Historian Thomas Kuehne* deconstructs the complex and somewhat sinister face of modern beauty.
People will do anything to be beautiful in ways that are acceptable but often not attainable: bleaching skin, starving, or even, as is the fashion among Japanese women, reshaping eyes. How did it come to this? What are body aesthetics based on? Why is white, young and thin still the epitome of physical perfection – regardless of the fact a growing majority of people on the planet just don’t fit the ideal.
You talk about the myth of eternal unchanging cross-cultural beauty ideals. How is contemporary beauty manufactured?
With the rise of modern consumer society around 1900, a dominant ideal of physical appearance emerged: the slim, athletic, young and mostly white body – either sex by the way. Earlier, more rural and religious societies idealised larger, well-fed bodies which represented exclusive access to food among the wealthy elite.
The favouring of the slim body has been increasingly propagated by health and sports movements, by the beauty industry, but above all by the mass media, which relies on a surfeit of visual information and visually-disseminated events: star cults, beauty pageants. What we know about the world and ourselves we learn from the mass media, and we see almost nothing but beautiful people. This is how mass media establishes beauty as reality.
You note that around 1900 a democratic concept of beauty emerged which promised that it was available to everybody in principle. But how has the ownership of beauty remained a privilege?
Numerous sociological and psychological studies have shown since the 1960s that ‘beautiful people’ are advantaged in kindergarten, school, on the job market and on the marriage market. Even in the courtroom! So in their private as well as professional lives. We may question this kind of research but what matters is the fact people believe in the advantage of beauty. The message, disseminated by all kinds of mass media, is always the same – physical beauty may not guarantee professional and private success but it definitely helps, and often enough it is crucial. Therefore we can say that beauty serves as some sort of capital for social advancement, just as assets facilitate a good education or job.
How has mass media homogenised contemporary beauty?
Mass media, particularly TV since the 1960s and internet since the 1990s, communicates more and more globally by disregarding local peculiarities. Hollywood movies are watched anywhere in the world and spread the message of what beauty is all over the world. The fashion and cosmetics industries have the same global influence. It should be said though, that despite all tendencies towards global uniformity, even the beauty industry cannot always erase local peculiarities and it must try to balance them.
Are you saying that modern beauty is also contested?
Bodily identity is prone to manipulation but it can also resist it. In fact praise for the blond, slim, fit and sexy body has been criticized, challenged and opposed in many ways. In the US, for instance, opposition to white supremacy included fighting the white standard of beauty. Black [slavery] abolitionists advocated ’black beauty’ since the late 19th century, using the Afro, for example, as a decisive political statement. Also, long before feminists attacked the ‘beauty terror’ [extreme diets, cosmetic surgery, skin bleaching, eating disorders], religious cultures and conservative groups deplored the exposure of the female body in adverts, Hollywood movies, and swimsuit sections of beauty contests. The Catholic Church praised the beauty of the Madonna – the beauty of chastity, a natural beauty, a notion of beauty that relies on spirit rather than the body, with goodness and virtue its hallmarks.
What about youth culture?
Subcultures and youth cultures throughout the 20th century – punks, goths, hippies and so on – have developed their own distinctive and often rather imaginative body aesthetics, fighting whatever they consider dated, stiff, established, hegemonic, conservative or reactionary. When challenging nationalization, globalization or Americanization, local cultures have worked to establish indigenous standards of beauty. The dispute over the veil as the symbol of Islam could therefore be read as a debate on physical appearance and its massive social meaning.
Is the beauty industry becoming more prone to multiculturalism?
Current beauty advertisements project the ‘illusion of cosmopolitanism’. Harmony sells. In cosmetics and fashion advertising today, you find white, black and yellow people. That’s the illusion of the grand harmony produced by the beauty industry and by mass media. But if you look closer, you still find a clear dominance of white, middle class and slim bodies.
American author Toni Morrison said that the obsession with beauty in the West is “one of the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought”.
Beauty is established by looking, watching, gazing. Let me answer with another quote from 1952. Franz Fanon, born on Martinique, became one of the most important thinkers of the anti-colonial movements. When he “had to meet the white men’s eyes” he felt his “bodily schema” being decomposed. His body was “given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recolored … I become aware of my uniform … It is indeed ugly. I stop there, for who can tell me what beauty is?”
*Thomas Kuehne is a German historian and professor of history at Clark University in the US. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to write Struggling for Beauty: Body Aesthetics and Social Conflict in Modern History which traces competing discourses on body aesthetics since the 18th century. Last month he coordinated a history conference on beauty, the first of its kind, titled “Globalizing Beauty: Aesthetics in the 20th Century”, which dealt with the impact of globalization on the struggle for beauty.