This project puts modern body politics into the context of social conflicts, racial ideologies, gender regimes, and the rising consumer society in Europe and North America. Its goal is to unfold historical and cultural varieties of what is seen as the beautiful body since the 18th century: How do modern societies negotiate beauty?
Since the 1990s, beauty has drawn new scholarly attention in social sciences and in the humanities, but has escaped closer examination in social and cultural history. Sociology, psychology, literature, and visual arts have focused on hegemonic beauty discourses; few projects, mainly in black studies and gender studies, have investigated non-hegemonic body aesthetics. The project Body Aesthetics and Social Identity in Modern Global History will provide what is missing in current academic and popular discussions: an inquiry in the historical fluidity of competing discourses on body aesthetics from the eighteenth century to now. Which notions of beauty have been constructed by different societies? And what is it that explains such changes? The project will link issues of self and society, body culture and visual culture, regional particularities and globalization to provide an interdisciplinary prolegomena to future inquiries in how and why modern societies, in particular in Europe and North America, struggle for beauty.
Beauty is a normative category, opposed to ugliness. It creates distinction. Popular discourse often takes it as a timeless and cross-cultural given. This is a myth. What is considered as beautiful depends on time and space, on cultural and social settings. Beauty is linked to other categories of difference—the good, the strong, the wealthy, the healthy people. Beauty is highly gendered, closely affiliated to racial hierarchies, and has always been a tool of social distinction. Owning beauty and accessing beautiful things is a privilege, even if it may also be considered a burden. Around 1900 a democratic vision of beauty emerges: the idea that beauty— the beautiful body—is available for everyone. Beauty serves as a cultural capital (Pierre Bourdieu). As the consumer society in general, the democratic promise of beauty is massively restricted and channeled, however. Accessing beauty and participating in the negotiation on beauty evokes new social distinctions, gaps, and coalitions; it challenges existing social hierarchies and evokes social dynamism. Along these lines, I am planning for a book that tracks the rise of the athletic and slim body as a hegemonic ideal in western societies since the Enlightenment and pays particular attention to aesthetic negotiations between social conflict and social harmony.
Some of these issues have been discussed at the conference Globalizing Beauty. Body Aesthetics in the 20th Century, which I have convened together with Hartmut Berghoff at the German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C., in 2010.