Globalizing Beauty: Body Aesthetics in the 20th Century

Oct 15, 2010 - Oct 16, 2010

Conference at the GHI | Conveners: Hartmut Berghoff (GHI) and Thomas Kühne (Clark Univeristy)

Beauty matters. Starting with this assumption, Hartmut Berghoff and Thomas Kühne convened an interdisciplinary and international conference at the GHI that looked at the global development of conceptions of beauty, the rise of the beauty industry, processes of achieving and performing beauty, as well as the contestation of hegemonic beauty ideals. Beauty has mattered in the context of modern consumer societies, in which the pliable body-shaped by fashion, cosmetics, or surgery-has become a major object of consumption and spending. Consumers, the media, and an increasingly globalized beauty industry all interact to shape and negotiate beauty standards. Beauty has mattered politically as well. Ethnically or racially charged beauty ideals and fashion practices have worked either to uphold and reinforce or to challenge and subvert power structures from the local to the global level. Soliciting the perspectives of business and cultural historians, anthropologists and sociologists, as well as scholars of gender studies, cultural studies, and fashion, the conference engaged a series of questions. In what ways have beauty ideals functioned as instruments of social oppression, on the one hand, or for the empowerment of individuals, on the other? To what degree can we observe a globalization and standardization of beauty ideals and practices? To what extent does local diversity persist? What roles have commercial actors played in shaping discourses over beauty? What agency have consumers been able to exert in adapting or challenging mediated notions of beauty?

In his keynote lecture, Thomas Kühne opened the conference by tracing the development of beauty as a historical category in the modern era. Suggesting a functional rather than normative understanding of beauty, he suggested viewing "beauty" as "whatever human beings do to, in their own subjective perspective, improve their physical appearance." Beauty has long served as symbolic capital in a sociological sense, but Kühne detects an increased emphasis in the Western World over the past century on beauty as cultural capital that can be individually achieved. No longer just a product of nature, so to speak, beauty became increasingly interwoven with the democratic aspirations of emerging consumer societies, in which supposedly everyone could be beautiful. This democratic vision of beauty, however, was always bounded by gender norms and racial prejudices. Furthermore, heavily mediated beauty ideals have exerted pressures to conform that at times negated their democratic promise. The contestation of such hegemonic ideals by groups from youth cultures to ethnic minorities is therefore another important field in the global history of modern beauty.

The first panel surveyed possible avenues for "explaining beauty," inquiring into the theoretical groundwork for understanding how perceptions of beauty are socially and culturally constructed. Anne Sonnenmoser offered a sociological view of shifts in modern body aesthetics, which she developed with Michael Müller. Their research emphasizes the increasingly mediated nature of beauty ideals in the twentieth century. Early cinema cosmetics, for example, popularized a stylized language of pictorial aesthetics that helped to promote a standardization of body images. The proliferation of photography and video not only made body images ubiquitous in the media, but challenged consumers to engage in continuous "self-reflexivity," comparing their own self-images with mediated ideals seen on television or in print advertising. Differences between mediated ideal and physical reality were often most palpable for minority populations, as Althea Tait emphasized. Focusing on African-American writing in the twentieth-century, in particular Toni Morrison's, Tait traced biases in the perception of beauty and efforts to develop "cultural tutorials" for black children to resist and overcome them. Since beauty has always been a learned behavior, its seeming subjectivity is influenced by wider social discourses. Tait urged participants to uncover biases in constructing beauty and to ask, "Who trained the eye of the beholder?"

The inherent tension between mediated images and physical reality was evident in politically promoted body ideals as well. Constructing a visual Aryan ideal type, Paula Diehl suggested, was central to the Nazi regime's broader racial agenda. Particularly the SS was envisioned as the embodiment of a certain Nordic beauty ideal for men and ultimately became the regime's testing ground for bridging image and reality through the selection of members and the implementation of eugenics measures. The potency of mediated images fueled by a combination of political ideology and commercial interests was also apparent in anthropologist Karin Klenke's otherwise very different study of changing beauty ideals in rural Sumatra in the second half of the twentieth century. The Indonesian government hoped to cast women aspiring to an ideal of "the beautiful modern housewife" as domestic agents of national development. The women Klenke studied, however, were no mere passive objects but rather agents in their own right. They employed new beauty ideals to achieve social mobility, if not always successfully. In the process, they challenged traditional gender roles. The extent to which beauty norms can oscillate between oppressive and empowering qualities was the subject of Paula-Irene Villa's talk on Western feminist beauty debates, which concluded the panel. Second-wave feminism had strongly rejected hegemonic commercial beauty norms as sexist and repressive. Instead it emphasized an idea of natural beauty, claiming that "all women are beautiful." This discourse of a plurality of natural manifestations of beauty, Villa suggests, and the claims for choice and control over one's body have now been co-opted by the beauty industry, promising the achievability of "natural" beauty, even if by artificial means. Plastic surgery and makeover "reality" shows present beauty as the work of self-improvement in which social recognition is awarded, if not for the outcome itself, then at least for the effort invested.

The relative power and agency of various actors from industry and media to the consumer was a recurring theme in the second panel, which focused on "consuming beauty." The papers explored a variety of settings and arenas in which beauty was prominently displayed or performed. Bridging business history and design history, Veronique Pouillard explored the phenomenon of trend-setting and taste formation in the interwar fashion industry. Taking two influential American fashion forecasters and their published trend reports as examples, Pouillard showed how fashion trends emerged out of a complex interplay of transatlantic transfers and a negotiation between expert knowledge and consumer responses. Beauty pageants became a central arena for performing beauty during the 1920s, as Mila Ganeva showed for Germany. The pageants promoted that transnational ideal of the modern age, the empowered "New Woman," yet simultaneously reinforced conservative notions of gender roles. Like few other institutions, pageants thrived because of the democratic aspirations they elicited as well as their interconnections with a movie industry in search of new talent, advertisers' appetite for testimonial ads, and the media's desire for appealing stories.

The interwar years appeared in several papers as a significant turning point, as the performance and consumption of beauty became more public and more important throughout the Western World. Next to cinema and advertising, sport was another arena in which beautiful bodies were increasingly displayed. As Erik Jensen suggested, however, interwar participants in beauty discourses increasingly employed a distinction between a more classical ideal of beauty as perfection and a notion of what Jensen termed "sexiness." Male athletes such as popular boxers appeared erotically appealing, less for their perfection than for their imperfections-such as a bashed-in nose-and a more visceral appeal that spoke directly to the viewers' "animal selves." Social class, Jensen emphasized, heavily informed such perceptions of beauty and sexiness. That class boundaries in beauty ideals and perceptions may have diminished somewhat in recent decades was suggested by the final paper in the panel, which examined the seemingly unlikely boom of rhinoplasty in contemporary Teheran. While predominantly a middle-class phenomenon, anthropologist Sara Lenehan explained, it is not exclusively so, and "back-alley nose-jobs" can be had for little money. The practice spans a surprisingly wide range of ages and is common with men as well as women. Moreover, both secular and religiously conservative Iranians have come to use this form of surgery. While the ideal aspired to resemble the straight "Western" nose beamed into Iranian living rooms via satellite TV and the first surgeons were trained in Europe and the United States, Lenehan cautioned against a simple narrative of Westernization. Iranians, she argued, see the practice not as foreign but very much as locally grounded.

The tension between global strategies of standardization and persistent local diversity was also the central theme of the third panel on "selling beauty" and the business of cosmetic and hygiene products. Geoffrey Jones opened the panel with a broad overview of the development of the modern cosmetics industry since the early nineteenth century. What began with local entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Arden and Max Factor soon crossed national borders and became driving forces behind the global homogenization of beauty ideals with Western assumptions and routines as the benchmark. Especially following World War I, multinational companies began to dominate the beauty industry. Still, Jones stressed, distinctive local consumer preferences persisted and, with the partial exception of high-end luxury brands, companies continued to adapt their products to local markets. Taking advertising campaigns for Lux Soap as a case study, Christina Burr also underlined the inherent tension between the local and the global. Lux campaigns pursued a transnational strategy that heavily rested on the appeal of the "Modern Girl look" and the cosmopolitan flair of movie star testimonials. However, ad agency JWT tailored its messages to national markets, using local celebrities and paying attention to ethnic differences and plurality in their advertising imagery.

This dichotomy between advertisers' attempts to homogenize markets by playing to a notion of "One-Worldism"-asserting basic similarities among peoples-and countervailing efforts to emphasize or construct local and national differences played out particularly prominently in Nazi Germany, as Uta Poiger showed. While Nazi propaganda heavily attacked cosmetic products at times, labeling them as "French," "Jewish," or "Negro" vices, the German beauty industry continued to advertise its products and market them successfully to German consumers well into the war years. Ulrike Thom's paper on the growing importance of drugstores in postwar German cosmetics sales not only brought in retailers as an important branch of the beauty business but also told a peculiar local story. Barred from selling prescription drugs, West German drugstores found a survival strategy in selling beauty and hygiene products. Especially weight-loss and hypoallergenic products combined appeals to beauty and physical health, transforming the druggist in boom-era Germany into one of the leading local experts on beauty and physical care.

The final panel on "contested beauty" aimed to complicate narratives of hegemonic commercial and political constructions of beauty by looking at challenges to the mainstream and subversive adaptations. Ingrid Banks shared results from her field work on African-American hair salons in Baltimore and other cities, which included the adoption of racially-coded hair styles such as cornrows and dreadlocks by white teens. Such pronouncedly African American hairdos have a long and politically charged history within black communities, signifying resistance to mainstream beauty ideals. The white suburbanites who wore these styles saw their adoption as evidence of a coming "post-racial" or colorblind society, an interpretation Banks hesitated to embrace fully. Henry Navarro similarly focused on the politics of race in American fashion. From the New Negro and the zoot-suit look to the Motown style and disco, Navarro showed how African American fashion trends at once visibly challenged mainstream practices but were also successively co-opted by the fashion industry and American commercial culture. Subversive beauty ideals that aimed to enhance a minority group's visibility and ultimately their acceptance were also the subject of Jennifer Evans' talk on "queer beauty." Tracing the development of homoerotic photography in art, fashion advertising, and pornography since the late nineteenth century, Evans identified several stages in which the changing beauty norms of a subculture intersected with and eventually entered the commercial mainstream by the 1980s.

The central importance of achieving visibility for contesting dominant conceptions of beauty was reinforced by Kerry Wallach's presentation on debates over "Jewish beauty" in the interwar and immediate postwar eras. Taking the example of beauty pageant winners who were Jewish, Wallach examined attempts by the Jewish media to create a sense of community and pride vis-à-vis Jewish body aesthetics. Challenging traditional efforts to "pass" as members of the majority group-also a recurring theme in the papers on African-American beauty standards-Zionist organizations in central Europe and later Palestine, for example, promoted dark hair and olive complexions as the perfect embodiment of the "Jewish racial type." Such efforts, Wallach remarked, resembled colonization in that they subjected women, in this case beauty queens, to an imposition of aesthetic norms and made them objects of commodification and ethnic marketing. The negotiation of beauty ideals in colonial contexts was indeed a highly complex and contested process, as the final paper by Christiane Reichart-Burikukuiye showed. Negating the dichotomy that posited "European" looks as modern and "African" body ideals as traditional and static, Reichart demonstrated the dynamic changes with regard to body images within indigenous African communities. Christian missionaries-themselves hesitant to fully embrace Western styles-tried to mold African styles, while African elders resisted what they perceived as a loss of "Africanity." Beauty ideals on the continent remained subject to highly selective adaptation processes throughout the twentieth century, interweaving the global and local.

In the end, conference participants were hesitant to agree on the value of a single, shared definition of what "beauty" was and is. There was much common ground, however, in understanding beauty as a social, cultural, and economic construction as well as in emphasizing the process of achieving beauty as a means of social distinction rather than just for the aesthetic reasons. Cast in such terms, beauty opens up a wide and fruitful arena for future interdisciplinary and transnational scholarship to which this event has served as a promising first step.

Jan Logemann (GHI)

Call for Papers

Beauty matters. That it matters more and more in modern societies can easily be measured in the amount of money people spend on cosmetic surgeries, on fashion, on cosmetics, on looking at beautiful stars, and, since the 1990s in particular, in the number of scholarly articles and books analyzing exactly this phenomenon. Challenging the myth of eternal, unchanging, and cross-cultural beauty ideals, this conference inquires into the rise of powerful and yet ambiguous discourses on and practices of body aesthetics in the 20th century; it explores the interaction of hegemonic and non-hegemonic discourses on body aesthetics; and it tracks the impact of globalization and commodification on the struggle for beauty.

What is considered beautiful depends on time and space, that is, on cultural and social settings. Beauty is linked to other categories of difference-the good, the strong, the wealthy, the healthy people. Beauty is highly gendered, closely affiliated with racial hierarchies, and has always been a tool of social distinction. Owning beauty and accessing beautiful things are privileges. As with consumerism in general, the acquisition of beauty relies on and reinforces preexisting social hierarchies. At the same time, the modern discourse on beauty is embedded in ideas-one may say, illusions-of social advancement. Beauty defines identity, and it causes controversy.

What is called beauty may refer to different ideologies and to different techniques of perceiving and defining ‘reality.' As Toni Morrison says in The Bluest Eye, black girl Pecola, who wishes nothing more than to have blue eyes, "would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people." Morrison calls the Western obsession with beauty-and she refers to a particular idea of beauty-one of "the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought." The conference will shed light on how non-hegemonic groups responded to the rise of the dominant Western beauty ideal. In doing so, it will investigate the means, paths, and limits of the transnational exchange and export of cultural norms and practices.

This interdisciplinary conference will put 20th-century discourses on beauty and corresponding practices into the context of racial ideologies, national identities, commercial strategies, and the rising consumer society. It will trace the processes of homogenization and diversification in the perception of beauty as well as the way media and corporations dealt with them. It will focus on the interplay between corporate strategies and consumers' preferences, between marketing and customers' receptiveness or rejection, between economic imperatives and sociocultural norms, between ideological concepts and the whims of fashion in the course of the 20th century.

The conference agenda includes four sections:

1. EXPLAINING BEAUTY: Covering ethical, psychological, medical, sociological, economic, and political discourses, this section will discuss why and how beauty matters.

2. SELLING BEAUTY: This part will deal with producers and sellers of beauty products around the globe. How big was the market? Who dominated it? Which methods were applied to overcome diversity and to export products across national and cultural barriers?

3. CONSUMING BEAUTY: This section will explore the significance of beauty for advanced and developing consumer societies and analyzes practices of consumers, as well as their interaction with expert advice, role models, ads, media, etc.

4. CONTESTING BEAUTY: The focus of this part is social, cultural, and economic conflicts about beauty and their association with factors of race, ethnicity, religious orientation, gender, age, ideology.

The organizers invite proposals on all related aspects from both young and established scholars, from all disciplines in the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences, and from all countries around the world.

The costs of travel (economy airfare), accommodation, and meals will be covered for applicants whose papers are accepted.

Interested applicants should submit for consideration 1) name, address, email and telephone number; 2) the title and an abstract of the proposed paper (a maximum of 250 words in English); 3) a curriculum vitae.

The application deadline is March 15, 2010.

Please submit materials via email to both