The (Re)turn to Beauty

One of the things that is striking about feminist debates about beauty is the extent to which they polarise along well-worn fault lines—for example, those relating to pain/harm versus pleasure, or those concerned with female agency versus cultural influence. They also coalesce around broad theoretical divisions within feminist social theory more generally in which those concerned with representations are pitted against the new materialists, or those stressing bodily discipline stand counterposed to those interested in affect. Although feminism has not had ‘beauty wars’— in the same way as the ‘sex wars’—many of the discussions are similarly polarised and seemed at one point to have reached an impasse.

However, the first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen a significant resurgence of interest in beauty and some novel lines of enquiry which promise to interrupt the usual debates. As Ashley Mears (2014, p. 1330) has put it, ‘beauty is having a moment in the social sciences’. The politics of beauty remains an intractable and politically pressing set of problems for feminism, but there is a new energy to the debates, and new theoretical vocabularies are developing. This is evidenced in the launch of new academic journals in the field, by new thematic sections of professional associations, by journal special issues and by novel empirical research programmes that look at a multiplicity of topics—for example dress, bridal beauty, fat beauty, queer beauty—and are increasingly focused upon everyday and mundane beauty practices in ways that foreground women’s lived and embodied experiences. Perhaps most significantly, we have seen in the last few years the emergence of new (inter)disciplinary formations and new perspectives, influenced by wider debates in feminist theory. Rebecca Coleman and Monica Moreno Figueroa (2010) argue that this feminist ‘turn to beauty’ in social theory has re-centred agency and pleasure, embodiment, and intersectionality. To their account we would add the new interest in surveillance, and the ‘affirmative turn’ within feminist theory, as well as the prominence of ‘third wave’ feminisms, which are more positive about beauty and stress the pleasures and playfulness involved in styling the self. We consider these themes below, showing how they inform the ideas presented in this book.

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