Questions of beauty and its politics will be discussed at a summer school and conference  next week (30 August to 3 September 2016). Participants will examine the ways in which perceptions and experiences of race, ethnicity, sexuality and colonialism converge to exert powerful influences on our lives.

Deeply embedded in Mexican society are notions of beauty that have their origins in deliberate moves to ‘improve’ indigenous races. Improving meant encouraging marriages that would result in children with lighter skins and ‘fine’ features. Hand-in-hand with notions of improvement come ideas about degeneration.

Monica Moreno Figueroa

We live in a world brimming with images. But the pictures that perhaps most powerfully evoke our individual life stories are seldom seen. Stored in personal albums or pushed to the back of drawers, these are not the images that we necessarily choose to share on social media. Taken on occasions that are both special and ordinary (the first day at school, that family trip to the beach), these photographs are imbued with feelings, many of them complex and complicated. Looked back on from a distance of time passed, they reveal our vulnerability: how we were and how we are, how we and others saw us and see us.

When sociologist Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa interviewed a group of Mexican women about their lives, she invited them to share their photo albums and reflect on their feelings about their bodies and the multiplicity of connections developing around them over time. Her objective was to explore women’s lived experiences and reveal the powerful role that ideas about beauty and race play in shaping individual lives. Moreno Figueroa sought a complex account from her interviewees, but the route those narratives took and the depth of their emotions surprised her. So much so, that she decided, on publishing her work, not to reproduce any of the women’s photographs.

Much has been written about women and beauty. Far less has been written about the ways in which notions of beauty, femininity, age and race intersect to create strongly perceived ‘differences’ which have profound and enduring effects. To be deemed beautiful confers immediate advantages – yet beauty is fleeting and fragile. A state of being beautiful is either displaced to the past or deferred to the future. As Moreno Figueroa has written, in a paper with her colleague Rebecca Coleman, “beauty is not a ‘thing’ which can be experienced in the present, but is that which is felt in different temporalities”.

Next week (30 August to 3 September 2016) Moreno Figueroa and colleagues (Dr Dominique Grisard from the University of Basel & the Swiss Center for Social Research and Dr Margrit Vogt from the University of Flensburg) will stage a ground-breaking summer school and conference titled ‘The Politics of Beauty’. Participants will include academics and artists who will share professional and personal experiences to encourage wide-ranging debate on topics related to beauty.

As a sociologist concerned with understanding the ‘quality’ of inequality, the depth and feeling of racism and sexism, Moreno Figueroa argues that beauty should be understood as an “embodied affective process” not so much a state of being as a feeling about being. “We’re inviting our participants to engage with the politics of beauty and its ramifications. How does beauty travel? What kinds of beauty discourses are created and transmitted in such journeys? How are the politics of beauty reconfigured both through its travels and its locatedness? When do they matter and to what effect and extent? These are important questions because they go to the heart of many human experiences,” Grisard, Vogt and Moreno Figueroa write in their invitation to this event.

Moreno Figueroa has written extensively on beauty and race – especially in the context of Latin America – and has helped to raise awareness of the ways in which they contribute to the reproduction of pervasive forms of racism and sexism and the reinforcement of structures of inequality. The Mexican women who shared their photographs were educated lower and middle-class professionals. They were also, like the majority of Mexico’s population, mestiza (racially mixed). The interviews revealed the strong concern with appearance, skin colour, physical features which are in turn deeply intertwined with notions of acceptable femininity and national belonging – and the words that cropped up again and again was morena (dark-skinned) and fea (ugly). One woman reported that, as a child, she used to ask her uncles, when they teased her about her looks, “Why am I so morena?”

“This question sounds naïve but it’s not, as it comes from a context where racial mixture has given a sense that different physical features are possible. Some get ‘lucky’, some don’t,” says Moreno Figueroa. “Mexico is a highly racialised society in which issues of racism, and particularly prejudices about skin colour, are neither acknowledged nor addressed – but have remained hugely influential both in the intimate environment of the family and in the wider world outside it. Deeply embedded in Mexican society are notions of beauty that have their origins in deliberate moves to ‘improve’ indigenous races. Improving meant encouraging marriages that would result in children with lighter skins and ‘fine’ features. Hand-in-hand with notions of improvement come ideas about degeneration.”

In interviewing contemporary mestiza women about their life stories, Moreno Figueroa was asking them to describe the form of racism that exists within the majority population and not the more familiar type of racism directed by a majority to a minority.

“In the context of everyday experience framed by the racial logics of mestizaje, there are no fixed racial positions and people are not engaged in processes of identity politics as found in other parts of the world. This is what is so striking about mestizaje: people are not white or black, but rather, they are whiter than or darker than others,” she says. “The category of mestizo which epitomises Mexican national identity is relative. As the historian Alan Knight has pointed out, mestizo represents an achieved and ascribed status underpinned by whitening practices and promises of whiteness as privilege.”

It is within this framework that the racialisation of understandings of beauty comes to the fore. The infamous Mexican Caste Paintings (Pinturas de Castas) give a sense of how during colonial times artists recreated highly composed scenes that represented the routes for racial and class improvement underlined by aspirations of beauty, refinement and leisure. A union between a Spanish man and an Indigenous woman would produce a mestiza child; one between a Spanish man and a mestiza woman, a castizo child; and between a Spanish man and a castizo woman a Spanish child. In this rationale, in three generations, with careful planning and no mixing with Indigenous or Black blood, people could whiten themselves by ascription and make sure their descendants would fare better in life.

While Moreno Figueroa is cautious to not claim a direct line between the Colonial period (1521-1810) and contemporary Mexico, with the above precedent it is no wonder one of her participants shared the stories of caution when young whiter women were courted by darker men, or of exasperation when a relative decided to marry a woman as dark as him. The reported dialogues are telling: “How come he married her? Can’t he see what she looks like? And even nowadays he’s like 70 years old and his kids are in their 30s they still ask him ‘If you can see you’re so dark, why did you marry such a dark woman?’. They even ask him why he didn’t think about ‘improving the race’.”

While the Mexican racial project is specific to its context, it shares some similar experiences of colonisation with other Latin American countries as well as strong responses to 19th-century scientific racism, such as the trend to develop official ideologies of racial mixture (for example, Mexican Mestizaje or Brazil’s racial democracy) as part of nation-building strategies.  As Moreno Figueroa explains: “These racial projects, and the many others around the world, are tightly entangled with ideas about femininity where notions of beauty, its oppressiveness and fascination, play a central role in filtering privilege and crystalising paths of purity and belonging.”

Beauty might not be tangible, not a ‘thing’, but the promise of it underpins a global business worth many millions of dollars, generated by an industry that trades on vulnerability as well as pleasure. “It would be easy perhaps to dismiss the cosmetics and beauty treatment industries as somehow superficial and exploitative,” says Moreno Figueroa. “But beauty lies in a difficult terrain – it is also a question of hope and pleasure, pain and shame. These are profoundly felt human emotions for both women and men. They deserve our full attention.”

Participants in the summer school and conference  include: Diane Negra (University College Dublin, Ireland); Francis Ray White (University of Westminster, UK); Jackie Sanchez Taylor (University of Leicester, UK); Joy Gregory (Slade School of Fine Art, UK); Marcia Ochoa (UC Santa Cruz, USA); Meeta Rani Jha, (University of Winchester, UK); Mimi Thi Nguyen (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA); Ng’endo Mukii (independent film maker, Nairobi, Kenya); Paula Villa (LMU Munich, Germany); Rosalind Gill (City University, London, UK);  Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Emory University, USA); Sarah Banet-Weiser (USC Annenberg, USA);  and Shirley Tate, (University of Leeds, UK).

For details of the Politics of Beauty summer school and conference go to http://www.sociology.cam.ac.uk/about/events/beauty-summer-school

 


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