Defining Beauty: Stories of Kenyan Communities

ModelNational Museums of Kenya

Our fascination with beauty
From time immemorial, human beings have been preoccupied with the issue of beauty.

Elegeyo womanNational Museums of Kenya

‘The beautiful ones are not yet born’
The concept of beauty is difficult to define and, as the famous Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah wrote: ‘the beautiful ones are not yet born’.

Dinka (1996) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

From a gap between the teeth to body scarification
Different communities in Kenya traditionally had different concepts of beauty. For some, a gap between the two front teeth was a sign of beauty; others used body scarification as a way of enhancing beauty.

Muthambi Witch doctor by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Ear stretching
For many communities, beauty was enhanced by means of various ornaments, or stretching their earlobes to wear ear adornments.

Maulidi FestivalNational Museums of Kenya

Henna and scent
At the coastal and northern parts of Kenya, women traditionally applied henna in order to look attractive. Women also used incense in order to have a pleasant and attractive scent.

Turkana (1995) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

Men and beauty
The pursuit of beauty has never been confined to women alone.

Maasai Weaponry by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Maasai morans
The Maasai moran were renowned for spending a lot of time on their hairdos and applying ochre on their bodies.

CombNational Museums of Kenya

Somali combs
The Somali youth combed their long hair and decorated it with elaborately carved combs in order to look attractive to members of the opposite sex.

Kamba (1995) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

Teeth filling
The Kamba and the Mijikenda had a tradition of shaping or filling teeth to make them look more beautiful.

Maasai Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

A culturally specific notion
Societies all over Kenya used clothes and ornaments to make themselves attractive and well groomed. Being beautiful or attractive was a culturally specific and cultivated notion, and there was no national standard.

Borana WomenNational Museums of Kenya

Beauty today
In contemporary society there is a tendency to standardise the idea of beauty following the western forms of grooming. Salons and fashion houses that promote the western standards of beauty are commonplace in major cities and towns, in order to serve the increasing number of customers who want to look ‘beautiful’. The beauty industry is a thriving one, with both men and women spending a lot of time and money to enhance their appearance.

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