P l a n e t
P a r t y 

Beauty is the mother of lust, and lust, according to Plato, is “the fiercest and most despotic” of all urges, driving men “most powerfully to all kinds of lunacy”. The power of beauty to disturb is universally acknowledged, and as a consequence, many cultures have evolved philosophies to reduce its influence, usually by depicting it as decorative and thereby intrinsically worthless. In certain societies, however, beauty is accepted as something wonderful in itself and is celebrated accordingly. The Wodaabe, a tribe of West African nomads, belong to this latter category, and value mortal beauty so highly that its recognition and praise form an important part of their tribal rituals. Every year they gather together to identify the most attractive of their youth, and to acclaim their good looks in a festival known as Gerewol. Gerewol takes the form of a series of dances, in which young Wodaabe men parade their beauty before the women of the tribe, who select the most appealing, judging them on their looks alone. The winners are rewarded with a night of love with the judges, and honour amongst the rest of their kindred.

Whilst it may seem unusual that the men are the contestants at the Gerewol displays, and the women are the judges, it is not unnatural, for, biologically, mate choice is usually a female affair. Not only peacocks, but the males of countless other species have evolved ornamental features to seduce the drabber sex. Whilst humans do not possess the more flamboyant motifs of some of their near relatives in the animal kingdom, such as the electric blue testicles of vervet monkeys, their morphology nonetheless implies that men are built to compete for the attention of women, and this presumption is supported by a plethora of cultural evidence, ranging from the Mediaeval concept of courtly love, to the obsessive vanity of the male characters depicted in Saturday Night Fever.

The Wodaabe have developed a complex ethos that justifies their worship of beauty, encourages their young to revel in their charms, and teaches them how to cultivate these from an early age. The beauty that they celebrate is a tribal ideal, although it includes certain traits that are universally considered to be enchanting, such as symmetry of features, and youth. According to the Wodaabe, the perfect man should be tall, slim, yet well muscled, he should be able to dress in style and to dance well. He must be creative in the manner in which he decorates himself, and his stamina be beyond criticism. The features of his face should be symmetrical, his eyes large and round, his nose fine and long, and his teeth white and even. These are the attributes that are tested at the Gerewol festival, and which the youth of the tribe are encouraged to cultivate, as far as is possible, from the cradle. This ideal has evolved, at least in part, as a consequence of the differences in physical appearance between the Wodaabe and the other African tribes through whose territory they pass, and the desire of the Wodaabe to maintain their visual identity.