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Intersectional and Transnational Beauty Studies

A long-standing and important feature of feminist research on beauty has been its appreciation that the politics of appearance is not simply related to gender but also constituted by ideologies of race, class and nation. There has been extensive research on beauty pageants examining their role as nationbuilding projects and considerable analysis of the global/globalising nature of the beauty industry and its role in valorising particular racialised femininities over others (Banet-Weiser, 1999; Leeds Craig, 2002). Meeta Rani Jha (2016, p. 3) argues that ‘physical attractiveness, whiteness and youthfulness have accrued capital just as darker skin color, hair texture, disability and aging have devalued feminine currency’. Margaret Hunter (2011, p. 145) understands this in relation to ‘racial capital’—a ‘resource drawn from the body that can be related to skin tone, facial features, body shape, etc’.

Skin lightening, hair straightening and particular types of cosmetic surgery—for example double eyelid surgery—have been extensively discussed as practices that are a consequence of racism and with it the privileging of Caucasian appearance. However, some scholars argue that to read participation in such practices in terms of internalised racism is to oversimplify, and, perhaps paradoxically, potentially to reinforce a racist and imperialist imaginary. It is notable that some new research complicates understandings of surgical, skin or hair practices as being about white hegemony or compliance with white beauty norms. JongMi Kim’s (2012) conversations with young Korean women talking about nose and eyelid reshaping, for example, demonstrated that these surgeries were resolutely not understood as attempts to fashion a Caucasian look. Instead her young female participants were invested in a novel but distinctively Korean appearance. To suggest this is Western mimicry, Kim argues, is to see through an Orientalist gaze or through ‘western eyes’—as Chandra Mohanty (1984) expresses it.

Jie Yang’s (2011) research on Chinese beauty culture recognises the extraordinary power of Euro-American beauty ideals, now widely dispersed as a result of global media flows, but again cautions against reading Chinese women’s uptake of cosmetic surgery only through this lens. She argues that the meanings of various reconfigurations of the face and body are intimately related to feminism, to neoliberalism and to the opportunities opened up by market capitalism to ‘invest in one’s body aesthetically’ (2011, pp. 341-342). Gary Xu and Susan Feiner (2007) also locate the production and consumption of ‘female beauty’ at the centre of the Chinese economy, connected to both feminist and nationalist projects. Much other research highlights aesthetic self-making in terms of class distinctions or assertions of an urban metropolitan identity rather than as a racial and colonial project in a simple sense. Hua Wen’s (2013) ethnographic research in Beijing situates women’s decision to undergo cosmetic surgery as an attempt to take control over their lives but within ‘structures of history and power and gender subjugation over which they have no control’ (2013, p. 236). She understands their decisions in terms of an ‘investment for personal gains’ because ‘the more physical capital a woman can hold, the more ability she may have to reshape the social, cultural and economic fields around her’.

All this research, then, cautions against reductive readings. On the one hand, it would be naive to ignore the vast power of the beauty-industrial complex in promoting and selling particular looks, and the products, labour or services to achieve them—for example, skin lightening creams, make-up, surgery, and so on. On the other, it is problematic to assume that researchers can simply ‘read off the particular meanings that engaging with such products or practices will have. Increasingly writers argue for the need to ‘complicate’ established positions on beauty (e.g. Figueroa and Moore 2013) and, above all, to examine everyday cultural practices of beauty and women’s experiences of them.

Maxine Leeds Craig’s (2002) research about black women’s experiences of beauty parlours in the 1960s in the USA is an excellent example of a study that takes this more ‘complicated stance’ embracing a thoroughgoing intersectional approach. Craig argued that experiences of beauty were formed through a complex amalgam of reactions to white beauty standards, social expectations of black middle class respectability, notions of black power and black pride in the context of the civil rights movement, and discourses of black as beautiful, emerging black female entrepreneurship, and ideas of leisure and female bonding. Craig’s work highlights the intersections of class, race and gender, arguing that hair straightening and other beauty practices were part of a strategy for class mobility and were also deployed to counter class-inflected racism and sexism by ‘looking like a lady’. At the same time trips to the beauty parlour were experienced as opportunities to be ‘pampered’ and treated with respect in a way that was quite distinct from many other experiences for women of colour at the time.

Craig’s work poses a challenge to accounts that see hair relaxing or straightening as reducible to racialised self-hatred or ‘assimilation’, questioning the notion that it is necessarily about ‘mimicking whiteness’. Shirley Tate’s work also complicates such readings of black women’s hair, showing how it has become inserted into debates about natural versus unnatural, good versus bad, and authentic versus inauthentic identity. She explores how black women negotiate a context shaped both by a ‘dominant white aesthetic’ and an ‘anti-racist aesthetic’ that contrastingly values dark skin and ‘natural’ hair (Tate 2007; Tate, this volume, Chap. 11). Jha in turn argues that ideologies of ‘racial uplift’ in which appearance is entangled with notions of class and race and gender have also been visible in the Obama era, centred around precisely which black people were entitled to be the ‘bearers of black culture’ (2016, p. 42; see also Kobena Mercer’s (1990) work on the ‘burden of representation’).

One productive way of theorising beauty in intersectional terms that also pays attention to local specificities is through the insights of biopolitical theory. Many have argued that beauty functions as a tech?nology of biopower. Brenda Weber (2009) discusses ‘appearance- based citizenship’. Jie Yang (2011) develops the concept of ‘aesthetic governance’ for thinking about post-communist Chinese femininities. Avaro Jarrin (2015) deploys the notion of biopolitics to think about how beauty functions in the reproduction of racial inequalities in Brazil. More radically, Mimi Nguyen (2011) and Minh-Ha Pham (2011) interrogate the ‘biopower of beauty and fashion’ and their entanglement with ‘humanitarian imperialisms’ in the period since the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. In their powerful and important essays they show how notions such as the ‘right to fashion’ are intimately entangled in what some would characterise as a ‘femo-nationalist’ politics (Farris 2012). Going beyond the familiar observation that feminist discourses were deployed in authorising and legitimating the so-called ‘war on terror’ and particularly US bombing of Afghanistan, they explore the ‘troubling histories of beauty’s relation to morality, humanity and security’. Nguyen examines the Kabul Beauty School, which was set up by an NGO (Beauty Without Borders) largely sponsored by the US fashion and beauty industries, showing how its programmes of ‘empowerment’ were inseparable from the geopolitical aims of US military deployment. As Pham (2011, p. 392) puts it, fashion and beauty became ‘a metaphor for the correction and transformation of veiled Afghan women into modern liberal subjects who desire appropriate aesthetic and political ideals’.

In sum, it is clear that much of the most exciting new work on beauty has an attentiveness to questions of race, class, nation, region, and to colonial and imperial dynamics, with an interest not simply in challenging the sexism of beauty norms but also in decolonising and transnationalising beauty studies. This emphasis is evident in this collection too. Not only does it seek to displace the familiar focus on Anglo-America by considering a variety of national contexts (e.g. China, India, Russia, Singapore, Nigeria and Israel), but, more fundamentally, the collection uses the concept of transnationality to understand aesthetic labour not as a uniform cultural or subjective formation but rather as a ‘mobile technology’ (Ong 2006) which is produced within ‘scattered hegemonies’ (Grewal and Kaplan 1994). It begins from a recognition of ‘a transnational field as structured by radically uneven power relations, differences and perhaps even incommensurabilities’ (Imre et al. 2009; see also Hegde 2011). To put it succinctly, we seek to contribute to critical thinking about aesthetic entrepreneurs as intersectional subjects who come into being in a transnational field.

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