An Ugly Guide to Beauty : A Sociological Analysis of Beauty Constructs, Economy, and Resistance

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Eilenfield, Meghan
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Glamorous, symbolic, and defiant beauty often emerges as a theoretical abstraction that resists precise definition. Simultaneously, perceived beauty, or its absence, can serve as a tangible locus of control and consequence on the body (Armstrong, n.d.; Bourdieu, 1984). This research grapples with the power and privilege vested in beauty and its contingency on "the Other" (Collins, 1991; Keng, 1997; Perea, 1997). In the United States, White European settlers defined a standard of beauty that favored their own supremacy, leading to the formation and perpetuation of a hierarchy based on physical attributes, including race, gender, and class (Bourdieu, 1984). The establishment of this appearance-based hierarchy facilitated the standardization and conferral of power and authority onto White masculine bodies. An abundance of pseudo-scientific endeavors, supported by racist ideology, served as an instrument to legitimize the imposition of violence, control, and dispossession of bodies that deviated from the White masculine standard (Bourdieu, 1984; Nudson, 2021; Wolf, 2002; Johnson, 2009). This historical grounding realizes beauty as more than a self-determined participation, but as a system deeply entrenched in identity, politics, and power (Nudson, 2021; Wolf, 2002). Despite the presumption that beauty primarily concerns women, it is men who are the primary benefactors of beauty (Nudson, 2021; Wolf, 2002). The prevailing patriarchal social structure has historically and contemporarily employed beauty as an obstruction to women's economic, social, and personal mobility (Nudson, 2021; Wolf, 2002). Consequently, a woman's preoccupation with her appearance may not be superficial or vain but rather, a means of survival within a system that restricts the imagination of what a woman should or should not look like (Nudson, 2021). In the defiance or inability to meet these expectations of beauty and behavior, many women face the risk of social punishment (Nudson, 2021; Wolf, 2002). The tools used to achieve beauty are also deeply rooted in patriarchy (Arsenault, 2021; Kwan and Traunter, 2009; Marx, 2015; Nudson, 2021). The beauty industry profits off of manufactured flaws, which contribute to a culture of insecurity, particularly amongst young girls (Marx, 2015). Engaging in the beauty economy becomes near mandatory to access the social, economic, and personal benefits associated with beauty (Marx, 2015; Nudson, 2021). Despite the presence of oppression in beauty frameworks, it is powerful, possible, and important to resist, detract, and reimagine beauty (McMillian, 2019; Reischer and Koo, 2004). Beyond perceiving the body merely as a reflection of social order and oppression, it can be recognized as an active agent in social action (Koo and Reischer, 2004). This perspective acknowledges the tangible impacts of body hierarchies, where certain bodies become targets of subordination, while simultaneously urging us to broaden our analysis of the body beyond the influence exerted by systems (Armstrong, n.d.; Koo and Reischer, 2004). This philosophy encourages exploring the potential of bodies as vehicles of resistance (Bourdieu, 1984; Jacobs, 2016). In short, this research contends that beauty saturates human existence and posits that beauty holds the power and possibility to simultaneously oppress, privilege, and resist.
vi, 54 p.
Kalamazoo, Mich. : Kalamazoo College.
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