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Towards a comparative sociology of beauty The transnational modelling industry and the social shaping of beauty standards in six European countries

Final Report Summary - BEAUTY (Towards a comparative sociology of beauty The transnational modelling industry and the social shaping of beauty standards in six European countries)

The ERC funded project “Towards a comparative sociology of beauty” investigates how beauty standards – perceptions of physical beauty in women and men – are socially shaped. It looked both at the transnational modeling industry, an institution centrally concerned with the production and dissemination of beauty standards, and the relation between this industry and beauty standards in society at large.

In four subprojects this study analyzed 1. How standards of female and male beauty are perceived, shaped, and disseminated by professionals in the transnational modeling field; 2. How female and male models perceive, represent and embody beauty standards in their work; 3. How female and male beauty has been portrayed by models in mainstream and “high fashion” magazines from 1980 till 2010; 4. How people of different backgrounds perceive female and male beauty, and how their beauty standards are related to the images disseminated in modeling. The project was carried out in six countries: France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and the UK.

The aim of this project was to develop a comparative sociology of beauty: a theory of the social creation of aesthetic standards, as they are applied to the bodies and faces of women and men. By comparing these standards, both within and across nations, it aims to identify central mechanisms and institutions through which such standards are developed and disseminated.

The main findings of the project can be summarized as follows:

1. Beauty can be operationalized and studied in empirical social science research.
2. Beauty is socially constructed, and varies across groups, across institutional fields, and over time. Until this project, this had not been systematically put to the empirical test except in very stylized, rather unrealistic laboratory settings.
3. Beauty is not imposed by the transnational modeling industry, but this modeling industry is an important prism in the social construction of beauty standards, across national boundaries.
4. Fashion models are not only interesting to study in their own right, they are also important as an extreme case of the ‘aesthetic labor’ many people in post-Fordist society engage in.
5. The field of fashion and modeling is organized according to underlying ‘aesthetic logics’ that guide all aesthetic decisions made in these fields. These logics are unexpectedly stable over time, although there is a gradual move towards more stylization and less expression over the past decades.
6. Beauty is always about gender.
7. Beauty is remarkably often about race. However, this is rarely explicitly thematized or verbalized.
8. Women are more easily and readily aestheticized and objectified than men. Beauty standards for women therefore hardly vary across countries; but instead mark symbolic boundaries within countries. Male beauty is often judged from a more subjectifying, gender-normative, and sometimes anti-aesthetic stance. Consequently, male beauty standards are more varied across, than within countries, reflecting national racial and gender ideologies.
9. The sociological theory of beauty developed in this project distinguishes 5 ‘repertoires’ in the evaluation of beauty: aesthetization; objectification vs. subjectification; gender-normativity; racialization; moralization. Combination of these repertoires produce distinct ‘beauty tastes’ or ‘standards’.
10. Aesthetics is a central, and often neglected, element of all everyday experience. In other words: everything is partly judged by its aesthetic, or sensory pleasing, appeal. Aesthetic logics and preferences therefore are provide a useful tool for understanding and analyzing the relation between everyday experience and social institutions – not only the media and cultural industries but also less obviously aesthetic institutions such as politics or work.