Beauty and the State. Bodily Self-Making, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging

Jul 19 – Jul 21, 2022 

Inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence at the FU Berlin.

Keynote speak­ers: Prof. Alvaro Jar­rín (Col­lege of the Holy Cross) and Prof. Jie Yang (Simon Fras­er University)

Far from being sim­ply ‘in the eye of the behold­er,’ beau­ty is a moral­ly laden and deeply social affair intri­cate­ly linked to con­stel­la­tions of pow­er, the imag­i­na­tion of bound­aries and nor­ma­tive regimes. In recent years, schol­ar­ly works have inves­ti­gat­ed a con­sis­tent­ly grow­ing, glob­al beau­ty indus­try and its impact on body images, beau­ty prac­tices and projects of self-mak­ing across the globe. They have shown that, while beau­ty norms and body images cir­cu­late glob­al­ly, they mate­ri­al­ize in par­tic­u­lar set­tings, and that beau­ty mar­kets remain high­ly frag­ment­ed. In this con­fer­ence, we wish to go beyond the debate over the glob­al ver­sus the local dimen­sions of bod­i­ly beau­ty and place the spot­light on the (bio-)political oper­a­tions and pol­i­tics of beau­ty on the lev­el of the state. While images of beau­ty form part of the ide­o­log­i­cal ground­ing and inti­mate oper­a­tion of state pow­er, state prac­tices also shape a great deal of the beau­ty industry’s crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture, for exam­ple, through tax­es and leg­is­la­tion, visu­al tech­nolo­gies and pub­lic policies.

This becomes clear, for exam­ple, by look­ing at the reg­u­la­tion of chem­i­cal ingre­di­ents in cos­met­ic prod­ucts, such as skin whiten­ers or ton­ers; the require­ments for train­ing as a beau­ty ther­a­pist or for open­ing up a beau­ty salon or clin­ic; or def­i­n­i­tions of body mod­i­fi­ca­tions as ‘ther­a­peu­tic’ in con­trast to ‘aes­thet­ic,’ which implies pub­lic health insur­ance cov­er­age and, pos­si­bly, the pub­lic demand to a ‘right to beau­ty’, for exam­ple, in Brazil (Edmonds 2007). State reg­u­la­tions may con­tribute to the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion or med­ical­iza­tion of the beau­ty sec­tor, but they may also cre­ate black mar­kets and shad­ow economies. They may pro­mote beau­ty as a viable employ­ment niche, or they may con­tribute to fur­ther mar­gin­al­iz­ing those typ­i­cal­ly employed in the sec­tor, name­ly rur­al or migrant women with a work­ing-class background.

More­over, if we under­stand cit­i­zen­ship as con­sti­tut­ed through every­day ‘acts’ rather than for­mal sta­tus (Isin 2008), bod­i­ly appear­ances and visu­al tech­nolo­gies come into view as cru­cial domains in the rela­tion­ship between the state as an actor and its cit­i­zens. Notions such as ‘cos­met­ic cit­i­zen­ship’ (Jar­rín 2017) and ‘aes­thet­ic cit­i­zen­ship’ (Liebelt 2019) have elab­o­rat­ed on beau­ty as a biopo­lit­i­cal field of self-mak­ing and a site of dis­ci­plin­ing, edu­cat­ing and cre­at­ing ‘prop­er’ cit­i­zens through visu­al tech­nolo­gies of sur­veil­lance and recog­ni­tion, includ­ing the recog­ni­tion of ‘strangers’ (Ahmed 2000). This becomes espe­cial­ly clear when look­ing at Chi­na, where mul­ti-mil­lion-dol­lar invest­ments in beau­ty pageants, salons and train­ing ini­tia­tives by the state form part of a his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry of ‘somat­ic engi­neer­ing’ (Gim­pel 2013) root­ed in the expec­ta­tion that each cit­i­zen should vis­i­bly embody soci­etal norms such as ‘progress’ and ‘moder­ni­ty’, or ‘aes­thet­ic gov­er­nance’ (Yang 2011). Thus, Jie Yang (2011) analy­ses the grow­ing invest­ments in beau­ty in Chi­na as part of a biopo­lit­i­cal strat­e­gy that func­tions as an aes­thet­ic and affec­tive ped­a­gogy, which cre­ates dom­i­nant norms of appear­ance with­in a het­ero­ge­neous pop­u­la­tion. Visions of appro­pri­ate embod­i­ment are also clear­ly gen­dered. This is exem­pli­fied by the Chi­nese state regulator’s pres­sure on tech com­pa­nies in late 2021 to ban male celebri­ties from tele­vi­sion and video stream­ing sites, many of whom had risen to fame in the pop­u­lar boys’ love fic­tion genre, by argu­ing that they look ‘too girly’.

Con­tem­po­rary beau­ty pol­i­tics are also embed­ded in larg­er con­stel­la­tions of pow­er, as well as his­to­ries of impe­r­i­al and colo­nial vio­lence. Dis­cussing the set­ting up of a Beau­ty Acad­e­my in war-torn Kab­ul by Amer­i­can pro­fes­sion­als, Mimi Thi Nguyen (2011) argues that, in the con­text of human­i­tar­i­an impe­ri­al­ism, beau­ty in the ear­ly 2000s was being ‘recruit­ed to go to war’ in Afghanistan and was becom­ing a new form of glob­al biopow­er. In this con­text, beau­ty assumed a moral and ‘civ­i­liza­tion­al’ dimen­sion on a supra-nation­al scale, albeit backed by state reg­u­la­tion, infra­struc­ture and power. 

In this con­fer­ence, we wish to inves­ti­gate the rela­tion­ship between beau­ty and the state by high­light­ing how state insti­tu­tions and translo­cal regimes of pow­er shape gen­dered norms of appear­ance, but also how the transna­tion­al cir­cu­la­tion of prod­ucts, images and tech­nolo­gies shape the field of beau­ty in rela­tion to state author­i­ties, reg­u­la­tions and ide­olo­gies. By doing so, we intend to build on and extend exist­ing schol­ar­ship on embod­ied aes­thet­ics in the fields of Social and Cul­tur­al Anthro­pol­o­gy, Crit­i­cal Race Stud­ies, Gen­der and Queer Stud­ies and relat­ed dis­ci­plines. We aim to bring togeth­er ethno­graph­ic and con­cep­tu­al works on process­es of biopo­lit­i­cal dis­ci­pline, con­trol and self-mak­ing in rela­tion to beau­ty norms, pol­i­tics and prac­tices. We are espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in forms of cos­met­ic or aes­thet­ic cit­i­zen­ship as a cen­tral axis of polit­i­cal reg­u­la­tion on the one hand and embod­ied acts for nego­ti­a­tions of somat­ic belong­ing on the other.

We look for­ward to receiv­ing sub­mis­sions that engage with one or more of the fol­low­ing questions:

·        What is the beau­ty sector’s role in the forg­ing of state ide­olo­gies and nation­alisms? How are notions such as (nation­al) progress or moder­ni­ty linked with bod­i­ly norms and aes­thet­ics? What is the role of beau­ty in the rela­tion­al dynam­ic between the prac­tices and rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al images of the state (The­len, Vet­ters and Ben­da-Beck­mann 2018)?

·        What translo­cal geo­gra­phies of pow­er are at work in the inter­play between bod­i­ly self-mak­ing, cit­i­zen­ship and the pol­i­tics of belong­ing? What kind of (state) poli­cies and (visu­al) tech­nolo­gies are used to cre­ate, mon­i­tor and con­trol hege­mon­ic appear­ance norms? How do peo­ple relate to and expe­ri­ence these poli­cies and tech­nolo­gies (e.g., racial profiling)?

·        What are the fault lines in process­es of aes­thet­ic mar­gin­al­iza­tion with­in or between regions, nation states and/or cities? How do they relate to nation­al poli­cies and state reg­u­la­tions, for exam­ple in the health sec­tor? How do tech­niques of visu­al recog­ni­tion affect cit­i­zen and non-cit­i­zen sub­jects along inter­sec­tion­al lines of oppression?

·        How is the body shaped to con­form to hege­mon­ic norms of gen­dered, classed and racial­ized beau­ty, and how do these norms, e.g., of fem­i­nin­i­ty and mas­culin­i­ty, crys­tal­lize in this process?What kinds of somat­ic prac­tices and affects coun­ter­act hege­mon­ic appear­ance norms or are capa­ble of ques­tion­ing and trans­form­ing them? In what ways do these norms affect process­es of aes­thet­ic self-mak­ing, includ­ing process­es of self-disciplining?

·        How do sub­jects more gen­er­al­ly con­tribute to nation­al and/or state projects of craft­ing cit­i­zens (visu­al­ly) and of the dis­ci­plin­ing and mon­i­tor­ing of aes­thet­ic norms? How do they defy or cre­ative­ly rework them towards their own goals?

We intend to pub­lish the con­fer­ence out­comes in the form of an edit­ed vol­ume with a high-rank­ing inter­na­tion­al pub­lish­er. There­fore, papers will be pre-cir­cu­lat­ed one month pri­or to our meet­ing, and every­body is asked to read everybody’s paper before arrival. Based on these read­ings, we will dis­cuss and thor­ough­ly engage with each other’s work dur­ing the con­fer­ence, rather than have clas­sic paper pre­sen­ta­tions.

A lim­it­ed amount of finan­cial sup­port for accom­mo­da­tion and trav­el will be made avail­able. Please indi­cate in your appli­ca­tion if you would like to be con­sid­ered for funding.

To par­tic­i­pate, please send your abstracts (500 words) and a short CV to by June 19th, 2022. Accept­ed abstracts will be announced by mid-July 2022.