III. 3. What is beauty?

This section provides a discussion and exercise.

As an exercise take a look at the following images. You can do this alone or with others. Write down what you see in each picture and note any differences and similarities you notice. Discuss among yourselves what you wrote.

1       2

3        4


The images show how ideas of beauty are not fixed and universal. They rely on particular cultural, and other, influences and therefore reflect social values of a particular time and place. The images show how during different historical periods, dominant representations of female beauty have changed. In the first image, the woman appears passive, serene, and innocent. During the Renaissance (in the West) paintings were the medium through which these ideas were disseminated. In the second image, Marilyn Monroe, whose image is more globally disseminated (movies, posters, etc.), became an icon of beauty in the 1960s. Similarly to the woman in the first image, her image reinforced ideas of beauty and femininity as passive, romantic, sensual, naïve. In a way, the social expectation on women was to be beautiful in a particular way, reflecting her position and role in society. As images three and four show, contemporary notions of female beauty also rely on trends set by the fashion industry, as well as movies and advertising. In the third image, Cindy Crawford, a super-model during 1990s appears more active and powerful. Beauty icons that are younger and thinner have more recently replaced this model of beauty. In the fourth image, Cara Delevingne, model and actress, especially popular among teens is an example.

The images above show how notions of gender – in this case womanhood – have been tied to physical appearance, and how those have reflected the changing positions of women society. They also document changing roles held by women and assigned to them. Therefore, images have meaning that depends on context and can hold valuable information about a particular society and time.

Also, within a particular society different groups can have different ideas about what is considered beautiful. Another example to consider is how the phrase “Black is Beautiful” during the 1960s in the U.S.A., reflected the strife for empowerment of African-Americans and aspirations towards changing social values of the time. Even today, as the images above show, dominant notions of beauty are connected to whiteness. Therefore, images matter. They matter because they shape and are shaped by social, political and economic relationships.

1 “A Woman at Her Toilet” by Titian. Photograph. Britannica Online for Kids. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.  <http://kids.britannica.com/elementary/art-88772>.

2 http://www.pintattoos.com/800/marilyn-monroe-body-photo-shared-by-alejoa-tattoo-share-images/ORdGF0dG9vcy5mYW5zc2hhcmUuY29tL3Bob3Rvcy9tYXJpbHlubW9ucm9lL21hcmlseW4tbW9ucm9lLWJvZHktMTY5NzQ0MTQyMi5qcGc/ 19 Aug. 2016

3 http://www.vogue.com/9171253/workout-video-fitness-evolution-jane-fonda-cindy-crawford-tracy-anderson/ 19 Aug. 2016

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cara_Delevingne 19 Aug. 2016

5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJpnLzYsDko

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