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by Tracy Adams

Female Beauty Systems

Tracy Adams, Fellow 2011/12, edited a multidisciplinary collection of essays on beauty, together with co-editor Christine Adams. In "Female Beauty Systems: Beauty and Social Capital in Western Europe and the United States, Middle Ages to the Present" (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), they explore the meanings of desire, power, control, status, agency and market values over time. The idea for the book was conceived during an interdisciplinary workshop at NIAS. 

About the Book

Female beauty systems everywhere are complex, integrating markers of class, status, power, and sexuality to perform the fundamental function of sorting individuals into categories of “more” or “less” desirable. Heirs to the tradition of courtly love, modern western female beauty systems tend to share the norm of man as pursuer, woman as pursued, having developed around the trope of the madly-desiring poet or knight supplicating his aloof and lovely lady for her favor. The apparent longevity of the courtly love tradition raises the question of whether the way in which it structures male desire in reaction to female beauty is part of a “universal” tendency, an evolutionary adaptation, despite clear evidence that female beauty systems are also, in fact, socially constructed, and reflect enormous ambivalence about the power and performance of beauty. 

Although modern western female beauty systems are routinely demystified and contested today, the purveyors of culture that support them—institutional, intellectual, artistic, commercial, and popular—continue as they always have to construe women as objects of male desire. Still, within this basic structure, the systems have varied greatly across time and space, with women using beauty as a form of social capital in widely differing ways. Moreover, as individuals have begun to experience their bodies as malleable and endlessly transformable, rather than unruly and unyielding, many have begun to experience beauty less as a given and more as a project. The nine essays collected here examine a number of different Western female beauty systems over the centuries, considering how women have complied with, contributed to, profited or suffered from, and resisted them.

From the Acknowledgements

"This collection began as a workshop called "Female Beauty Systems Throughout the Centuries" at NIAS in November, 2013. Attending the workshop were the American historians and literature scholars whose essays appear here and a group of Dutch colleagues representing different disciplines: sociology, anthropology, psychology, linguistics, art history, and history. In the tradition of NIAS workshops, ours sought communication across national boundaries and disciplines. Although the individual papers examining historical female beauty systems formed the point of departure, the heart of the workshop was the interdisciplinary exchange, with the commenters suggesting approaches from their own fields that might further illuminate the examples presented in the papers. The commenters were as essential to the success of the colloquium as the presenters.
(...) Despite the enthusiasm with which interdisciplinary studies are embraced on university campuses throughout the world, it remains difficult to publish any but the most tightly circumscribed volumes of essays. In particular, a volume spanning several centuries has little chance of seeing the light of day. Historical sweep today seems to be regarded as incoherence. But we believe that readers' interests range beyond the confines of the disciplines and and periods in which they specialize and hope through this volume to show that historical depth can be an advantage. Our target audience is the Renaissance person!" 


“This exciting multidisciplinary collection of essays is the first to historicize female beauty and its varied practices in Western Europe across the centuries. Analysing beauty systems as socially-produced from their conceptualisation to their performance, the volume’s varied theoretical and disciplinary explorations present perceptive interrogations and stimulating provocations on the ambivalent meanings of desire, power, control, status, agency and market values over time.”
—Susan Broomhall, Professor of History; Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, The University of Western Australia

“Exploring female beauty systems in North America and Europe from the Early Modern period to the present fixation with plastic surgery, this collection’s case studies deftly expose both contested aspects, as well as the areas of manipulation. Collectively, the articles illuminate some of the major social and political events of the last several centuries. Scholars and students in the humanities will find this volume essential reading.”
—Jack R. Censer, Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

About the Author 

Adams.jpgTracy Adams is Associate Professor of French at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. A specialist in medieval and early modern French literature, she is the author of Violent Passions: Managing Love in the Medieval French Romance (2005), The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria (2010) and Christine de Pizan and the Fight for France (2014). Adams was a EURIAS Fellow at NIAS in 2011/12. 


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