In what one could consider the raw cookie dough stages toward becoming a scholar, I find myself centering a lot of how I approach beauty around negativity and intense critique that typically devolves into a roast by the fourth paragraph. I love “unpacking” things - as my scholarly kind love to over-say. So I’ll begin to deconstruct the negativity that often grounds critique with a question: why do we feel the need to scrutinize beauty when bringing it into an academic concept, and might it have something to do with a lack of sisterhood in the academic community?
Not only is beauty a highly nuanced and incredibly complex subject, but the assumption of its vanity creates a very harmful culture within academic arenas that invalidate women. Every Theory Bro™ that read 40 pages of Camera Lucida for an introductory philosophy class can have several seats when it comes to this one. There is much to be extrapolated from theorists such as Barthes, Berger, and Debord – they have a lot to say in ways of seeing and the cultures/information highways that result from such, which undeniably applies to beauty and how it is purveyed.
It is naïve to think that the application of these philosophies are too “high-concept” for the beauty industry, because beyond the (completely valid) glittery veil, there is a substance that is equated as “deeper” than any outward feminine appearance. Consider: what’s the thing standing behind the perceived complexity of, say, a Jackie Aina makeup tutorial and a chapter Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man?
Beauty is written off as a superfluous access point into philosophy, but again – the only thing standing in between the beauty industry and other image-based access points is the notion of one field is feminine and the other is masculine. I see this happen in academic sectors so much that the false equivalence of “beauty” and “vanity” becomes a widely accepted lie.
Let’s think scientifically for a moment, since that is the kind of empirical thinking that these academics value so much. We know that beauty as a concept existed pre-industrial revolution, because (duh) art. How that art was standardized is what we can’t really ~know~, in the sense that, as citizens living in the post-world, our only perspectives are limited to our own experience in the present time period we live in. Basically, we understand beauty standards as the product of the current stigma dictating “beauty” and “vanity” as interchangeable, where the stigma itself is something that was only born out of the post-industrial structure of neoliberalism, or the industrial complex equating consumption and personal fulfillment as enlightenment.
The beauty industry is an accessible point into the concept of neoliberalism – the entire industry is based around selling ideas of personal growth and achievement via a new lip gloss, foundation, or brightening face mask (shameless plug: F*ck Brightening). We don’t know how long beauty or beauty standards have been around – that’s an entirely different conversation about how what we consider “natural” is a politicize notion (shameless plug: next column…?) What we do know is that, in trying to understand theory about consumption, one of the most blatantly consumption-based industries (beauty) is invalidated as a point of entry to understanding these issues.
The entire structure of the beauty industry preys on insecurities that the industry itself creates. I just find it funny that academia does the same thing with beauty – the academic realm ridicules beauty as a poser for vanity in the “high-concept” arena, yet that whole interchangeability is something they created. Hot take: these stuffy men in academia would be able to see the flaws in their line of logic if said logic wasn’t grounded in hating women.
So much of philosophy is based upon these phallocentric ideas, imposing their misogynistic ideas of beauty onto the whole of ontological thinking surrounding beauty when they were the ones who introduced this framework in the first place. This idea is transferrable in comparing ancient Egyptian and Nubian racial conversations. My point revolves around the Egyptian shabti and such hybrid shabtis found in Nubia – where these objects were found in hundreds, and even thousands, as figures meant to guard burial sites. There’s an assumption among scholars that shabtis from Nubia were emulations of the Egyptian forms, because of the known strength and breadth of Egypt’s power in the first millennium, which is commonly regarded as a sort of “house on a hill,” so to speak. Whether there is a distinct or completely unique meaning of the Nubian shabti to the Egyptian one is an unknown – yet, scholars frequently assign the shabti the title of an “Egyptianizing” object to Nubians. There is an alarming Western projection from scholars who adopt this ideology and apply it to this time period in Africa, where they assume a colonial framework parallel to that of Anglo-Saxon colonialism in the pre-modern era was present between Egyptians and Nubians…in a completely different millennium.
The obvious holes in this faux-logic come from the way these scholars just assume their post-colonial knowledge is universally applicable to all time periods – it’s the idea that colonization to them is a part of human nature, therefore exists in all time periods. Scholars defend this faulty logic with a really messy assignation of Egyptians and Caucasians, and Nubians with what is known through the (equally messy) field of physiognomy as the “Negroid.” To oversimplify for comic relief: we have white and black people, so the whites must have colonized the blacks, and the hybridized objects must be evidence of the power of the whites, right?
That whole idea is incorrect, and a female scholar named Kathryn Howley from Cambridge University calls this specific Western projection from scholarship out in an article entitled ‘Power Relations and the Adoption of Foreign Material Culture: A Different Perspective from First-Millennium BCE Nubia,’ which serves as a key step toward bringing SISTERHOOD into academia. Her point calls out this faulty logic, and highlights the danger in applying a one-size-fits-all perspective onto time periods we have little concrete knowledge of. She attributes this perspective to the homogeneous pool of Egyptologists, mainly consisting of cis white men whom, ironically, are the descendants of the colonizers in the narrative they push. The kicker is that Howley’s existence as a scholar writing through her own perspective only further highlights the problem – the fact that it takes a female scholar to point out an obvious flaw in Egyptology shows that these issues would be lessened if there were more women in the field. Metaphorically, she’s a breath of fresh perspective in the cigar smoke-filled lung that is intelligentsia-class-boy’s-club bullshit of academia.
In the end, this all comes down to accessibility – specifically how the access points womxn/femmes are associated are systematically invalidated to perpetuate this cis male circle jerk they call “scholarship.” Womyn/femmes study beauty, and it’s immediately reduced to the obvious, vain choice for a ~wOmAn~ to study because of nothing more than a system designed to gate-keep certain circles of thought. My advice, Couturesquies? Study whatever the fuck you want, and never stop critiquing. Because in the burial ground of academia, the shabti guarding it are women, and the idea that men are the perpetual gatekeepers is a farce.
Main Image: The Three Graces by Masha Nova