ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Beauty traps

Location Appleton Tower, Seminar Room 2.14
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00


Cathrine Degnen (Newcastle University, UK) email
Monica Moreno Figueroa (University of Cambridge) email
Mail All Convenors


Beauty, a highly ambivalent concept, has also been described as a "lure" which "seems inescapable" (Felski 2006: 278). This panel seeks to better understand how beauty is both imagined and deployed across a variety of socio-cultural contexts, and as a series of embodied affective processes.

Long Abstract

Beauty is an ambivalent concept, a "gendered, racialised and contested symbolic resource" (Craig 2006: 160), but can also be a deeply felt source of motivation and drive. A sizable literature drawing mainly from feminist studies focuses on how beauty plays a role in the currency and exercise of power by examining beauty standards and practices; how beauty impacts women's lives; and how it structures gender relations. Debate in this field has traditionally centred around two opposed poles: beauty as a structuring element of oppression and beauty as a site for female agency (Craig 2006: 164). More recently, the literature has turned to subjective experiences of beauty in relation to women's desires to feel 'normal', as a source of pleasurable practice, or as sites for identity work. However, as Craig rightly states, many accounts still neglect the social locations of their subjects, and while acknowledging the 'white race', middle class and heterosexuality of their subjects, such work tends not address how such social characteristics matter (Craig 2006: 165). This panel invites papers exploring how beauty is both imagined and deployed in particular social and cultural contexts, with an eye towards lived experiences that help us better understand why it is that beauty keeps being such a profound point of concern in people's lives. That is, why, as Felski argues, beauty comes to be a "lure" which "seems inescapable" (Felski 2006: 278), and how beauty can also be understood as a series of embodied affective processes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The beauty and the car: tradeshow hostesses and sociocultural constructions of ideals of beauty

Author: Tanja Kubes (University of Vechta)  email


Motor show hostesses represent an almost archetypical image of Western femininity and beauty. My paper addresses the various physical and mental activities that shape the process of living up to this specific ideal of beauty and develops a concept of beauty as performance.

Long Abstract

Motor show hostesses represent an almost archetypical image of Western femininity and beauty. The process of becoming a hostess includes constant defragmentations and recompositions of the female body and the acquisition of specific "hostess beauty techniques". Seemingly everyday activities like standing or smiling are stripped of their codified social meanings and emotional values and are re-acquired as purely physical actions to live up to idealized images of the beautiful young woman next to a car. There is a clear cognitive/emotional dissonance between how those hostesses feel (e.g. sore legs and aching backs) and what their mimic seems to suggest (cheerful smiles and alluring glances).

Performing beauty is a complex physical and mental activity that needs to be studied in a holistic, multisensory way. The ethnographer has no choice but to subject herself to the strict regime of (often quite painful) bodily experience.

My paper is based on extensive "thick participation" and participant observation among motor show hostesses and discusses the physical (or incorporative) aspects of culture that can be observed in the act of performing beauty. I will address how ideals of beauty form the body and how they are incorporated, how they inscribe themselves in the body and "naturalize" body and mind. In addition, I will develop a performative concept of "doing beauty" as it can be induced from the sensory experience of hostessing.

Affecting beauty: older Mexican and British women reflect on 'looking their best'

Authors: Cathrine Degnen (Newcastle University, UK)  email
Monica Moreno Figueroa (University of Cambridge)  email


This paper explores how beauty and affect are bound up with one’s sense of self and what role such linkage has in older people’s lives, drawing on interviews in Mexico and the UK with older women.

Long Abstract

This paper explores how beauty and affect are bound up with one's sense of self and what role such linkage has in older people's lives. Drawing on a pilot project based on interviews in Mexico and the UK with older women about their routines and practices of 'looking their best', we consider the connections between affect and beauty for older women in these two cultural settings. As Berlant (2002, 2006) makes clear, affects are impulses, rhythms, or tendencies which emerge, move, transform, in between things. Moreover, Berlant suggests, these tendencies and attachments may very well be both 'stupid', 'cruel' and bound to fail and necessary, optimistic and aspirational. Our paper engages critically with these concepts by 1) exploring beauty as an affect - that is, as a force, a movement, a relation, a tendency, an inclination; and 2) delving into the feelings and experiences that are produced through the relations between bodies, things, memories, dreams and hopes in older people's lives. We ask how are the bodies of older women and men inclined to beauty? To what extent, in what ways, and with what implications can beauty be understood as an inescapable 'lure' (Felski 2006) in their lives?

Feeling beautiful: beauty and power among Brazilian 'travestis'

Author: Julieta Vartabedian (University of Lisbon)  email


In this paper I want to reflect about the processes of beautification that Brazilian ‘travestis’ go through in order to feel beautiful. Becoming a ‘travesti’ is part of a process of empowerment that requires time, effort and dedication.

Long Abstract

Feeling beautiful and in good shape are very important issues if you live in Brazil. In the last two decades, the "beauty industry" has boomed in this country. Brazil also has the second highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. In the city of Rio de Janeiro, the importance of the body in everyday life is quite visible. Bodies are displayed, compared, scrutinized and exercised.

In this paper I will pay attention to a group which, although reflects national concerns about beauty and bodies, has its own particularities in the way they experience and live a beautiful body. I will talk about Brazilian 'travestis'' beautification practices and the social, cultural and sexual processes involved in feeling a beautiful 'travesti'.

It is through their bodies that 'travestis'' identities are constructed. Although they experience constraints both to achieve the ideal aesthetic 'travesti' and to build their identity in a society that discriminates and stigmatizes them, as beautiful 'travestis' they feel powerful and desired. Becoming a 'travesti' requires a constant effort and dedication because it will be in this process of feeling beautiful that they will grant meaning to their existence.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.