Anthropology Beauty
by
Stephanie Sadre-Orafai
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0037

Introduction

While anthropologists have examined aesthetic forms and practices from the discipline’s inception, interest in beauty culture is relatively recent. Developed in conversation with work in feminist and critical theory, history, philosophy, and sociology, anthropological research on beauty has made important contributions to this growing field. In addition to providing non-Western ethnographic examples, anthropologists have nuanced, and in some instances directly refuted, popular sociobiological and evolutionary psychological accounts that dismiss or diminish the importance of culture. Indeed through fine-grained ethnographic analyses, anthropologists have complicated and contextualized beauty’s symbolic, transactional, and affective dimensions, teasing out how its dynamics not only refract social ideologies but also serve as a medium through which new, unexpected configurations and subjectivities can emerge. Originating in and inflected by many subdisciplines, including medical, visual, and linguistic anthropology, as well as ethnographic work that focuses on race, ethnicity, nationalism, gender, and sexuality, anthropological research on beauty has centralized questions about personhood, culturally-specific conceptions of the body, and power, examining a variety of practices, industries, and discourses. Notably this has included beauty pageants, aesthetic surgery, salons, and more recently, global beauty and fashion industries. Given that this work draws from and remains in dialogue with other social scientific and humanistic research on beauty, this review draws from across this scholarship, highlighting the importance of ethnography. Collectively, this multidisciplinary work has shown that while beauty signifies and intersects with many kinds of social difference—moral, racial, gender, class, sexual, and otherwise—it is not reducible to them. Further, it is not monolithic or static in its expression. Rather, there are multiple fields of beauty, each of which is socially located and contested. These forms manifest in social relations and institutions, cultural categories and practices, and in the realm of politics and economics. In this way, ethnographic approaches to beauty help locate and ground it in actual bodies, interactions, and perceptual experiences.

General Overviews

Necessarily in conversation with second- and third-wave feminist critiques of beauty culture, scholarship on beauty in the social sciences has elaborated the political stakes and implications of beauty, offering a more nuanced analysis of how beauty cuts across multiple social fields, functions as its own domain of social experience, and is integral to any analysis of business and markets. The general overviews included here introduce ethnographic and historical approaches to studying beauty, and while written clearly enough for undergraduates, are excellent resources for orienting graduate students to the field. Craig 2006 reviews feminist critiques of beauty culture and offers an ethnographic alternative that analytically centers pleasure, ambivalence, and intersectionality. Edmonds 2008 reviews anthropological approaches to beauty and health, including biological approaches, and suggests foregrounding analytic attention to beauty as a distinct social domain rather than reading other forms of power through it. Peiss 2001 offers a historical approach to studying beauty in relation to business, highlighting a number of sites for potential research. Reischer and Koo 2004 reviews literature on the body beautiful by both anthropologists and feminist researchers.

  • Craig, Maxine Leeds. 2006. Race, beauty, and the tangled knot of a guilty pleasure. Feminist Theory 7.2: 159–177.

    DOI: 10.1177/1464700106064414E-mail Citation »

    An intervention in feminist critiques of beauty culture that highlights beauty as a contested symbolic resource with multiple standards, discourses, and practices refracted through and taken up by individuals in different race, class, gender, and sexual positions. Highlights the competing pleasures and penalties produced by individuals’ engagements with beauty.

  • Edmonds, Alexander. 2008. Beauty and health: Anthropological perspectives. Medische Antropologie 20.1: 151–162.

    E-mail Citation »

    A critical overview of anthropological approaches to studying beauty, including cultural relativist, feminist, and sociobiological perspectives. Reviews recent ethnographic research on the intersection of beauty and health, and the relationship among beauty, globalization, and markets. Advocates a theoretical framework that considers beauty as its own domain of social experience.

  • Peiss, Kathy. 2001. On beauty . . . and the history of business. In Beauty and business: Commerce, gender, and culture in modern America. Edited by Philip Scranton, 7–22. New York: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    A historical overview of the relationship between beauty and business, including the beauty sector of the economy, aestheticization as a business strategy, and beauty as a value added to the sale of other goods. Highlights local beauty businesses as sites of mediation between national and global trends and local practices.

  • Reischer, Erica, and Kathryn S. Koo. 2004. The body beautiful: Symbolism and agency in the social world. Annual Review of Anthropology 33:297–317.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143754E-mail Citation »

    An overview of feminist and anthropological research on women’s bodies, particularly the idea of “the body beautiful,” that demonstrates how the body is not biologically predetermined, but rather functions as both a site for and agent of symbolic cultural production.

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