Who’s got the look? The social construction of beauty


If it’s springtime in Paris, it has to be if not sex then at least summer in the city – New York City. Luckily the American Sociological Association held its annual conference in Manhattan this August. The theme was ‘Interrogating Inquality’. Playing to this theme Ashley Mears of Boston University had organised a panel session on the sociology of appearance.

Along with my colleague Dennis Nickson, I’d been asked to present on the ‘dark side’ of aesthetic labour – ‘lookism’. Lookism is discrimination on the grounds of appearance. Or as Ayto bluntly states, ‘uglies are done down and beautiful people get all the breaks’. According to Tietje and Cresap, the term was first used in print by the Washington Post in the late 1970s. For us the issue is inequalities in access to employment based on prescribed and proscribed looks. I finished reading through my presentation notes as my plane touched down in Newark. As it taxied to the apron, I found myself wondering, Carry Bradshaw style, if the uglies are being put down, who or what decides who is good looking or at least has the right look?

Class-based, familial socialisation is one force that shapes notions of what is acceptable and unacceptable looks. The work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is gaining traction in the US. In his Distinction he points out how different classes have different aesthetic tastes. Each class’s habitus produced different ways of being in and seeing the world. These tastes thus differentiate but also hiearchicalise the social classes. Working class tastes and habitus are derided by the middle classes. What is good looking or at least the right look is then prescribed by the middle classes. Indeed our research into aesthetic labour in the UK has found that ‘middle classness’ is used as a proxy by retail and hospitality employers in hiring aesthetic labour.

In his recent source book on the development of the beauty industry, Beauty Imagined, Geoffrey Jones identifies other actors and institutions: the cosmetics and media industries in partnership. From the start of the twentieth century cosmetics firms along with Hollywood movie studios and advertising agencies have worked to create an idealised beauty: white, blond, blue-eyed and skinny. This ideal was first diffused throughout the US and Europe but has recently taken hold in the emerging Asian economies of India and China, where, for example, skin whitening cream is heavily promoted. Indeed there is a campaign currently in India that is trying to persuade Bollywood stars not to participate in promotional activities for cosmetic products that undermine indigenous notions of beauty.

At twist on this theme of media manipulation was provided at the ASA panel by Giselinde Kuipers of the University of Amsterdam. She and her colleagues have developed a new methodology for examining the presentation of female models in women’s fashion magazines. Included in the analysis are the clothing, comportment and facial expressions of female models. They then use this analysis to interpret the different looks of models across different countries and different magazine market segments. In essence what they found was a trickle down and diffusion out model. Particular looks spread from specialised high fashion magazines outwards from Milan, one of the world’s style capitals, to other European countries as well as downwards into mass market fashion magazines.

This imposition of taste resonates with a report published just prior to the ASA conference that shows, once again, that the New York fashion industry fails to use non-white models.

In this respect, whilst Kuipers and her colleagues sample is limited – just three European countries – this type of analysis is important. It would interesting to extend it to include Asian countries and examine the relationship between emerging concepts of beauty in these countries and the fashion sensibilities emanating from the ‘western’ style capitals of Paris, London and New York as well as Milan. Likewise it would be useful to examine if the fashion sensibilities of New York diffuse throughout the US: whether Cindy in Cincinnati looks tomorrow how Natalie in New York looks today. Such analysis would help develop understanding of how notions of beauty are not just socially constructed but dynamic within the parameters set by self-appointed style counsellors.


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