Conference Information

Date: 19-21 July 2023

Place: Seminar Room L115, Seminar Center; Otto-von Simson-Str. 26

Organizing Team: Anne Kukuczka, Claudia Liebelt, Ruyue Qiu

Keynote Speakers: Prof. Carmen Alvaro Jarrín (College of the Holy Cross); Prof. Jie Yang (Simon Fraser University)

Far from being simply ‘in the eye of the beholder,’ beauty is a morally laden and deeply social affair intricately linked to constellations of power, the imagination of boundaries and normative regimes. In recent years, scholarly works have investigated a consistently growing, global beauty industry and its impact on body images, beauty practices and projects of self-making across the globe. They have shown that, while beauty norms and body images circulate globally, they materialize in particular settings, and that beauty markets remain highly fragmented. In this conference, we wish to go beyond the debate over the global versus the local dimensions of bodily beauty and place the spotlight on the (bio-)political operations and politics of beauty on the level of the state. While images of beauty form part of the ideological grounding and intimate operation of state power, state practices also shape a great deal of the beauty industry’s critical infrastructure, for example, through taxes and legislation, visual technologies and public policies.

This becomes clear, for example, by looking at the regulation of chemical ingredients in cosmetic products, such as skin whiteners or toners; the requirements for training as a beauty therapist or for opening up a beauty salon or clinic; or definitions of body modifications as ‘therapeutic’ in contrast to ‘aesthetic,’ which implies public health insurance coverage and, possibly, the public demand to a ‘right to beauty’, for example, in Brazil (Edmonds 2007). State regulations may contribute to the professionalization or medicalization of the beauty sector, but they may also create black markets and shadow economies. They may promote beauty as a viable employment niche, or they may contribute to further marginalizing those typically employed in the sector, namely rural or migrant women with a working-class background. 

Moreover, if we understand citizenship as constituted through everyday ‘acts’ rather than formal status (Isin 2008), bodily appearances and visual technologies come into view as crucial domains in the relationship between the state as an actor and its citizens. Notions such as ‘cosmetic citizenship’ (Jarrín 2017) and ‘aesthetic citizenship’ (Liebelt 2019) have elaborated on beauty as a biopolitical field of self-making and a site of disciplining, educating and creating ‘proper’ citizens through visual technologies of surveillance and recognition, including the recognition of ‘strangers’ (Ahmed 2000). This becomes especially clear when looking at China, where multi-million-dollar investments in beauty pageants, salons and training initiatives by the state form part of a historical trajectory of ‘somatic engineering’ (Gimpel 2013) rooted in the expectation that each citizen should visibly embody societal norms such as ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’, or ‘aesthetic governance’ (Yang 2011). Thus, Jie Yang (2011) analyses the growing investments in beauty in China as part of a biopolitical strategy that functions as an aesthetic and affective pedagogy, which creates dominant norms of appearance within a heterogeneous population. Visions of appropriate embodiment are also clearly gendered. This is exemplified by the Chinese state regulator’s pressure on tech companies in late 2021 to ban male celebrities from television and video streaming sites, many of whom had risen to fame in the popular boys’ love fiction genre, by arguing that they look ‘too girly’.

Contemporary beauty politics are also embedded in larger constellations of power, as well as histories of imperial and colonial violence. Discussing the setting up of a Beauty Academy in war-torn Kabul by American professionals, Mimi Thi Nguyen (2011) argues that, in the context of humanitarian imperialism, beauty in the early 2000s was being ‘recruited to go to war’ in Afghanistan and was becoming a new form of global biopower. In this context, beauty assumed a moral and ‘civilizational’ dimension on a supra-national scale, albeit backed by state regulation, infrastructure and power.  

In this conference, we wish to investigate the relationship between beauty and the state by highlighting how state institutions and translocal regimes of power shape gendered norms of appearance, but also how the transnational circulation of products, images and technologies shape the field of beauty in relation to state authorities, regulations and ideologies. By doing so, we intend to build on and extend existing scholarship on embodied aesthetics in the fields of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Critical Race Studies, Gender and Queer Studies and related disciplines. We aim to bring together ethnographic and conceptual works on processes of biopolitical discipline, control and self-making in relation to beauty norms, politics and practices. We are especially interested in forms of cosmetic or aesthetic citizenship as a central axis of political regulation on the one hand and embodied acts for negotiations of somatic belonging on the other.