jail, didn't stop her from using.

So now she's going to jail, and her career is on life-support. And she's only college-aged.

July 25, 2007 11:23 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

It could the "creative minority" effect. I.e., a small group of (for no apparent reason) popular people decide to take up a new fashion, and the masses follow along. Who, exactly, judges beauty contests — ordinary people? In this scenario, the meme can initially capture just a tiny fraction of the population and then get imposed via internal cultural structures. In that case it would be very much like hemlines.

July 26, 2007 7:32 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

I like thin women. Now, what was the question?

I like the trees metaphor. That makes men be like the sun.

July 26, 2007 12:15 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I dunno. I went to those links of Oro's, and I don't see those as very broad bottoms, especially not the ones on the back of the bus.

We are the nation of Anna Held and R. Crumb.

July 26, 2007 11:45 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Not very broad bottoms, but revealing an emphasis on the bottom half.

July 27, 2007 1:18 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


We aren't like the Borg, honestly, we're all individuals. If you haven't noticed that, you haven't looked hard enough.

Actually, obtuse as I am, I had noticed that.

However, as I hoped my tree metaphor would make clear, what is, to those of us suffering testosterone poisoning, absolutely mystifying at the individual level, becomes fairly tractable when dealing with women as a group. And, BTW, provides some insight as to the whys, if not necessarily the wherefores, of a woman's behavior.

[Brazilian girls will] never look like [Bündchen], nor should they want to.

Yes, they will, given enough diet,ing exercise, nip & tuck, and sufficient desire.

The crux of the issue is the source, and persistence, of that desire.

As for the second part, that is confusing is with ought, and differs in no particular way from women wearing heels. There is no reason women should want to wear them, and, individually, may very well loath them (keeping in mind that women's relationship to their footwear makes explaining the origin of the universe a doddle by comparison).

But women wear them, nonetheless.

I suspect the reason for that meme is no different than for Brazilian's quickly changing notions of feminine pulchritude.

The good doctor stopped short of blaming us for forcing our culture on the defenseless world.

Just short. While perfectly demonstrating how passive voice allows for, at the very least, sloppy thinking.


Maybe the demise of the bottom-heavy Brazilian ideal has been exaggerated.

Please note that it is the waist-hip ratio that changed (as well as the trend towards a more top-heavy look).


It could the "creative minority" effect. I.e., a small group of (for no apparent reason) popular people decide to take up a new fashion, and the masses follow along.

That is an answer perilously close to answering nothing at all.

A small group may take up something for no apparent reason, or at least no reason other than attempting to be on the cutting edge of the new.

The harder question is why the particular memes in question spread so quickly and thoroughly.

I favor the halo and scarcity effects (emulating a materially successful culture, and the status that accrues to a male possessing a scarce female phenotype), except these memes have seemingly triumphed nearly, or close as darnnit is to swearing, everywhere.


I like the trees metaphor. That makes men be like the sun.

Exactly. With the added complication that uncertain paternity means women must be passive-agressive in competing for a resource provider.

July 27, 2007 4:53 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

keeping in mind that women's relationship to their footwear [etc.]

That's always been a mystery to me, why women with a passion for shoes are common enough for it to be a cliche.

If shoes are viewed as an accessory, then an analogous pasttime for men might be collecting ties, but how many men have a hundred ties or more ?

Or even more than ten ?

July 28, 2007 3:33 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Surgery and liposuction can't change a girl's bone structure or add inches to her height or the length of her legs ...

Okay. Gloves off. Shoes are sacrosanct -- a subject on which no women, no matter how unique and independent, will tolerate male comments. Of course none of you can understand shoes, it's an evolutionary thing, or is it an intelligent design kind of thing? Anyway don't bother even trying.

Amusing story: Even though we had just gotten a brand new '56 Merc with a huge trunk and back seat, it still took several trips just to transport my shoes to the new apartment. My bridegroom was pretty stunned since he had two pairs of shoes and all the rest of his stuff fit into a brown paper bag.

High heels, a health hazard? Wore them all my life and the only part of me, not hurting right now, are my feet. Go figure.

Fun string.

July 28, 2007 1:14 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Sorry, try this.

July 28, 2007 1:24 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


You are right: diet, surgery, liposuction and Dow Corning's finest changes only appearance (and could conceivably make for a very confused future father).

But that is not what is at issue. Rather, it is the spread of a distinct set of memes, and the way that spread mirrors the fact of trees' existence -- defectors competing for a scarce resource.

This, combined with the passive-aggressive nature of searching for a mate (a la the time honored phrase "he chased her until she caught him") makes much of female behavior, at least in the statistically smoothed sense, not only understandable, but downright reasonable.

As well substantiating Dawkins' take on memes, and demonstrating they act in precisely the evolutionary ways one would expect of any recursive system.

Shoes are sacrosanct ...

That being one behavior completely beyond analysis, although it looks a lot like a specific type of collecting.

So far as I can think of, there is no counterpart male behavior. Yes, stamp, coin, etc collectors are, AFAIK, predominantly male. However, if you were to grab any group of 100 men, I'll bet you would find darn few that collect anything.

In contrast, nearly all the women I have ever known collect something, whether it be chicken collectibles (my mother in law), bicycles (my wife), or Lladros (which caused me to term all such porcelain objects as "plinks", from the noise they make when a wayward cat -- also a particular object of female affection -- knocks one off a shelf).

July 29, 2007 1:24 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Ha. Bit of a generational difference - when you wrote "brand new '56 Merc", I was thinking "Mercedes", until I clicked through.

July 29, 2007 6:07 PM  
Blogger erp said...

We were hopelessly provincial. Mercedes weren't even in our vocabulary and there certainly weren't any in our neighborhood.

I can't explain the appeal of footwear, but it's pretty pervasive. After my mother died last year and I cleaned out her closets, I realized I didn't want my kids to have to do the same for me, so I tossed out clothes, hats, bags with gay abandon, but I simply couldn't discard my favorite shoes and it's a good thing because I learned that my ten year old granddaughter wants them.

July 29, 2007 7:22 PM  

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