Monday, 1 February 2010

Is Beauty Gendered?

In discussing the work of the artist Elaine Clance, Polly F. Radosh, Ph.D.. Director of Women's Studies at Western Illinois University defines beauty as a gendered trait, yet my gathering of alternative methods of transforming the face offers an alternative view of beauty, one that negates gender in favour of a more prosaic method of claiming the self.

In all cultures beauty is a gendered trait. Only women are beautiful. Women's rituals of defining, elaborating, and adorning are among our oldest documented cultural characteristics. Through time and across cultures, women assign meaning to objects and adorn themselves with color that accentuates their physical appearance. Standards of beauty emerge, evolve, change, and endure all at the same time, while the perennial definitions of beauty remain feminine.

Definitions of beauty as internalized elements of good character or inner radiance are often de-valued in favor of a greater emphasis on physical attributes, which are commonly sexualized and hold nearly supernatural importance. Spellbinding, dazzling, and irresistible beauty is enhanced by sexual innocence and fraught with danger, which is both mystical and mundane. Women and girls are cautioned both to control or repress their beauty and to cultivate, package, and exploit their most gorgeous traits. Beauty is encumbered by contradictions that excite and repel, enamor and corrupt, and covet and shun. Likewise, the rituals of beauty foster stereotypic, pervasive judgments that control and limit women's potential at the same time that they satisfy by cultivating admiration, influence, and recognition.

Social scientific research indicates that children who possess physical characteristics of attractiveness receive fewer reprimands by teachers and more classroom honors. Numerous studies indicate that attractive people are imputed to have greater warmth, poise, to be more sincere, and to lead more successful lives. In experiments where "stranded" strangers look "helpless," beautiful people are more likely to have others stop to help. Interestingly, none of the early studies on beauty included male subjects. The researchers recognized patterns that women understand, implicitly. Beauty is feminine and it is important to women's success in life. The findings are congruent with knowledge that women and girls internalize through socialization.

What I am documenting is not beauty in the conventional sense, yet it provides the viewer with an alternate state of being that engages on a mystical level. This is seen often within non Westernised ritualistic performance, and interestingly it is often men who are on the receiving end of this cosmetic application. This ritual art is always performed by men, females are not involved, an example of this is the colourful ritual of Theyyam, where males wear exotic make up and colorful costumes.

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