“The problem of unsafe plastic surgeries also has not been taken seriously because Colombian society divides victims into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ It has a serious lack of empathy with the victims of unsafe cosmetic surgeries… The surgeries that society rejects are those that have to do with women’s sexualisation. And in Colombia, for women, there is only one thing worse than being a sexual object: not being one.”
Beauty ideals and their consequences are not immutable, natural or unavoidable. They are socially constructed. This means that what people take to be normal and fixed facts about the world are actually determined by social norms, culture and social interaction. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann have established this theory, showing how individuals’ knowledge and perception about social reality are shaped by their social position within a given society, otherwise known as their social status. While there are positive and negative social outcomes that flow on from beauty hierarchies, these are not the logical result of natural selection and biological drive. Renditions of beauty found in art and pop culture reflect the way in which broader narratives about beauty are socially constructed.
A new film is in development which documents the rise of American rappers N.W.A. The Straight Outta Compton bioepic casting call came under heavy criticism for being racist, as the casting agent was asking for four different “classes” of “girls,” which were organised around skin tone. I argue that the casting call is not simply racist; it is also sexist, and reflecting colonial relations. The focus on lighter skin tone of Black women as an ideal of beauty has a long and profoundly damaging history. This racist ideology continues to the present day and problematically positions darker skin tones as less beautiful, and attaches additional stigma to Black women. As we’ll see in this casting call, even in a film about successful Black men, being a “dark” Black woman is analogous to being “out of shape,” unattractive and poor. There is an interplay between racism and class in this “colour code” which is further implied in the casting call, through the focus on hair. By stipulating that the “beautiful class” of women should have straight hair, and that the less desirable “classes” have weaves, there is a racist, sexist and class exclusion at play that penalises Black women’s femininity.
The Australian documentary “Change My Race” explores how Western beauty ideals are influencing a rising pressure amongst Asian women to get cosmetic surgery. The documentary maker Anna Choy is an Asian-Australian woman who has struggled with her looks in the face of racism growing up. She speaks to women from various backgrounds who have a desire to look more White as a direct result of the racism they have endured.
The most heart-breaking story for me is the 17 year old schoolgirl whose parents pressure her into getting surgery, which they think will help her be more successful.
The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reports that South Korea leads the number of cosmetic procedures. The most common surgeries overall include lipoplasty and breast augmentation.
Ugly is irrelevant. It is an immeasurable insult to a woman, and then supposedly the worst crime you can commit as a woman. But ugly, as beautiful, is an illusion. A matter of taste, a whim, an eye, a beholder, an opinion, a spin, light crossing the frame, paint, projection. The moment. Context.
Several recent articles recreate the ever-popular idea that beauty aesthetics are based on biological imperatives. The premise of this argument is false – beauty, sex, gender and the social consequences of their related biological processes are not pre-determined. This line of thinking lumps the complexity of human experience and sexual expression into a uniform category and it provides the false impression that nothing can be done to change human behaviour. Sociology can help unpackage how and why so-called “common sense” ideas about beauty become established as commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed. Beauty-based discrimination is not natural nor is it unavoidable.
Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. The latter alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.
Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.