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From wretched ugliness to glamour doll-dom.

The recently announced creation and marketing of an Inuk Barbie doll has triggered some questions within me. It has also reminded me of the vivid, plain, uncomplimentary descriptions of Inuit women by a series of Qallunaat (white) explorers who first encountered Inuit in their natural "uncivilized" state.

From the raw, unadorned impressions of Inuit women as wretchedly unattractive to the glamour of mass market doll-ery is a great leap by any measure.

First, though, the questions:

Will the doll's name still be Barbie? And, if so, who determined that Barbie is a typical name for an Inuk woman? Will its body proportions merely follow the standard tall, slender, leggy Barbie of the Qallunaar ideal of beauty? Or will Inuk Barbie be reflective of bodily reality, and therefore be more chunky? Will there be an Inuk Ken doll to follow? Why will Inuk Barbie be available only in Canada? Isn't Eskimo beauty good enough for export outside Canada?

Now, consider what some Qallunaat explorers in the Arctic had to say about Inuit women:

British explorer Sir John Ross, visiting an Eskimo encampment on Boothia Peninsula, Jan. 10, 1830, wrote: "The females were certainly not beautiful; but they were at least not inferior to their husbands, and were not less well behaved ... one girl of thirteen was even considered to have a pretty face."

American explorer E.K. Kane, in High Arctic Greenland in 1853-55, came up with a uniquely contradictory description of one particular Eskimo woman: "Six Esquimaux, three of them women,--that ugly beauty, Nessark's wife, at the head of them,--had come off to the boats for shelter from the gale."

American polar explorer Robert Peary had this to say about Inuit women in 1909: "The accomplishments of the Eskimo woman are of the useful rather than the ornamental kind.... As the Eskimos are not highly romantic, a woman's skill in dressing skins and in making clothes largely determines the quality of husband she is likely to get. The Eskimo men have not a very critical eye for feminine beauty, but they are strong in appreciation of domestic accomplishments."


Earlier, in 1894, Peary described a woman who was the subject of duels of strength among some Inuit men: "Ahtooksungwah ... had a form like a walrus. Her glistening face was considerably broader than it was long, she stood about four feet six inches high, and weighed about three hundred pounds, her figure resembling a number of stuffed pillows fastened together. To my mind, her curves were a trifle heavy, but she evidently realized the Eskimo ideal of beauty, and being a widow besides, she was irresistible. Many were her suitors."

So here we have a teenaged girl noted for possessing the unusual novelty of a pretty face, a woman specifically described as being an "ugly beauty", and an irresistible Eskimo beauty ... who had the form of a walrus, with a figure resembling a number of stuffed pillows fastened together! None of this is anywhere near talking about future Barbie dolls!

Peary and most of the Qallunaat who made first contact with Inuit went out of their way to take note of the perceived lack of physical beauty among Inuit women. Contrary to this impression, though, some Inuit women were desirable enough to conceive children with. Peary himself fathered children by an Inuk woman, and he certainly was not the only one. In Canada, about 40 to 45 per cent of Inuit can trace some Qallunaat ancestry, which is plentiful testimony that not all Inuit women were repulsive in appearance.

Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder. And ugliness, where observed, must definitely be relative. Why do we now have so many Qallunaaq ningauk's (sons and brothers-in-law), who have taken Eskimo wives? Has there's been a beauty evolution among our women in the 400-plus years since Qallunaat have been around?

Or, Qallunaat standards have shifted and corrected themselves to a reality more accurate than the times when ugliness of Eskimo women was grossly mis-defined to be the rule and not the exception.

On the other hand, not an ugly Qallunaat woman appeared in the Arctic for ages! Arnaapik, or fair woman, was a common nickname for many of them. It has taken a longer while for Qallunaat women to be "wife-able" by Eskimo men, but there are now many more than a handful of them, all lovingly called ukuak (daughter-in-law)!

The transformation of Inuit women from savage ugliness to Barbie doll-dom should be tracked in documentary detail. This work would be a perfect opportunity for collaboration by Eskimologists (those who study Inuit ways), and Qallunologists (those who study Qallunaat ways).

They will likely discover that reality resides somewhere between all Eskimo women being ugly and all Qallunaat women being beautiful.
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Title Annotation:Strictly Speaking; Inuit women
Author:Nungak, Zebedee
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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