Beauty Culture

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Personal beauty, and the cultivation thereof, have played an important part in defining the self in western culture. Religious and popular beliefs have long conferred to beauty the ability to witness the personal qualities of an individual, linking beauty with inner goodness, and ugliness with vice. But coupled with these beliefs is the Cartesian notion of the plasticity of the body and the supremacy of the soul. Put more simply, a strong self can conquer the inadequate body, and through disciplined practices, can cultivate an appearance that reflects the true nature of the inner self.

Beauty and Goodness

Associating goodness with beauty is not a new practice. The Greek New Testament uses the word beautiful to describe the Christian life, with God describing his devoted subjects as "beautiful" people. Thus, good works in Matthew 5:16 are literally "beautiful" works. In the fifth century, St Augustine wrote in his sermons that appearance was the litmus of character. He explained that a strong person would see beauty reflected in the mirror no matter how truly ugly or beautiful he was. "Don't blame the mirror," if you see yourself as ugly he said. "Go back to yourself. The mirror isn't deceiving you, take care you don't deceive yourself." (p. 336)

These beliefs are also contained in a range of nonreligious texts. Baldessar Castiglione, a sixteenth century Italian courtier and author of courtesy books, instructed his readers that a beautiful soul and a beautiful body seemed to go hand in hand and that a person's outward beauty would spread to their inner being "and in bodies this comeliness is imprinted more and lesse (as it were) for a marke of the soule." (p. 309)

Renaissance portraiture embodied a relationship between appearance and the true self, conveying a complex system of social and moral signifiers through the artistic representation of individuals, notably along gendered lines. Portraits of women were often used to arrange marriages, and as such, were required to express as much information as possible about the portrait subject. Female beauty signified morality and virtue as well as elite social class. Closely linked in Renaissance thought and art, the relationship between beauty and virtue was further highlighted by mottoes and emblems on the reverse of female portraits, punctuating the meaning portrayed by the primary image. The back of Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra de'Benci, for example, is inscribed with the words: "Beauty Adorns Virtue."

Cultivating Beauty—Demonstrating Virtue

While the link between virtue and goodness is immutable, the formula nonetheless contains some flexibility. Beauty culture is based on the belief that the absence of beauty is not insurmountable. Through disciplined activities of self-improvement, a virtuous individual can achieve the look that reflects his or her inner character. St. Augustine had already, at least metaphorically, suggested that when confronted with ugliness, one could, and should, make an attempt to alter the image. "Pass judgment on yourself," he wrote, "be sorry about your ugliness, and so as you turn away and go off sorry and ugly, you may be able to correct yourself and come back beautiful" (p. 336). Later-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commentators generally agreed that while beauty emanated from internal goodness, they conceded the need for some degree of artificial beautification. They recognized that women, in particular, should look after their appearance. In line with the discourse on virtue and beauty, the need for the woman to look after her body was couched in terms of morality, implying not only that she must be prepared to be seen, but that her appearance was of greater importance than that of a man's; she had a duty to beauty.

Women's Duty to Beauty

The notion of beauty as a social contract and a woman's moral responsibility was implied in texts that refer to beauty as a woman's "business." "Man's face is bound to be clean, and may be allowed to be picturesque; but it is a woman's business to be beautiful," declared an anonymous columnist for Godey's Lady's Book in 1852, emphasizing that beauty is a woman's job (p. 105). Considering beauty a job incorporates two important tenets: beauty is simultaneously an obligation and realistically attainable. Annie Starr, in Demorest's Monthly Magazine, reminded readers of this feminine responsibility in 1880, "any harmless method that you can adopt to make your visible selves attractive is perfectly proper—even your duty." (p. 502) Echoing this, Warne's Bouquet Series—Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen also discussed beauty in terms of obligation and responsibility, reminding ladies that, "to please is one of the minor morals of life, which it is our duty not to neglect," and that, as a result, "we should endeavor to understand what good dress is, and to practice what we have learnt with regard to it" (p. 11).

The business of beauty was more than just an obligation to women to look beautiful. It resulted in, according to Kathy Peiss, an industry built both by and for women. While women were restricted in access to many other forms of industry, beauty culture offered career opportunities for women otherwise denied access to business. They availed themselves of these chances by establishing beauty schools, developing and delivering courses, and promoting and distributing mail-order cosmetic products. While standards of beauty varied along ethnic, class and cultural lines, successful entrepreneurs emerged from all categories.

The cultivation of a socially pleasing appearance is also an important motivating principle in the contemporary women's fitness movement. Vigorous aerobic exercise drives many women to achieve what Carol Spitzack refers to as an aesthetic of health. This aesthetic defines health in visual terms of body size, proportion, muscularity, skin color and tone. A conviction that the disciplined and committed self can craft a body in line with this aesthetic reinforces the link between character and appearance; a virtuous body "shows" and its virtue is illustrated by its athletic form. Achieving the aesthetic of health may result in approving gazes from others, but speaks, as Spitzack writes, to an equation of health and culturally-defined attractiveness that can be tyrannical.

The act of beautification is denounced by many as oppressive to women. Naomi Wolf's seminal The BeautyMyth reveals the ways in which female beauty imperatives result in the political, physical, and psychological oppression of women. Sandra Bartky echoes that for women, the standards of body size and shape and the nature of body ornamentation are mandated, controlled, and regulated. As a result of this, the female becomes hesitant, dependent, constrained, modest, and deferent. Woman's becomes a practiced and subjected body, with an inferior status. This inferiority is reinforced by the elaborate aesthetic preparation of the body that implies the deficiency of the woman's body. According to Bartky, "The disciplinary project of femininity is a 'setup': it requires such radical and extensive measures of bodily transformation that virtually every woman who gives herself to it is destined in some degree to fail."(p. 34).

However, the culture of beauty is also viewed as a potentially empowering practice for women, and indeed, even Wolf maintains that her critique of the beauty myth is not anti-beauty: pleasure and adornment are legitimate choices, she argues. bell hooks provides an example, recalling the rituals and relationships created by, and associated with, getting her hair pressed with her sisters. Far from being a constraint, it constituted, she said, a coming of age.

For each of us getting our hair pressed is an important ritual. It is not a sign of our longing to be white. It is not a sign of our quest to be beautiful. We are girls. It is a sign of our desire to be women. It is a gesture that says we are approaching womanhood—a rite of passage. Before we reach the appropriate age we wear braids and plaits that are symbols of our innocence, our youth, our childhood. Then we are comforted by the parting hands that comb and braid, comforted by the intimacy and bliss. There is a deeper intimacy in the kitchen on Saturday when hair is pressed, when fish is fried, when sodas are passed around, when soul music drifts over the talk. We are women together. This is our ritual and our time. (p. 92)

Similarly, Wendy Chapkis writes that "playing with the way we look, creating a personally or sexually provocative image has pleasures of its own. Denying ourselves those pleasures because they have been used against us in the past is understandable but hardly the final word in liberation" (p. 146).

Men and Beauty Culture

In contrast, attitudes towards men's personal beauty and its cultivation are quite different. Late nineteenth century recommendations to men focused on posture and cleanliness, rather than on beauty and its cultivation. The gentlemanly attribute of rectitude was evidenced by upright carriage and bearing. In contrast to texts for women, there is no moral obligation to please. Excessive preoccupation with beauty or with fashion is denounced as foppish, considered a sign of weakness, or lack of masculine individuality. Being well groomed, on the other hand, is imperative for the gentleman. "The first point which marks the gentleman in appearance," explains Warne's Etiquette Book for Ladies and Gentlemen, "is rigid cleanliness" (p. 74). And Maurice Egan wrote in 1893 that "to be clean outside and in gives [a man] a solid respect for himself that makes others respect him" (p. 66). Acknowledging that all men cannot be "six-footer Apollos," William Stevens advises men to make the most of their physical equipment by reflecting on their looks. "Make your appearance an asset not a liability," he advises. (p.5) But, as in many early twentieth century handbooks for young man, his emphasis is on bearing, posture and again, cleanliness. The correct posture is one where shoulders are back, diaphragm in, and carriage erect.

The postural requirements mandated for men reflect, in many ways, the virtuous beauty expected of women. Virtue is witnessed in appearance that suggests masculinity, with physical conditioning and its external manifestations lauded as a means to achieve self-esteem, moral rectitude, and virility. "Do honour to your bodies. Reverence your physical natures, not simply for themselves. Only as ends they are worthy of it, but because in health and strength lies the true basis of noble thought and glorious devotion, " writes Phillips Brooks in 1909 (p. 114).

However, this does not suggest that beauty culture has no bearing upon men and their self-identity. Twentieth-century physical culture texts laud the improvements in men's appearance that can be gained through disciplined exercise and dietary regulation. The shaping and strengthening of the body was seen as a duty to country and to race, a remedy to the increasing sedentary nature of city life. Twentieth-century physical culturists such as Bernarr Macfadden firmly believed that people could enhance their lives and their longevity through physical culture—exercise, dietary regimens, enemas, and a number of ascetic practices including sleeping on the floor, walking barefoot, fasting and doing handstands (to name a very few). He published the magazine Physical Culture, which was aimed at solving the medical problems of Americans through healthy living, and through careful attention to, and care of, the body.

While strongmen traveled with carnivals and fairs, weight lifting and bodybuilding was promoted for American men as an antidote to the perception of their flailing strength. In this vein, much later, President John Kennedy established the standardized President's Physical Fitness Tests as part of youth education in the United States in response to what he called growing softness and lack of physical fitness, which he perceived as a menace to American security.

The popularity of the display of the muscular male body, and the gym culture that spawns it, has been strongly nurtured in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries by the increased visibility of homosexual culture and homoerotic images. A hypermasculine aesthetic within homosexual circles—a response, believe many, to homophobic attitudes—featuring revealing clothes to emphasize the intentional development of the hard male body has infused into general male attitudes towards appearance and self-culture.

Hypermasculinity is the exaggeration of those traits thought to be associated with masculine identity, such as determination, energy, and independence. The pursuit of the hypermasculine body is, according to Alan Klein, often associated with an insecurity about sex role identity.

But contemporary consumer capitalism is also driving the new preoccupation with male appearance, according to Susan Bordo. The late twentieth century saw a blossoming of men's fitness and beauty culture, of fashion magazines and representations of the eroticized male body. Images of the male body are skillfully used for consumer appeal, and are featured in a range of advertisements, from underwear to sound systems, cologne to beer, normally highlighting the muscular male body as a strong and challenging individual. In contrast to previous traditional representations of the male body, men are also cast in subservient or acquiescent postures in advertising images, suggesting a sexual availability previously typical of the use of women in advertising.

Seeing the male body cast in the same light as one is accustomed to seeing its female counterpart, objectified and subjected to standards of normative beauty, results in many similar pressures as described by Wolf and Bartky above. Male insecurity about appearance is a new gold mine for the diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, and drug industries, previously targeting an entirely female clientele.

However, beauty culture is not, as described above, simply about oppression and constraint. The uneasy and contradictory beliefs that on the one hand the body can betray the inner self, revealing deeply grounded deficiencies, and on the other, the self can control the body and bring it to conform to an appearance that fairly represents the self, make awkward bedfellows. But other meanings can be associated with the focus on appearance. As third-wave feminists point out, understanding is empowering. It is not the image of, and search for beautification that are innately oppressive; rather, it is the power relations embodied within these images that have the potential to subjugate. Beauty culture and its discourses do not have one unique, fixed, and essential meaning that cannot be manipulated. As a result, beauty practices can focus on choice and enjoyment rather than on fine-tuning of inner virtue with appearance, and contain simultaneously the potential to be fulfilling, fun, and liberating.

See also: Beauty Pageants, Body Culture and Physical Culture, Bodybuilding, Gay Men's Leisure Lifestyles, Women's Leisure Lifestyles


Bartky, Sandra Lee. "Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power." In The Social Politics of Women's Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance and Behavior. Edited by Rose Weitz. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Bordo, Susan. "Beauty (Re)Discovers the Male Body." In Beauty Matters. Edited by Peg Zeglin Brand. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Bouquet Series—Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen. London: Frederick Warne and Co., n.d.

Brooks, Philip. In King, Elisha Alonzo, and F. B. Meyer, Clean and Strong: A Book for Young Men. Boston and Chicago: United Society of Christian Endeavor, 1909.

Castiglione, Baldessar. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Sir Thomas Hoby. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1948. The original edition was published in 1561.

Chapkis, Wendy. Beauty Secrets. Boston: South End Press, 1986.

Egan, Maurice. A Gentleman. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1893.

Godey's Lady's Book. "The Business of Being Beautiful." July 1852.

hooks, bell. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Klein, Alan. Little Big Men: Bodybuilding Subculture and Gender Construction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Peiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Saint Augustine. Sermons II, trans. Edmund Hill. Brooklyn, N.Y.: New City Press, 1990.

Spitzack, Carole. Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Starr, Annie. "To The Homely—Greeting." Demorest's Monthly Magazine (September 1880).

Stevens, William. The Correct Thing. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1934.

Walker, Alexander. Beauty; Illustrated Chiefly by and Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Woman. Hartford, Conn: S. Andrus and Son, 1848.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.

Annemarie Jutel