The science behind the comic
Beauty is a story inspired by the ERC project Towards a comparative sociology of beauty
Chapter 10 ▾
Is beauty the opposite of ugliness? The transformation of Daniel, and his subsequent embrace by the beauty industry – the prestigious glossy Vague – urges us to consider this question. Daniel wanted to be as ugly as possible, to flaunt all beauty standards. And yet, he ended up as the new face of beauty.
Many scholars of human beauty have looked for universal characteristics of beauty. In particular researchers in human biology and evolutionary psychology, the fields in which the study of human beauty is most developed, have identified commonalities across cultures and the high levels of agreement in judgment of attractiveness. These studies generally show that beauty is related to signs of health and fertility: facial and bodily symmetry, a healthy look with clear skin and shiny hair, a youthful appearance, and well-developed secondary gender characteristics like strong jaws and wide shoulders for men, and a narrower face, narrow waist and wide hips for women. (See for instance here; here ) From this perspective, beauty and ugliness are obviously opposite categories. Ugliness is the absence of beauty: old, asymmetrical, unhealthy, unfeminine or unmasculine.
The purpose of my own cultural-sociological research on beauty has never been to negate or attack this line of research. There are indeed strong universals in the preference for beautiful faces and bodies. Most definitely: the strong desire to seek out beauty, and the strong effect it has on all of us. But also the preference for youth, for forms of beauty that radiate health, sexual attraction, and strong femininity and masculinity.
But this research project has drawn attention to two other important mechanisms in the shaping of our beauty standards. First, the equally universal human ambition to distinguish oneself, and to show one’s allegiance to a specific group (tribe, class, community) through aesthetics. Second, the central human tendency to adopt (aesthetic) standards and practices from those with more status.
Thus, our beauty standards are not only a reflection of our inner mammal; they also reflect the group we belong to, the group we do not belong to, and the high status group we maybe want to belong to. There are examples of this throughout the comic. Think of the punk people we saw early in the comic: their radical beauty standards highlight their separation from the mainstream. This is a form of beauty that is difficult to explain from the perspective of youth, beauty, health. Here, the aesthetics of group allegiance trumps health, symmetry and gender-specificity. Another mechanism interferes: group distinction through aesthetics. To show their otherness, they use a universal means of expression: their bodies, and their faces. But also think of the hipster scarf that Daniel is wearing: another sure sign of aesthetic allegiance to a specific group, an –admittedly less radical – sign of resistance and allegiance through physical appearance. Nothing about the scarf suggests health, symmetry, youthfulness. In effect, it makes him look a little effeminate. Again, the aesthetic allegiance to a group trumps the inner ape.
In today’s complex, globalized and mediated societies, these two mechanisms of power and solidarity can be observed not only in face-to-face interactions. They are also in embedded in many institutions, such as the media industries. Aesthetic standards become ‘institutionalized’, as sociologists call it. This means that standards become preserved in these institutions even as people come and go, and thus acquire a sort of persistence and reality. They are experienced as eternal, true, and somehow universal, even though they are invented by people, probably not even very long ago.
The beauty standards of the fashion industry perfectly illustrate this process of institutionalization of beauty standards based on status and group affiliation. Just a brief glance at a recent issue of Vague (sorry, Vogue) shows that the women and incidental men, portrayed in these magazines are nothing like the evolutionary prototypes. Admittedly, they are young. But often they are so thin that their secondary gender characteristics are hardly noticeable. Although ‘heroin chic’ is not in fashion anymore, high fashion models do not look very healthy, with their pale skin and sunken cheeks. Androgynous is the trend: female top models often have strong jaws and square faces, male high fashion models look frail and feminine.
In the beauty industry, especially in high fashion, beauty is not the opposite of ugliness. Instead, the beauty standards of high fashion play a complicated game with the more conventional standards of popular and mainstream fashion. They negate the ‘pretty’ aesthetics of mainstream magazines and advertising, where models do look more like the evolutionary ideal: young, health, smiling, radiant. They also negate the ‘sexy’ aesthetics of commercial magazines like Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health: provocative, sexualized, exaggeratedly feminine or masculine. In her dissertation, Elise van der Laan, in her dissertation Why Fashion Models Don’t Smile (see here has explored the emergence and crystallization of these three styles over the past 30 years. It is also documented in this article.
In effect, high fashion has followed a similar trajectory as art has followed in the 20th century: away from beauty that is directly understandable to everyone, continuous with everyday life, towards a form of beauty that negates everyday beauty, or even negates the idea of beauty itself.
This is why Daniel’s transformation into the posterboy of high fashion is possible. In contemporary high fashion, the dividing line between ugly and beautiful is fluid and, well: vague. High fashion’s idea of beauty is a constant exploration for something that is different: different from conventional ideas of beauty, different from other magazines, different even from what they themselves hailed as the new beauty standard only a year ago. In this search for aesthetic distinction, high fashion beauty has become increasingly distinct from what our inner ape desires. But for those in the know, the effect is aesthetically pleasing, in highly specific ways. It is the beauty of the unexpected. Of something that is so interesting that it makes us want to look again and again. The pleasing juxtaposition of a lopsided, strange face with a perfectly symmetrical, beautifully stylized photograph. In the visual echo of a patched, disjointed human face in a patched, disjointed fur of a cat.
Chapter 9 ▾
How to become ugly? This was the question that came up while we – the script writer, the cartoonists and me – were preparing this episode.
A more difficult question than one may expect. People who want to become (more) beautiful travel a well-worn path. While they may have different tastes or preferences, they will usually do something that has been done before. Generally, they want to look younger, more polished and symmetrical, smoother and with more even features, and with their secondary sex characteristics more exaggerated. For all of these things, many methods and techniques have been devised: from make-up, creams and corrective clothing to injections or surgery. Consequently, people who try to become more beautiful tend to conform to certain, rather specific standards.
Moreover, as many people have noted, what is considered beautiful by the producers of these methods and techniques tends to be quite homogeneous. The moment one engages in a quest to become more beautiful, the very specific tastes of the beauty industry are difficult to ignore. In the early stages of my project, I visited a plastic surgeon in his clinic. We showed him the images we use in our Q set study. The surgeon kept pointing to one image, saying: but this is simply the most beautiful. He seemed incredulous that we were actually going to ask people, and that we considered the possibility that people would disagree with him.
The surgeon was partly right: the image he selected did indeed receive the highest appreciation overall. However, there were many people that did not select this images as their favorite. And the main finding, which also surprised me, was that people have very diverse taste in facial beauty. For both men and women I found 8 distinct taste patterns, with many people loving the faces that other loathed.
But for becoming ugly, the choices are endless, and most of them have never been explored. This was reflected in our discussions. Should Daniel’s body be changed, his face, or both? What would be the most radical statement? For instance, what about making Daniel very overweight? My own research, and many other studies (see for instance here and here) show that fatness is strongly stigmatized across western countries. Or do something very drastic to his facial features, like a very big nose? But in the end we chose something truly unnatural: a multi-color ‘Frankenstein’ look that could never exist in real life.
But with this, the reflection doesn’t end. Because is this really ugly? Given that we know that people disagree so much about faces, isn’t it possible that some people find Daniel’s new patchwork face the most beautiful they’ve ever seen?
Chapter 8 ▾
What to do about inequality? This is the age-old question that is bothering our four protagonists: Daniel, Layla, Rodrigo and Amber. Physical beauty is a resource: a form of aesthetic capital. People benefit from their beauty when they have it, and suffer from their ugliness. For this reason, economist Daniel Hamermesh proposed that people with unusually unattractive looks should be compensated for this. This seems like a traditional social-democratic solution. Maybe we cannot solve inequality. But what we can do, is dampen the effect. Compensate people for the inequalities that cannot be repaired.
Like other forms of social inequality, physical beauty is not simply a given. What we consider beautiful or ugly is socially shaped (at least in part) by a range of social institutions, organizations, and long-lasting cultural traditions. Beauty standards therefore do not simply reflect biological universals. Beauty standards reflect the social relations in a given society. Thus, beauty standards reflect the preferences and characteristics of powerful groups and institutions in each society. This can be seen, for instance, in the contemporary preference for traits that reflect white, middle-class ideals, as Ashley Mears has shown in her insightful study of fashion modeling. Thinness only became a true beauty ideal in a society where it is easier to be fat than to be skinny. A tan became fashionable only when poor people worked in factories, rather than on fields in the open air. But when everybody could afford trips to sunny beaches, pale skin again become the norm.
Daniel is looking for a way to redress the social inequality produced by beauty standards. He has found a particularly radical solution: he will become ugly. In his press conference, he announces that this is a way to expose the ‘trick’ of the fashion industry. Implicitly: he suggests that it is the beauty industry that is responsible for this particular form of inequality.
But is this so? Daniel falls into a common trap: he looks for one particular organization to blame for all social ills. Indeed, the beauty industry has garnered more power since the 1980s. But beauty has been a source of inequality for much longer, especially for women but also for men. Think of all the fairy tales where princes and princesses are portrayed as beautiful. Their beauty signals their goodness, underlining that they deserve their privileged position. Throughout history, royalty, saints, and other important people have been depicted in a flattering manner: they have to look good to convince the people of their special status. Think of the saints in Catholic churches: their beautiful symmetric faces, lush hairdos and lovely figures confirm their power (for men) and their virtue (for women).
Sociology has taught us that no single institution produces or shapes cultural norms and standards. Especially long-lasting cultural patterns, such as the connection between beauty and status, are upheld by a whole range of institutions. The association of beauty and status, for instance, has been passed on through many institutions that have each developed their own, distinctive code. In beauty, these codes are often visual. Religious imagery. Public statues. Paintings. And the range of popular visual genres that have emerged since the rise of printing, photography and film. But other cultural codes have also been influential: manners of dress, that highlight specific body parts. Social rituals that conflate beauty, wealth and status. Think of the way the ritual of marriage produces a very specific image of beauty, status, masculinity and femininity. Social position reflected in the beautiful attire of both bride and groom. Female beauty as a prize for male status. Women there to be looked at, their beauty to be –literally!– revealed.
The beauty industry did not create our present-day beauty standards. Nor did it establish, for the first, time, the relation between beauty and status. Instead, institutions like the beauty industry are like prisms. They take the standards of society as a whole, refracting them, and beaming them back into society, different but also the same.
So Daniel’s identification of the culprit is too simplistic. There is no ‘big bad beauty industry’ that is solely to blame for the association of beauty and inequality.
But what about his solution? To become ugly? To proclaim a society where ‘ugly is beautiful’? Does that help?
Daniel’s radical act can be read in a number of different ways. At first, Daniel’s solution reminded me of the actions of the communist and Maoist students of the 1970s, who went to work in factories in support of the proletariat (to the puzzlement of the proletariat). If beauty is privilege, then we should turn the tables. Power to the ugly!
But maybe it is more anarchistic, like punk or dada? Away with all standards! Let confusion rule! By showing the absurdity of the current beauty standards, maybe we will discover new forms of beauty.
Let us see how Daniel’s attempt to overturn beauty standards will work out. And importantly: how ugly he really has become…
Professor of Cultural Sociology &
Chair of the Department of Sociology
University of Amsterdam
Chapter 7 ▾
In the 6th and 7th episode of "Beauty", we can see the lines between beauty and ugliness beginning to
blur. The appearance of Donatella Versace is an interesting case in point. Someone who used to be a
accepted and celebrated beauty. But in her constant attempt to be beautiful, she ended up on the other
side. Remaking the winner of the beautyst contest into her show the complexity of beauty. What is
beautiful? Is it always so easy to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly? Are they, indeed, opposites?
The increasingly radical plans of Daniel also lead us to consider ugliness. If one would want to be truly ugly, what would that entail? And what would the consequence be, of being ugly. Your partner breaking up with you may only be the first of a number of unpleasant experiences. As many studies have shown, people who are considered ugly or unattractive are less likely to get invited for job interviews than beautiful people, have fewer friends, make less money, and tend to be less happy (see "Beauty Pays", by Daniel Hamermesh, 2011). And certainly, ugliness will not get you onto the catwalk.. Or does it?
In this episode, we see the editors of Vague increasingly drawn to new "edgy" styles, where beauty skirts ugliness: skinny bodies, bald heads, torn clothes.. How far will the fashion industry go in embracing the ugly? And once they have embraced it, will it still be ugly? Or will it be the new beautiful?
In these episodes, the cartoonists explore the boundary between ugly and beautiful. Their work is reminiscent of the explorations by the artist Orlan, who as early as the 1990s underwent extensive plastic surgery as part of her art. An important scholarly discussion of this issue can be found in the work of Umberto Eco (the semiotician, also known as a novelist). After publishing a "History of beauty", with images of beauty throughout Western history, Eco took on the "History of Ugliness", with a similar approach. When reading both volumes in conjunction, one can see distinctions blur, especially as beauty ideals shift over time. But some things do not change. In particular: the consistent association of ugliness with evil, immorality, old age and generally: all that is bad. Ugliness repels us, although it also holds a special fascination. Beauty, on the other hand, is more double-edged. It is morality, purity, innocence, goodness. But is also seduction, wile and treachery. Beauty can lead us into temptation. It wields a strong power over us.
Professor of Cultural Sociology
University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Chapter 6 ▾
More informations about the books:
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, by Pierre Bourdieu
Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke, By Giselinde Kuipers
Watch Eleonora Antonioni drawing the 6th episode of Beauty:
Chapter 5 ▾
In this next episode of the “beauty” webcomic the stakes become clear. The beautysts at Vague have
selected their model of the future, and the plastic surgery to make her the face of beauty for the
future has begun. The anti-beautysts can only retaliate in kind. After a phase of debate, reflection and
research, they are now confronting the fact that, if they want to truly challenge beauty, they have to
embrace ugliness in the most radical way. Will they take the next logical step?
Even though the story line is slightly sci-fi, the webcomic makes clear the implications of a world where beauty is both an asset that is extremely valuable to those who have it (or who control it, which is not the same thing), and something that is increasingly manageable and malleable. A magazine like “Vague” has first pick of the most beautiful and eager people, and while they cannot completely change what people think is beautiful, their influence goes a long way. But even without the impact of the fashion world, people have a deep urge to like and seek out beauty. To really challenge and defy your own beauty standards, means going against your deepest impulses. Who would want to be ugly? And who would go so far as to willfully make oneself ugly?
Professor of Cultural Sociology
University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Chapter 4 ▾
In the fourth episode we see the two storylines unfolding: two very different groups in Amsterdam, trying to figure out beauty. Both the ‘beautysts’ and the ‘antibeautysts’ discover that it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. The beautysts discover that if they want to do something really new, they shouldn’t just go out looking for it. Rather, they should make it themselves. The antibeautysts are on the verge of making a similar discovery: If they really want to change the idea of beauty, they shouldn’t go out and look for something different. Rather: they have to change this themselves. Rethinking beauty requires radical thinking. So what sort of beauty will they invent? The beauty of a lobster? The beauty of tabooed big bodies? The beauty of punk?
Prof. Dr. Giselinde Kuipers
Watch Prof. Giselinde Kuipers's TEDx talk about "Beauty and inequality" illustrated by Francesca Protopapa.
Chapter 3 ▾
Prof. Giselinde Kuipers presents her project and talks about the experience of working together with artists from the ERCcOMICS team, to transform their research in a comic.
Chapter 2 ▾
The second episode of the beauty webcomic shows how our findings become meaningful to people outside Academia: the editors of fashion magazine Vague, and a group of students. In the everyday experience of academics, it is rare to have such an impact.
The comic shows what might happen. For the fashion industry, academic work on beauty can be used to innovate: to find and develop new understandings of beauty. Obviously, this also means: it can be used to make money. This is not necessarily a bad thing: while making money, the beauty and fashion industries have produced many things of great beauty. Moreover, the beauty industry has used their power for good, as well as evil. With my colleagues Elise van der Laan and Yiu Fai Chow, I have argued that some of the recent iniatives of global Vogue magazine have contributed to a more diverse, realistic and positive portrayal of beauty.
For the students, the main message is that beauty is a form of inequality. They decide, therefore, that beauty is form of injustice, that needs to be fought. Their response is radical: they declare themselves anti-beautyst. In the next episode, they will look for ways to put this stance into action: how to fight beauty?
Prof. Dr. Giselinde Kuipers
An article on Fashion Week about «On beauty», the 2nd edition of our Illustrated talks in Amsterdam on October 11.
Prof. Giselinde Kuipers will be speaking at the Tedx Women in Brussels on October 28.
Chapter 1 ▾
The aim of this project is to develop a comparative sociology of beauty: a theory of the social creation of aesthetic standards, as they are applied to the bodies and faces of women and men. By comparing these standards, both within and across nations, it aims to identify central mechanisms and institutions through which such standards are developed and disseminated.This project is innovative in several ways. It is the first comprehensive study of the social shaping of beauty standards. Moreover, the four subprojects will result in an extensive account of production, products, and reception of a contested cultural industry: modelling. Third, it will draw together in novel ways theories about media, cultural production and taste formation; gender and the body; and globalization theory. Fourth, this project will make a major contribution to the study of cultural globalization. It analyzes a transnational cultural industry in different countries; and its comparative and longitudinal design allows us to gauge the impact of globalization in different national contexts. Finally, the project is innovative in its comparative, multi-method research design. Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, the four subprojects will "follow" the entire process of cultural production and reception in an increasingly transnational field.
Prof. Gibeline Kuipers
Amsterdam Institute for Social science Research (AISSR) University of Amsterdam
Learn more about: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, by Pierre Bourdieu
Upcoming event: 2d edition of the ERCcOMICS Illustrated Talks : On beauty: How
beauty standards and vice versa.
Amsterdam, October 11 - 2016. More informations on this event here