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Beauty: A cultural construction or the 'natural order'?

leamirella's picture

Mirella Deocadiz
Gender, Information, Science and Technology
Beauty: A Cultural Construction or the Natural Order?

In the article, “The Face Value of Dreams”: Gender, Race, Class and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery, Bañales argues that the reason why women choose to get plastic surgery is that it serves to alter or erase racial or ethnic markers. However, in Dull and West’s article “Accounting for Cosmetic Surgery: The Accomplishment of Gender”, cosmetic surgeons talk about restoring the ‘natural order’ of things rather than conforming to a societal standard. This paper aims to discuss whether the perception of beauty and attractiveness are social constructions or whether this perception takes root in more biological grounding.

There is an age old saying: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and the arguments that Bañales makes fall in line with this. The fact that she mentions that women choose to get plastic surgery in order to erase their ‘racial markers’ would indicate that the perception of beauty and attractiveness is determined by how ‘ethnic’ a person is. Bañales goes so far as to claim that “looking like a Caucasian is almost essential for socioeconomic success”. This would fall in line with the concept of beauty being subjective, as ‘whiteness’ and wealth combined are perceived as beautiful.  

Bañales also makes the point that many women, after having had plastic surgery, ‘resemble a more or less Caucasian physiognomy’. However, the use of the term ‘Caucasian physiognomy’ is questionable. What is a ‘Caucasian face?’ Not all Caucasians have the same kind of features and there are people of other races who have ‘Caucasian features’ such as wide eyes and high noses.

Bañales includes an argument by Feminist, Kathy Davis that “it is up to each woman at the individual level to decide what about her body is ‘normal’ or ‘deviant’”. This decision to undergo plastic surgery stems from a desire to want to be ‘normal’ more so than the desire to be ‘beautiful’. The ‘normal’ here is constructed by the social. The word ‘normal’ is entirely perceptual as it varies across cultures. In fact, the dictionary definition of ‘normal’ is “conforming to a standard, usual, typical or expected.” Said ‘standard’ is one that is created by a group of people and perpetuated. Thus, to make the point that women make the decision to obtain surgical reconstruction on the individual level seems almost contradictory, as even at the individual level, there are societal pressures at play. The premise of argument could only work if the idea of ‘normal’ is more intrinsic that we think.

In the article “Accounting for cosmetic surgery: The Accomplishment of Gender”, Dull and West make the point that surgeons attempt to ‘restore the natural order of things’. Again, the use of the word ‘natural’ is very similar to the use of the word ‘normal’. Both words are ambiguous and therefore, it seems as though the word that the writers and surgeons alike are looking for it something more specific such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’. Furthermore, in relation to Bañales, it is impossible to argue that the ‘normal’ in a Latin American country is the Caucasian face because ‘normal’ is based on the ‘usual or typical’. In Peru, the ‘usual or typical’ face is definitely not Caucasian.

It is possible to argue that the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘attractive’ are as subjective as the words ‘normal’ and ‘natural’. However, there is new evidence that would indicate that ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ are hardwired into us as human beings. Research at the Marquadt Beauty Analysis (MBA) centre in California has revealed that there is a ‘beauty mask’ that when placed on ‘beautiful’ faces, transcends time, class and race.

In fact, one of the uses of the ‘beauty mask’ is for cosmetic procedures. Subject’s faces are brought closer to the lines of the mask as seen in the photograph below.

Therefore, when the surgeons in Dull and West’s piece mention how their job is to ‘restore the natural order of things’ and enhance facial features, it is possible that this ‘natural order’ really means beautiful.

While Bañales mentioned that women desired plastic surgery to erase ethnic markers, could this perhaps be because these ethnic markers do not conform to the ideal of beauty according to the MBA face mask. Bañales has made the assumption that the idea of beauty has come from a desire to look more ‘white’ and affluent. However, it could be the other way around. These ethnic facial markers do not conform to what beauty is. In fact, socioeconomics may not even play a part. Perhaps the real reason why women choose to erase their ethnic makers is not because they want to look more ‘Caucasian’ but rather, it is to conform more to this intrinsic image of beauty.

Beauty is more objective than what people think. The reason why cosmetic surgeons insist on using the words ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ is because the idea of making someone more ‘beautiful’ would indicate that they were ‘not beautiful’ to begin with. The idea of calling someone ‘not beautiful’ carries negative connotations with it and thus, to use the terms ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ are less offensive. Additionally, it is a common misconception that the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘attractive’ are entirely subjective but given the evidence presented in this paper, this is not entirely true. Also, many do not even question the words ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ assuming that there is no ambiguity in their definitions.

Resources Used:
Victoria Bañales. “The Face Value of Dreams”: Gender, Race, Class, and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery.” Beyond the Frame: Women of Color and Visual Representation. Ed. Neferti X.M. Tadiar and Angela Y. Davis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 131-152
Dull, Diana and Candace West. “Accounting for Cosmetic Surgery: The Accomplishment of Gender.” Social Problems, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Feb., 1991): 54-70
“Human Beauty”. Golden Number.Net. Last Accessed: 11 January 2011.
Marquadt Beauty Analysis. Last Accessed: 11 January 2011.



Liz McCormack's picture


You have shown how understanding the motivation for "going under the knife" intertwines not only social notions of natural and normal, but also embedded biological drivers.  I especially appreciated your argument that an individual choice shaped by social norms is hardly individual.  Your idea that the natural or the normal are really code words for a "beauty" standard determined biologically is intriguing.  It got me asking how might you go about proving such a statement?  Did the web site you cite do studies in different parts of the world examining different examples of ethnic facial features?  How universal was the mask of beauty? It also got me thinking about men and what possible links there may be between male success and physical attributes.  Is height the marker?

You make the argument that women improve their socioeconomic status by being beautiful, not by being normal or natural.  It seems there is a deep contradiction in our stories about belonging as women in our societies.  We are expected to both fit in, and also stand out!