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The authors discuss the concepts ‘beauty’ and ‘health’ and their ambiguous relationship. The quest for beauty is perceived both as an enhancement of health and well-being and as a health risk. The article is an introduction to a collection of six anthropological essays on beauty and health.
Introducing ‘Beauty and Health’
Alexander Edmonds & Sjaak van der Geest
The authors discuss the concepts ‘beauty’ and ‘health’ and their ambiguous relationship.
The quest for beauty is perceived both as an enhancement of health and well-being and as
a health risk. The article is an introduction to a collection of six anthropological essays
on beauty and health.
[beauty, health, culture, anthropology, body]
‘Beauty’ and ‘health’ are two elusive concepts that anthropologists rarely have been
able to grasp effectively. Nevertheless, in a small symposium in December 2008 these
two phenomena were explored in their relation to one another. Six papers were dis-
cussed. Four of them have been revised and appear in this special issue; two new
papers were added to the collection.
Few anthropologists have taken bodily ‘beauty’ as a distinct subject for ethnography
or theorizing. More attention has been paid, however, to body modification, though
analysis has tended to view such practices as rituals with a social function, and ne-
glected their aesthetic and erotic dimensions. Beauty practices and ideals have been
theorized in feminist critiques, though usually within regions in the West (Bartky
1990, Bordo 1993, Chernin 1981, Wolf 1991, Jeffreys 2005, Rankin 2005). More
recently, anthropologists and others have analysed the global dimensions of beauty in-
dustries, looking at the encounter of Euro/American media with local aesthetic values
and racial common sense (Banet-Weiser 1996, Ossman 2002, Miller 2006, Edmonds
2007b). But an interest in the striking cross cultural contrasts in beauty standards and
practices is hardly confined to contemporary sensibilities. Michel de Montaigne was
one of the first ‘anthropologists’ to point out the cultural relativity of beauty. In 1595
he wrote that beauty is what people want to see: “We imagine its forms to suit our
fancy.And he continues:
In Peru, the biggest ears are the fairest, and they stretch them artificially as much as
they can; and a man of this day says he saw in one oriental nation this care for enlarg-
ing them and loading them with heavy jewels in such favor that time and again he could
pass his arm, fully clothed, through the hole in an ear. Elsewhere there are nations that
blacken their teeth with great care, and scorn to see the white ones; elsewhere they stain
them red… Mexican women count among their beauties a small forehead; and whereas
they trim their hair on all other parts of the body, on their forehead they cultivate it and
increase it by art; and they have such esteem for large breasts, that they aspire to be able
to suckle their children over their shoulder. We would represent ugliness that way (De
Montaigne 1958: 355-356).
The relativity of beauty ideals was mentioned as well by later European philosophers,
often in passing as they discussed the larger (to them) questions concerning the objec-
tivity of aesthetic judgments. Voltaire makes reference to a toad’s conception of beauty
(Synnott 1993: 90), while Hegel discusses the custom of “crushing of the feet of the
Chinese ladies” (1920: 42). Hegel’s point though is not just that beauty practices aim
at arbitrary ideals, but that they stem from a ‘rational ground’ – the desire to alter the
natural form – even if they may be ‘tasteless’ and ‘injurious. While human beauty has
appeared as a subtopic within the branch of philosophy that deals with aesthetics, its
fundamental connection to sexuality also raises distinct questions (often neglected by
philosophers) not at issue in debates about taste in relation to art or nature. Discussion
of beauty is often inseparable from Western moral notions, not least the sins of vanity
and luxury. It also reflects a long tradition of equating the feminine with deception and
artificiality (Lichtenstein 1987). On the other hand, romantic movements have ideal-
ized feminine beauty. The ironic tone of commentators who use exotic examples to
underline the relativity of beauty ideals can thus serve diverse purposes: from satiriz-
ing the vanities of the fashionable to gently poking fun at those who seem to lose their
reason in the presence of a beautiful person.
Writing in a different genre, contemporary anthropologists of course tend to contex-
tualise ‘exotic’ beauty within a larger social world. But their work also has an implicit
or explicit comparative dimension as well, and sometimes reflects a critical perspective
on aesthetic ideals in their own societies. Becker (1995), who examined body aesthetics
in Fiji, writes that Fijians are not obsessed by norms of individual slimness. Body shape
is more a marker of social connectedness than of personal identity:
Fijian women enjoy a positive self-image irrespective of their weight status… [They] are
relatively unconcerned to discipline their bodies and appetites to attain a desired shape.
By contrast with Western women, whose self-image is heavily contingent on body image
and, specifically, a thinner body – Fijian women tend to be relatively unconcerned with
weight status… (Becker 1995: 46).
Sobo (1993, 1994) writing about rural Jamaica comes to similar conclusions. Large
bodies are a sign of generous social interaction, which is valued higher than personal
bodily performance and presentation. Poppenoe (2004) studied body images among
Azawagh Arab women in Niger. Fatness is regarded as beautiful
and attractive and
associated with womanliness.
… in becoming fat, Azawagh Arab women cultivate an aesthetic of ‘softness’, stillness,
seatedness, which is in direct opposition to the aesthetic of men that valorizes ‘hardness’,
uprightness, mobility (Poppenoe 2004: 191).
Fatness makes women less mobile and less ‘useful’ in the strictly economic meaning
of the term. But it is that ‘uselessness’ which makes them at the same time valuable.
Poppenoe’s observations about the appreciation of ‘useless’ beauty in this Arab com-
munity recalls Veblen’s classic theory of the value of beauty, even though the aesthetic
ideal he described was the opposite of what Poppenoe refers to. The value of a beauti-
ful woman, according to Veblen, lies in the fact that she cannot work as a result of
the beauty that she embodies and carries as decoration. She becomes a status symbol
(Synnott 1993: 93). Veblen:
The ideal requires delicate and diminutive hands and feet and a slender waist. These
features … go to show that the person so affected is incapable of useful effort and must
therefore be supported in idleness by her owner. She is useless and expensive, and she is
consequently valuable as evidence of pecuniary strength (Veblen, in Synnot 1993: 93).
Veblen is perhaps correct in his observation that at least part of the value of beauty
flows from its rarity. But the social connotations of feminine beauty have also changed,
and fashion models today represent a kind of attractiveness imbued with sporty energy
or ‘daring’ style, not just delicacy or idleness. They are also undoubtedly role models
for some young women not just because they are beautiful, but because they have
power, wealth, and mobility.
Veblen’s emphasis on the social function of beauty within capitalist societies sug-
gests also a limit to the relativist perspective. Beauty ideals and practices are intercon-
nected with key institutions in modernity: mass media, consumer culture, and medical
and health technologies. Through globalization of these institutions, many societies
are encountering beauty as a ‘problem’ in similar ways. The salience of images of
female beauty in global media can touch off debates about Western cultural impe-
rialism, or provoke local struggles over the control of female sexuality. As market
economies undermine traditional authorities, attractiveness can become an asset of the
self within new ‘markets’ of sexual and romantic relationships and service economies
(Edmonds 2007a). And as the techniques of beauty industries spread to new popu-
lations, beauty becomes entangled with a number of ethical issues. To what extent
should humans alter or enhance the natural body? Is sexuality a resource that needs
management, and if so, what risks of self-objectification or self-commodification are
involved? Are aesthetic preferences a matter of personal taste or do they reflect larger
power relationships that should be questioned? As these questions suggest, beauty
then is also connected to questions of value and ‘health’, understood broadly to
include the conditions that allow or enable humans to thrive.
‘Health’ is another elusive concept, which is usually approached in its absence, in
what it is not. The inability to define it recalls the desperate attempts of theologians
who want to describe God via a theologia negativa: a summing up of what God is not.
Montaigne – again – set the tone:
Health is a precious thing… without it, life is wearisome and injurious to us: pleasure,
wisdom, learning, and virtue, without it, wither away and vanish (de Montaigne 1958:
134, emphases ours).
Medical anthropologists have written often enough about meanings and experiences
of illness but feel at a loss when they are asked to describe and interpret health
almost as much as medical doctors who know everything about disease but are evasive
when it comes to health. This scholarly and medical lack of attention to health also
reflects subjective experience. One is rarely aware of ‘good health’, except after a
long illness. The human capacity to forget pain and suffering perhaps may even have
adaptive value, but in any event, a feeling of health rarely impinges on conscious-
ness – except when it is absent, and then once again eloquence often returns. What is
‘ordinary’ is not noticed and does not present itself as noteworthy; it does not ask for
a definition because we already ‘know’ it, even though we cannot describe it in exact
and distinct terms. It is, as we say, taken for granted.
Yet, health does need a clearer definition as it causes considerable controversy,
especially between those who hold a rather narrow physical / medical view of health
and those who favour a more holistic perspective. Wright (1982: 38) who advocates a
broad view of ‘health’ circumscribes the narrow view as follows:
With respect to the body, health is a good thing in the same way that, with respect to a
piano, being in tune is a good thing. Both are machines whose purposes can be fulfilled
only if they are functioning properly; therefore, in terms of the machine, functioning
properly is a good thing.
Perhaps, however, that definition is not as useless as Wright argues in his book. The
narrow definition, as we will see in a moment, does not prevent us from perceiving
health in a wide social, psychic and moral perspective.
Interestingly, the WHO with its predominantly biomedical agenda has produced
one of the most holistic definitions of health: a state of complete physical, mental
and social well-being. That definition does not make things easier, however. Does
social well-being, such as good relationships at work and in the family, really feel like
‘health’? And, as a consequence, should loss of social well-being be taken to a health
worker? The unwelcome companion of a holistic definition would be medicalisation,
indeed a development that most of us probably deplore.
In a similar vein, the mental part of the WHO definition has its problems. Thomas
Szasz, one of the most prominent protagonists of the anti-psychiatry movement in
the seventies of the previous century, does not want the terms health and illness to be
used for people’s mental condition: “Strictly speaking disease and illness can affect
only the body. Hence there can be no such thing as mental illness. The term ‘mental
illness’ is a metaphor” (Szasz, in Wright 1982: 100). Elsewhere he writes: “The prac-
tice of mental health education and community psychiatry is not medical practice, but
moral suasion and political coercion… Mental health and illness are but new words
for describing moral values” (Szasz 1974: 35-36).
Anthropologists have contributed little to a more precise or experience-near
description of ‘health’. They mostly followed the biomedical tradition of focusing on
disease (calling it ‘illness’) and overlooking the taken for granted state of health. An
additional handicap for them was that in several of the cultures where they carried out
research there was no good equivalent to the English ‘health’. The nearest terms were
more comprehensive and included as the WHO does social, psychic, moral and
even economic conditions of life (e.g. Whyte 1981, Willis 1979).
Attempts to define health too may seem suspect in the light of state experi-
ments with eugenic and hygienic projects. Applied to groups of people, the modifier
‘healthy’ has often reflected social judgments of normality and served to categorize
or brutalize disempowered groups, dissidents, and racial others (Stepan 1991). Nev-
ertheless, because health in modern societies has become an object of governance,
the attempt to understand or measure is still an important political or economic mat-
ter. The World Bank introduced the concept of the DALY (disability life adjusted
years) in order to help quantify the aggregate economic costs of disease though
this measurement of health is again a negative one. Attempts to approach health as a
‘positive statenot merely the absence of disease – have often taken a broader view
that emphasizes interconnections between mind, body, and society. This broader
understanding of health aims to include socio-economic determinants of disease, as
well as the more elusive idea of ‘mental health an often neglected area in govern-
ment and international development health budgets. But as mentioned above, such a
broad definition also raises questions about the extension of the concept of health to
new spheres of life.
Returning to the WHO definition, the example of bad social relationships helps us
to dissect what we mean by calling a relationship healthy. The qualification ‘healthy’,
in this case, reveals two expansions of the meaning of ‘health’, a metaphoric and and
metonymic one. The metaphoric expansion consists in comparing the quality of the
relationship with the smooth functioning of the physical body. As we know, the body,
our immediate ‘reality’, is the most prolific provider of metaphors. It is no surprise,
therefore, that the healthy body proves to be a popular metaphor. ‘Healthy’ as an
adjective can be used for almost anything which, in analogy with the body, functions
properly. In Dutch for example one can speak of ‘healthy sense’ (best translated as
common sense). Both in English and in Dutch one speaks for example of ‘a healthy
economy’, ‘a healthy business’, and ‘healthy (or sound) ideas’. Applying the terms
‘health’ and ‘illness to mental, social and behavioural phenomena is also metaphori-
cal. Both Szasz and Wright point out that the term healthy’ becomes synonymous
with morally good. In that – secondary – meaning it can be added to words as differ-
ent as judgment, taste, worldview, marriage, hobby, character, humour, art, language,
and situations.
The metonymic expansion exists in calling ‘healthy’ what produces (physical)
health. In that sense, a relationship, but also food, sport, hobbies, education, holi-
days, religion, housing, environment and, indeed, beauty, can be called healthy; they
produce and promote health in its narrower physical sense (cf. Van der Geest 1985),
without falling into dualistic heresy and clashing with the concept of ‘mindful body’
of Scheper-Huges and Lock (1987).
The papers span a range of ethnographic contexts: Brazil, Chad, Spain, Norway, and
the US (Trakas’ paper deals with a trend emerging in many regions). They also deal
with quite a diverse group of practices and visions of health and beauty: spa treat-
ments, cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery, female genital cutting, bodily self-
harm, and the aesthetic affirmation of the pregnant body. As this list suggests, there is
a focus on the female body, which is not surprising given that beauty has often been
seen as a distinct domain of femininity. The gender focus also perhaps reflects the fact
that the emergence of aesthetic logics in health and medical practices has been espe-
cially prominent in the management of female reproduction and sexuality.
Each of these practices has different implications for health and enjoys different
degrees of social and medical legitimacy. Female genital cutting is seen as a human
rights violation, while plastic surgery is often viewed as a legitimate, if controversial,
consumer practice. But as the papers make clear, notions of health are quite labile,
and must be understood – at least in the first instance – in relation to specific historical
circumstances. Thus, ethnographic contextualisation and a hermeneutic inquiry into
the larger values forming judgments of beauty and health is a necessary step towards
understanding the relationship between these two conditions.
Alexander Edmonds discusses the rise of cosmetic surgery and a larger field called
‘aesthetic medicine’ used to manage female reproduction and sexuality in Brazil.
Patients and surgeons embrace cosmetic procedures such as liposuction or breast
surgery as a means of body ‘contouring’ that manages passage through the female
life cycle. As ‘legitimate’ medicine, tightly linked to other specialties such as ObGyn
and wider psychotherapeutic understandings of health as an expansive state of well-
being, these practices effectively merge cosmetic and healing rationales. While beauty
becomes a form of health in this medical practice, Edmonds shows that a cosmetic
logic can also conflict with the goal of health, and minimize perceptions of risks asso-
ciated with surgical interventions. Much scholarship on beauty industries has focused
on the West, but the Brazil case shows that enhancement technologies are also emerg-
ing as a ‘problem’ in the developing world, where health care systems often have very
different market and cultural dynamics.
Ingun Klepp discusses the ambivalence toward beauty and health among Norwe-
gian employees and visitors of spas. That ambivalence reflects the uncertainty dis-
cussed earlier in this introduction. Sometimes, beauty is criticized as superficial and
fake and contrasted to ‘inner beauty’, well-being and comfort that are ‘real’. At other
moments, however, the same people seem to expect that obtaining outer beauty will
eventually also bring about inner beauty. Spa business thrives on that very ambiguity
of beauty and health/well-being.
A remarkable change in the perception of beauty and health is taking place with
regard to pregnancy. Pregnancy was and still is worldwide regarded as a critical
state full of danger. The pregnant body was/is often concealed to avoid being seen by
others, in particular by people with an ‘evil eye’. Showing the pregnancy was consid-
ered an act of hubris, inviting misfortune. In addition, pregnancy refers back to sex.
Displaying the pregnant body bordered on exhibitionism in times and places where
body and sex were covered and dissimulated. If the body was denied its beauty, the
pregnant body even more. Deanna Trakas, in her contribution, writes:
there is the feeling that there is something intrinsically ‘wrong’ with flaunting the
belly; an idea which has less to do with issues of modesty than it does with endangering
the pregnancy outcome. “Why show it off when no one is really sure what will happen?”
The ‘it’ here refers not to the belly but to what is inside.
But that has all changed, according to Trakas. Pregnancy may still be regarded as a
precarious condition and closely monitored for medical complications, but it is, at the
same time, a celebration of health and beauty. Trakas:
Young women – in their late 20s – late 30s are not worried about the evil eye; instead, the
lure of the belly beautiful has caught their eye. “I loved my belly when I was pregnant. I
liked to walk with it out in front as much as possible.
Trakas’ essay analyses one of the most exciting ‘revolutions’ in our perception of
beauty and health. That new attitude started with pictures of glamorous stars showing
their pregnant bellies in glossy magazines and on the internet but has now become a
common practice in many regions. The bulging belly is an almost provocative adver-
tisement of new kinds of beauty and health.
The significance of the ‘body beautiful’ in capitalism plays a surprising, highly
ambivalent role in the practice of body cutting discussed by Lina Casadó i Marín. Cli-
nicians and media have reported an alarming rise in the incidence of bodily self-harm
among young people in several Western countries. Rather than see this practice only
as a psychiatric pathology, Casadó prefers a meaning-centred analysis, interpreting
self-harm in relation to wider notions of selfhood, emotional expression, and bodily
aesthetics. Here she follows the approach taken by other scholars to eating disorders,
suggesting that such practices can also be read as a meaningful symptom of social dis-
tress (e.g. Bordo 1993). The moving testimonials she presents reveal strong feelings
of isolation, boredom, and emotional pain. Casadó argues this form of suffering gives
rise to a practice that can be read “as a form of resistance to normative patterns of
beauty.” Consider Dark Rose’s statement: “I’m as beautiful and special as my scars.
Unlike with cosmetic surgery, scarring is not an unintentional side effect of surgical
incision performed by an expert, but the intentional result of cutting that reasserts
control of the body. Not only media images of body plasticity, but also medical and
psychological approaches to this syndrome play a role in its spread. Casadó shows
evidence of a ‘nocebo effect’ produced by labelling, where diagnostic categories can
become implicated in a worsening of the problem, as practitioners wonder if they have
become addicted to endorphins the body secretes in response to pain.
Whether judged as a symbol of vanity, vulgarity, or even expanded choice for
women, cosmetic surgery is often associated with the consumer culture of Late
Capitalism. Female genital cutting, on the other hand, is one of the most powerfully
charged symbols of the tribal or pre-modern. But such a contrast is challenged by
Lori Leonard’s paper on female genital surgeries in southern Chad, which shows that
in some villages this practice has only recently been introduced. What is remarkable
is not only that this ‘tradition’ in some contexts turns out to be invented, but that the
agents are young girls acting often in defiance of kin and political authorities. In con-
trast to much anthropological literature that stresses the social purpose of circumci-
sion, Leonard notes the practice does not “serve any ritual function,” such as marking
a status passage or serving as a pre-requisite for marriage. Rather, the ‘coming out’
ceremonies following the surgeries which require considerable resources to pull
off are large spectacles that emphasize the beauty of the girls, and demonstrate
their ability to act in the modern world of the market. Significantly, one village chief
opposed the practice, not only because the “ancestors didn’t do it,but also because he
saw it as “commerce.” Leonard not only complicates the opposition between ‘moder-
nity’ and ‘tradition’ that is an underlying assumption behind international efforts to
regulate or prohibit this practice, but also shows that notions of beauty as they are
shaped by larger market circuits – play a role in provoking the desires of a disempow-
ered group to seek out a procedure many see as highly injurious to health.
Anastasia Karakasidou also discusses changing views on health and beauty; she
looks at breast cancer, a disease that destroys the beauty of the body. Mastectomy
is often unacceptable for women with breast cancer. The operation is experienced
as a traumatic mutilation of the body. The beauty of health is confirmed in the nega-
tive. Aesthetic surgery, however, enables women with breast cancer to reconstruct the
breast and salvage their bodily integrity. Karakasidou argues that such procedures
mask the reality of the disease and thus perpetuate in a different manner the old
conspiracy of silence that surrounded the disease. Beauty, in this case, works as a
denial or masking of ill-health.
Beauty and health
Despite the range of regions and practices discussed in this collection, a few themes
and tensions emerge. First, these papers suggest that notions of health and beauty are
often interlinked: the cultural or medical definition of one often shapes perceptions of
the other. It is quite obvious that many beauty practices, from genital cutting to diet-
ing, have health risks. But these practices may also revise the very meaning of health,
broadly defined to include mental well-being and social thriving. For example, as cos-
metic surgery becomes normalized as a tool for managing reproduction and sexuality,
it is chosen not just as a beauty practice, but also a health one. There is a merging of
cosmetic and healing rationales suggested by the very phrase ‘aesthetic medicine.
Such a merging of ‘health’ and ‘beauty’ is emerging in other practices as well.
Klepp shows that the perception of cosmetic practices as health practices is a power-
ful ingredient in the marketing of beauty industries. Decisions to undergo surgery or
take pharmaceuticals can be influenced by their potential negative aesthetic outcomes.
Among the side effects of antiretroviral drugs are distinct patterns of fat deposits
and other changes in appearance, which in themselves pose no major health risk.
But the ‘aesthetic stigma’ resulting from side effects can affect decisions to undergo
treatment or initiate other practices with health risks (such as steroid use) (Edmonds
2008). ObGyn – in Brazil at least – also takes aesthetic considerations into account in
managing pregnancy, such as the effects of weight gain on appearance, or even ‘defor-
mations’ to anatomy resulting from vaginal birth (Carranza 1994: 113-14). As inter-
ventions on the reproductive and sexual body become routine, they may also affect
perceptions of the necessity and desirability of other procedures. If ‘elective surger-
ies’ such as cosmetic plastic surgery become normal, then reconstructive surgery on
the cancer patient may become a ‘necessity. Conversely, the spread of non-cosmetic
medical interventions can also lend legitimacy to cosmetic enhancement. The rise
of mastectomies, hysterectomies, tubal ligations, and other surgical procedures on
the female body can make plastic surgery seem more acceptable. If we must suffer
through these other surgeries, why not have cosmetic procedures, which are ‘good for
the self, one Brazilian patient asked herself (Edmonds 2009). One implication of this
mingling of healing and beauty is that attention may be diverted from other aspects of
health, including the risks of surgical interventions.
Another theme in this volume is the prominent role global media play in defining
beauty and health. One perhaps underestimated, though immediately obvious, fea-
ture of modernity is the saturation of public culture with images of the body beauti-
ful (Edmonds 2008). National and local beauty pageants have become common in
many regions (Banet-Weiser 1996), but more generally images of female youth and
beauty are a near ubiquitous medium of commodity exchange in global capitalism.
The remarkable salience of beauty in the media has variable, not always predictable,
effects on health. For example, the rise of self-harm may be partly a reaction or
even resistance to media obsession with normative femininity. And yet, this form
of resistance also has a more ambivalent relation to consumer culture. Casadó shows
that the practice became “culturally legitimated” through its association with fash-
ionable subcultures, such as Goths and Emos, celebrities, and mass-market paper-
back describing personal stories. This paradox suggests a larger one: the ability of
consumer capitalism to encompass different countercultures and types of resistance
within its own market-based, aesthetic logic.
Media are not only a primary arena for defining beauty, but also for disseminating
health practices. The rise in spa treatments, for example, is clearly linked to savvy
marketing that stimulates demand by suggesting links between well-being and aes-
thetics. The pregnant body first presented its beauty through glossies and the internet
and later became the focus of beauty competitions that received generous media atten-
tion. Cosmetic medical procedures too are aggressively marketed in both the West
and some regions of the developing world. Here the tremendous power of the photo-
graphic image to represent the beauty of the human form is key. Miraculous ‘before
and after’ transformations give cosmetic surgery a prominence in popular culture not
enjoyed by other medical technologies. As surgeons compete for patients in a crowded
market, advertising alters the perception of health risks or ‘acceptable’ health risks.
But media marketing does not only point to the presence of a profit motive within
medical practices, nor a threat to women’s health. Consumption is also a cultural
process that cannot be reduced to an economic logic (e.g. Sahlins 1994). It’s true that
some of the demand for beauty services and products is an effect of rising female
incomes (Dweck 1999). And even cosmetic genital cutting in rural Chad at least partly
reflects the market aspirations of young girls. But such forms of ‘demand’ for beauty
and health practices also reflect complex changes in gender roles as women become
sexual subjects with greater amounts of autonomy and choice for longer periods of the
life cycle, but also encounter the pressures of self-management. The intermingling of
beauty and health thus reflects a larger ambiguity in modernity, as women are interpel-
lated by consumer and medical cultures simultaneously as sexual subjects and objects
(Edmonds 2008).
Consider the trend of ‘aestheticizing’ female reproduction: the affirmation of the
pregnant body as beautiful has also been accompanied by the emergence of new anxi-
eties and desires surrounding attempts to regulate the reproductive and erotic body.
Media images that celebrate the beautiful pregnant body seem to flaunt widespread
traditions of treating pregnancy as a dangerous state requiring circumspection if not
concealment. This trend is driven partly by the internal logic of fashion, which inces-
santly seeks to challenge taboos in order to maintain the interest of markets and media.
But it also perhaps reflects changes in women’s sexual and reproductive lives in many
regions. On the one hand, by affirming the aesthetics of the pregnant body, women are
defying patriarchal traditions that in many instances created a ‘split’ between repro-
duction and sexuality (Young 1990). On the other hand, some mothers embrace plastic
surgery as means to correct ‘defects’ in the postpartum body or else have ‘elective’
Caesarean deliveries motivated by sexual-aesthetic concerns. These two examples
suggest that the larger aestheticization of everyday life in consumer culture can have
contradictory effects. Media and medicine can both promote new sexual subjectivities
that reflect women’s autonomy and freedom, but also a view of female reproduction as
an object for aesthetic management, including through the use of surgical techniques
that themselves carry health risks.
There are several aspects of beauty and health not addressed by this volume. The
papers tend to focus on the risks that beauty poses to health and well-being. But if
we take seriously the notion that health is not simply the ‘absence of disease, but a
broader state of well-being dependent on mind-body interactions then perhaps beauty
too could play a positive role in health. As sexuality becomes a primary domain of the
self for new groups of people, for longer periods of the life cycle, feeling attractive
may become a more salient aspect of health understood in the WHO’s defintion
as a state of ‘physical, social and mental well-being’. In any event, less attention has
been devoted to what it is like to feel beautiful. But attention to subjective experiences
as well as the real social effects of beauty may help to shed light on the motivations of
those who undergo cosmetic practices that are injurious to physical health.
This perspective could also be applied to practices on the male body, which are also
neglected here. It’s true that ‘beauty’ is often seen as a domain of femininity in West-
ern societies, but male concern for appearance as European novelists often point
out is perhaps a simply less socially acceptable, though no less prominent, feature
of the male psyche. Moreover, men are increasingly becoming subjects of medical
and consumer marketing, though they are targeted with slightly different promises of
transformation. Skin care products are marketed as ‘grooming’ rather than cosmetics,
health practices often aim at building muscle, and many anxieties and enhancement
practices focus on sexual virility. The semi-nude, muscle-bound, smooth-skinned
male form once a fringe, homoerotic ideal achieved a new mainstream cultural
visibility in a remarkably short period of time (Bordo 1999). In the process, it partially
displaced traditional markers of masculinity such as character traits, or for that matter
facial and body hair. An increase of medical practices used to achieve or enhance new
ideals of masculinity – such as experimental sex hormone use (Sabino 2002) – points
to health risks of ‘beauty’ for men too, but also a new importance of erotic and aes-
thetic self-tinkering for male health.
This volume points to a ‘special relationship’ of interdependence between beauty and
health. Such a relationship makes it more difficult to judge what ‘true health’ is from
the neutral or universal standpoint often taken by bioethicists and philosophers of sci-
ence. Instead, this collection suggests the need for critical and interpretive approaches
that balance attention to local values with analysis of the transnational circuits that
make it possible for medical technologies and beauty ideals to gain traction in diverse
We have become accustomed to hear that a cultural obsession with beauty in the
Western media poses a threat to health and well-being, particularly for women. The
‘tyranny of slenderness’ (Chernin 1991) in fashion has been implicated in the spread
of eating disorders. The aesthetic focus on whiteness – or often relative lightness – in
the media can promote internalised racism in multiracial societies, or reinforce tradi-
tional colour hierarchies (Kaw 1993). But viewing beauty through a political lens has
been perhaps limited to a few regions in the West. In Latin America, for example, cri-
tiques of beauty as a patriarchal form of social control have been much less common
than in the US. Nevertheless, beauty has been connected to diverse ethical questions
in many societies, including the threats and opportunities it poses for human happi-
ness and well-being. For example, while images of beauty pose a risk to the modern
consumer who takes them as a model for her own work on the self, for the Ancient
Greeks, the eros aroused by contact with a beautiful person was an irrational force that
undermined self-control (Scarry 2001).
This volume has tended to focus on the problems posed by modern beauty practices
to health. But the papers also challenge broad oppositions between modern and tradi-
tional, and complicate the boundaries between oppressive and self-expressive bodily
practices. Compare, for example, cosmetic surgery and female genital cutting. Cos-
metic surgery is ostensibly the more modern – or perhaps postmodern – practice. But
Brazil, a developing country often seen as ‘not yet’ modern, is pioneering new uses
of this eminently modern technology. And girls in Chad must challenge traditional
authorities in seeking out a practice they equate with the modern world. While there
are certainly differences in the health effects of the two practices, they both raise dif-
ficult questions about the kind of agency exercised by the women who desire them. Do
these practices point to the persistence of traditional patriarchy that limits women’s
freedom? Can they be seen as techniques of self-transformation or self-expression?
Do they represent new forms of alienation and the spread of self-commodification in
capitalism? Similar questions can be posed in relation to self-harm, reconstructive sur-
geries, aestheticized reproductive management, and a myriad of other practices that
bring health into an uneasy relationship with beauty. To respond to them, these papers
suggest the need to begin by finding out how notions of health and beauty acquire
moral significance and emotional force in relation to local values.
The authors are medical anthropologists at the University of Amsterdam and editors of this
special issue. Email: and
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2 This ideal of ‘softness’ and ‘uselessness’ contrasts again with ideals of ‘hardness’ and bod-
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This article explores the enskillment of vision through which girls in a London school learn to see bodies and selves in particular ways. Dominant body and beauty ideals inform these processes but cannot be reduced to them. Drawing from the anthropological literature on situated learning and the senses, I propose an anthropological approach to girls’ bodily dissatisfaction that starts from everyday life rather than the assumed primacy of media images.
This engaging introduction to Japan's burgeoning beauty culture investigates a wide range of phenomenon-aesthetic salons, dieting products, male beauty activities, and beauty language-to find out why Japanese women and men are paying so much attention to their bodies. Laura Miller uses social science and popular culture sources to connect breast enhancements, eyelid surgery, body hair removal, nipple bleaching, and other beauty work to larger issues of gender ideology, the culturally-constructed nature of beauty ideals, and the globalization of beauty technologies and standards. Her sophisticated treatment of this timely topic suggests that new body aesthetics are not forms of "deracializiation" but rather innovative experimentation with identity management. While recognizing that these beauty activities are potentially a form of resistance, Miller also considers the commodification of beauty, exploring how new ideals and technologies are tying consumers even more firmly to an ever-expanding beauty industry. By considering beauty in a Japanese context, Miller challenges widespread assumptions about the universality and naturalness of beauty standards.
Should western beauty practices, ranging from lipstick to labiaplasty, be included within the United Nations understandings of harmful traditional/cultural practices? By examining the role of common beauty practices in damaging the health of women, creating sexual difference, and enforcing female deference, this book argues that they should. In the 1970s feminists criticized pervasive beauty regimes such as dieting and depilation, but some 'new' feminists argue that beauty practices are no longer oppressive now that women can 'choose' them. However, in the last two decades the brutality of western beauty practices seems to have become much more severe, requiring the breaking of skin, spilling of blood and rearrangement or amputation of body parts. Beauty and Misogyny seeks to make sense of why beauty practices are not only just as persistent, but in many ways more extreme. It examines the pervasive use of makeup, the misogyny of fashion and high-heeled shoes, and looks at the role of pornography in the creation of increasingly popular beauty practices such as breast implants, genital waxing and surgical alteration of the labia. It looks at the cosmetic surgery and body piercing/cutting industries as being forms of self-mutilation by proxy, in which the surgeons and piercers serve as proxies to harm women's bodies, and concludes by considering how a culture of resistance to these practices can be created. This essential work will appeal to students and teachers of feminist psychology, gender studies, cultural studies, and feminist sociology at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and to anyone with an interest in feminism, women and beauty, and women's health.