As a child, I remember being told that in Tuareg society higher body mass used to be considered highly appealing because it signalled ready access to food, indicating status and wealth. This differentiated them from the sickly lower orders, or so I was led to believe. Leblouh, the practice of force-feeding young girls to make them more attractive, continues in countries such as Mauritania, where fleshiness is valued. This was the first time I was led to question what I’d always assumed to be a universal and enduring hierarchy of human beauty. But of course until the 1960s slenderness wasn’t the norm in European culture either: just look at the gorgeous nudes, lavishly depicted by many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Baroque artists – most famously Rubens. The point is that while our ideals of physical beauty may evolve, our pursuit of the ideal continues. This is the central tenet of The Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition, “The Cult of Beauty”.
Do we all have a right to feel beautiful and desired?
Some ideals seem to remain constant, as we discover with the first exhibit – a bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, whose impossibly smooth face and fine features have become an enduring symbol of female beauty. The original, currently housed in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, dates from 134 BC, which – as the rest of the exhibition demonstrates – has made it unusual in its longevity.
The first section of the exhibition playfully explores the history of the representation of the idealised female in art. Take the sculpture that appears to be a typical classical female nude, reclining languorously and twisted away from us; as the viewer moves round the figure, it becomes apparent that “she” is actually a hermaphrodite. The sculpture’s inclusion is a neat revelation of the gulf between ancient and modern beauty standards. Classical portrayals of sex and the body were sometimes altered to conform to later ideals of beauty, and as the accompanying wall text explains, when neo-classical copies of this work were made in the seventeenth century, the penis was often violently removed.
Amid the intense discussions of gender in the 2020s, however, Sleeping Hermaphroditus is still relevant, and, turning around, the viewer catches sight of an arresting image that dovetails with it brilliantly. A portrait of the artist Cassils, Advertisement: Homage to Benglis (2011) is a large photo by Robin Black that captures Cassils at the end of a six-month performance piece dedicated to transgender embodiment. In essence, the work is a snapshot of a transgender bodybuilder, a self-empowered pin-up, which shows Cassils after they’d gained 23 pounds of muscle. Cassils’ masculine body and feminine face generate a boundary-crossing contemporary dialogue about gendered beauty.
The Wellcome Collection’s own Black Madonna image, Our Virgin and Child of Guadalupe 1745, is another genre-defying work, a beguiling image that emphasises the dominance of western beauty ideals in art. A critical commentary on this imbalance is found in the “Racialised Beauty” display, which attempts to unpick the historic inseparability of whiteness and beauty by showing a pair of Ancient Greek statues that were long assumed to have depicted two Caucasian women. Recent analysis, however, has revealed they originally had light brown complexions and African-textured hair. Projecting such biases onto earlier cultures’ artefacts was commonplace in the western colonial era, and revealing images – such as those of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa – from a fascinating French image collection illustrate how colonialism often used westernised ideas of beauty to disguise racial fetishisation, scientific racism and ethnographic profiling.
The modern beauty industry also comes under scrutiny, with a variety of exhibits revealing popular aesthetic treatments that started out as medical solutions – whether it’s the shockingly named (and shockingly restrictive) “maternity corset” designed to help with pregnant posture or the electrotherapy that began as a treatment for tuberculosis and is now used to eliminate wrinkles. Beauty companies have profited from these developments to stoke up consumers’ insecurities over their “imperfect” visages. LED technology, for example, first used by NASA to promote wound-healing in astronauts has now been incorporated in face masks for everything from acne to eye bags. This illuminating mix of art and artefact is a strength of the Wellcome show.
No dissection of beauty standards would be complete without a few issues of Vogue, but only one item from the magazine rack really caught my attention: a Braille version of the fashion magazine’s May 2023 issue. At first, I thought it was a conceptual work of art – perhaps by the same artist who had created the life-size Barbie sculpture next to it –illustrating the double standards of a magazine premised on exclusive and unattainable beauty trying to dip their toe into inclusivity. On discovering it was the Reframing Fashion issue, however, focused on disability, justice, access and pride, I felt the editor had made a genuine attempt at inclusion.
The beauty industry, no matter how inclusive, necessarily profits from people’s insecurities
But I had mixed feelings about the bright array of Fenty Beauty products (popstar Rihanna’s brand of cosmetics, described as “beauty for all”, performing “across all skin tones”). While it’s laudable to empower and include as many people as possible in the effervescent bubble of the beauty industry, is it disingenuous to display these commodities uncritically? Are any of these brands really driving progressive change in beauty standards, or just mirroring the campaigning work others have done before them? The beauty industry, no matter how inclusive its stated aim, necessarily profits from people’s insecurities.
The fundamental question is: does selling beauty products to the broadest spectrum of society do anything to change the politics of desire? Or is there a danger that the stated aim of “inclusion” into mainstream beauty standards is just about imposing bland, westernised ideals onto other groups?
Fortunately, two new commissions wrestle with these issues in the final section of the exhibition. The first is the 2022 film Permissible Beauty, which responds to the absence of Black Queer visibility in our national history, asking why some forms of beauty are more permissible and highly valued than others.
The second is an experiential installation by Xcessive Aesthetics mimicking a nightclub bathroom; but instead of mirrors we see TikToks of people from the Global South showing us their beauty routines.
These two works explore the key question begged by the exhibition: do we all have a “right” to feel beautiful and desired? While exposing the racist and ableist foundations on which modern beauty standards are built, these revelations do not alter the fact that for the most part we all desire a broadly similar class of “attractive” people, albeit in recent years a slightly more diverse one. You just have to scroll a recent fashion campaign on social media for the evidence.
As Amia Srinivasan writes in her superbly sharp collection of essays The Right to Sex: “desirability [is] constructed by our sexual politics, which enforces a racialised hierarchy that places the white woman above the brown or black woman, the light-skinned brown or black woman above the dark-skinned brown or black woman, and so on. ‘Fuckability’ is precisely a product of the ‘differences in how society rewards you for fucking blondes v black women’.”
What would it take to go beyond this? The question of a right to feel beautiful and desired has often been assimilated with the idea of a right to sex, an unfortunate concern of Incels (involuntary celibate males, known for sharing their frustrations and anger online). As Srinivasan says: “The question posed by radical self-love movements is not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.”
While some exhibits at Wellcome vividly capture the joy of self-expression against racial and gender norms, and the difficulty of self-acceptance (now mediated digitally), I felt there was no answer to Srinivasan’s question of whether we should transfigure our desires for others. Perhaps it is still taboo.
The Cult of Beauty is on until 28 April 2024 at The Wellcome Collection, London.
Max Lunn is a journalist based in London