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Divine Devotion: Exploring the Cult of Beauty

Published January 21, 2024
Published January 21, 2024
Juno Calypso Joyce

One of the several definitions of the word “cult," according to Merriam-Webster, is “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.” By that description, what is beauty if not a cult? That devotion can take the form of something playful, such as the vanilla-flavored lip balm a junior high student reapplies between classes, or something more drastic, such as a middle-aged woman getting a facelift. But beyond the beauty of modern times, there exists a treasure trove of beauty practices throughout history and the world. And as Confucius once mused: “To define the future, one must study the past."

The Cult of Beauty, running until April 28, 2024, at London’s Wellcome Collection, explores this vast landscape. It questions the driving forces that create the myth of universal beauty, using more than 200 items from commissioned films to consumer products. Curated by Janice Li, it is an incredibly inclusive show, spanning all ethnicities, genders, ages, and social statuses.

The show is divided into three main sections: The Ideals of Beauty, The Industry of Beauty, and Subverting Beauty. The exhibition opens with a powerful quote by Naomi Wolf from her seminal 1990 workThe Beauty Myth: “Ideal beauty is ideal because it does not exist.” After all, who determines what is ugly, beautiful, natural or fake-looking, desirable, or undesirable? As the show demonstrates, despite the notion of beauty being subjective, there are also various forces at play determining what is deemed ravishing and what is rejected.. Nonetheless the pursuit of beauty, however that perfect “ideal” might look, remains.

The Heavenly Beauty segment depicts the connection of beauty and moral virtue, something still evident in the youth-focused beauty culture of today, tracing it back to historical items such as a bust of Queen Nefertiti and paintings of the Virgin Mary and Krishna. Physiognomy, an interpretation of an individual’s character based off of their facial features, and vanitas, the genre of artworks that criticized the hollowness of worldly pursuits such as beauty in the face of inevitable death, further present the challenging conflicts of a seemingly superficial practice with the deeper implications it creates. In a world where pretty privilege exists while the pursuit of beauty is at times condemned as vain, it seems there are no clear winners on either side.

The Beauty at Gender’s Boundaries area showcases the human form in sculptures of Esquiline Venus and Idolino dating back to 500 BCE, juxtaposed with an AI-generated constantly morphing image of a 3D body. The studies of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and William Hogarth (1697–1764) into physical perfection lay a template for the bulk of modern beauty standards. Carlos Motta’s “Hermaphrodite” sculptures explore intersex bodies and their subjection to the classifying gaze, while Cassils’ transmasculine physique, the result of a 160-day durational performance of body sculpting, is captured in photographic form by Robin Black.

This leads into a section of beauty tools, originally developed as medical devices but later repurposed for beauty’s sake, speaking to beauty practices as markers of class and social status, exemplified by corsetry. These fashion items were originally prescribed for orthopedic corrections in the late 1500s, but thanks to Catherine de Medici, corsets became a style statement for the upper classes. Male grooming was not left unresearched, with a section looking at the powdered wigs of King Louis XIV’s reign and beards as symbols of heroic masculinity for those returning from the Crimean War in the 1850s. More modern tools such as Dear Pure Care’s white-and-gold skin iron, Kohl Kreatives’ Feast Your Eyes Brushes designed with a non-rolling cuboid handle and braille, and a Project E LED face mask are also on display.

The Racialised Beauty segment of the show was devised with author and broadcaster Emma Dabiri (whose publications include Don’t Touch My Hair and Disobedient Bodies), exploring the relationship between beauty and race, not just in skin tone but also facial features, rooted predominantly in Western colonization. Examples include Toutes les Femmes, an illustration book of naked women containing “genealogical” tables with “black,” “yellow,” and “white” branches, skin-lightening products, the booming business of eyelid surgery procedures in Asia, and Josephine Baker’s Bakerskin range from the 1930s.

Another portion of the show looks at he community-building power of hair, including Cyndia Harvey’s film This Hair of Mine, featuring interviews with young British people of the African diaspora explaining the pride, heritage, and belonging that their hairstyles represent. No discussion around beauty would be complete without mention of the selfie, but as the Self-Imaging and Self-Perception portion of the exhibit shows, the instinctual human desire to want to see ourselves goes back even further. Copper mirrors were found as far back as 4000 BCE in Iran, while the invention of glass-blowing in the 14th century expanded the opportunity for people to search for themselves through their reflections in glass mirrors, but these were a privilege of the wealthy. Compact mirrors proliferated in the early 1900s, followed by the analog camera and later, smartphones. Selfies are a way of announcing oneself to the world, but with selfitis and Snapchat dysmorphia being classified mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, our reflections also have their dark sides (as the legend of Narcissus would seem to underline).

The Cult of Beauty also speaks to beauty as a product, not just of our society, but in literal form. Fenty Beauty’s extensive shade range of foundations exemplifies increased representation, and Chantecaille 24K Gold Serum Intense is a modern-day talisman of the “drinkable gold” originally proposed through alchemy and popularized by 16th-century French courtier Diane de Poitiers. It traces the commercialization of beauty throughout history into the monumental industry we know today, from Burroughs Wellcome & Co.’s pharmacy products in the late 1890s to today’s biotech-innovated packaging and inclusive product design that acknowledges those with impaired vision or mobility. The Beauty Sensorium contains five “Renaissance Goos,” or cosmetics based on a recipe from the 1562 Italian text The Ornaments of Women. Visitors are encouraged to touch and smell the “Goos,” bringing a multisensory aspect to the show.

Another section, Beauty as Currency, dives into how beauty is sold and marketed as a tool of social capital. Makeupbrutalism’s Eszter Magyar contributed a multimedia installation, “'It Makes No Sense To Be Beautiful If No One Is Ugly,” a collage of the artist’s eye-grabbing imagery, the center of which features a mirror with “I’ve mistaken social pressure with self expression” written across it. Beauty pageants are also covered, from a 1972 Miss World Board Game to Raphael Albert’s photographs of 1960s and 1970s Black beauty pageants in the UK.

The Bodily Autonomy section contains some of the most emotive imagery in the show:  founder of Museum of Transology E-J Scott holding up a jar of removed breast tissue, a static image of a woman mid-facelift, her epidermis stretched tightly away from the skull, Shirin Fathi’s “The Disobedient Nose,” a series of photographs speaking defiantly against the world-leading number of rhinoplasties happening in Iran, plus handwritten notes from the nonbinary/trans/intersex communities alongside the everyday objects such as lipstick or wigs that hold such powerful meaning for them.

The Unseen Beauty teamed up with model Michael Moon and photographer James Stopforth for ĀTMA (taken from the Sanskrit word Ātman, translating to “the soul within that is realized through self-discovery”): a series of three photographic images with a different emotion written under each (happy, angry, sad). Instead of vastly different facial expressions, Moon’s face is covered in intelligent thermographic pigment that changes hue according to the emotional state of the wearer.

The final section of the show, Subverting Beauty, looks to create new conversations that question the constructs of beauty that have prevailed for centuries, hoping to ignite the beauty within the individual, but also within the collective. “Permissible Beauty,” a film and portrait project by David McAlmont, Robert Taylor, Mark Thomas, Richard Sandell, and Afrodeutsche addresses the lack of Black Queer visibility throughout British national history.

The installation “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Beauty Unravelled in the Virtual Scroll” by interdisciplinary all-female architecture collective Xcessive Aesthetics, is a three-part digital screen setup showing a constantly changing feed of beauty-related social media imagery and videos, some speaking to the harmful nature of social media, but others to the positive effects of community and self-expression. The space is set up to emulate a nightclub bathroom, a place of connection and shared experiences. Beauty ideals are neither condemned nor glorified in the show; instead, both sides of the coin are presented to the viewer to judge for themselves, and perhaps even spark a thought or desire for further exploration and self-questioning.

BeautyMatter sat down with Li to discuss the importance of moving away from linear and binary ways of thinking about beauty, the multifaceted nature of the medium’s depiction, and the drastic lengths we will go to in the pursuit of the aesthetically pleasing.

The timing of the exhibition feels very serendipitous. Was there any particular impetus for doing it now?

It was really unplanned. How it’s curated, the collaborators we decided to work with—I was hoping to capture the zeitgeist at the moment. There's one part of the post-pandemic attention in self-care,, wellness, and beauty, but also so much of how social media, TikTok, and digital cultures change how the the emphasis is put on beauty, both as the sense of seeing ourselves, beautifying ourselves, and enhancing our looks, but also through AR, filters, and apps. The beauty industry is having another wave of exponential growth recently, that is, in a way, cultural, social, economical, as well as reflective of a collective consciousness of what we're facing in society. Having been indoors a lot and then going back outdoors and socializing, how do we represent ourselves? I think it's on a lot of people's minds, how a lot of this goes back to our relationship with ourselves and how we want to interact with people.

I also love that you have everything from a historical perspective to modern-day and futuristic perspectives, and also how many cultures the show encompasses. A lot of times, just from my personal perspective, there can be a very Eurocentric perception of beauty. Did you find that the perception of beauty varied greatly across different cultures or were there universal underpinnings to it all, no matter what time, era, or culture?

It’s interesting, because I can argue both ways. That's what studying history teaches you is that you can find your historical evidence and make a case for either. I can pick examples and say that from this culture and that culture 1,000 years apart, both value a small waist, pointing to universal ideals. But in the same methodology, I can also say, in the same culture 2,000 years ago, a double chin and big belly was preferred, and 2,000 years later, anorexic heroin chic is favored.. Then that is not constant and there's no universal value. You can argue both ways. It’s part of the industry, right, selling narratives depending on what you want your audience to believe?

How would you describe the current cultural zeitgeist around beauty? I know that probably depends on what lens you're looking at it from.

We're living in such an interesting time because there are huge commercial activities—think of digital marketing using algorithms. In the exhibition there was an AI-generated animation containing a new body morphing infinitely every 15 seconds for the entire six months of the show. How the physical/human body merges with the virtual one, that's one part of that zeitgeist which is very futuristic. There's one about the commercial products, but this is also giving space for people to look into more inclusive definitions of beauty. To see these concurrently developing in the world is really interesting because one might think that they, especially before the pandemic, will be going in opposite directions. Somewhere, they're still commercial, very aesthetic led, which will be the opposite of what “inclusive beauty” might be, but you see how they start weaving together. How there are tools and marketing around inclusive beauty that incorporates that futuristic aesthetic. The show, for me, is all about resisting binary thinking: the ugly, the beautiful, the digital and the physical, the natural or the artificial, either diverse or singular. There's so many ways that we see in the world today that will completely counteract this really linear thinking. The idea of that is why this time in particular is fitting to have a show on the subject of beauty.

You also included different gender perspectives like the trans and intersex community. The picture of beauty is often presented in gender binaries but obviously affects all gender identities, so I thought it was very interesting that the show opened up the discussion a lot more. With this subject of beauty, you could triple the number of rooms. How were you able to streamline the show in your curation process?

Because we're doing a big thematic show, you have to be very careful because it can take you in different directions. That's why there's no chronology in this show. There are a lot of historical objects, and there are stories that reference different cultures and communities in history. But they're never told in a way that this happened and next that, that allows me to focus on bringing different notions into the conversation in an intersectional way. For example, there's one section that explores how the history of beauty devices such as corsets, wigs, mustaches, and beauty patches have a parallel history with medical signs as well as social status. How when scientific advancement causes a change, like in the invention of new vaccine, changed the design of this beauty device, and in turn, all of these changes in how they're perceived in society. What we have seen as a mark of poverty—because they don't have access to health, that's why they wear those beauty patches—completely transformed when they then became a fancy dress item seen on Marie Antoinette and all the court ladies. Then what it symbolizes is high class. Going back to even the way we see human history, we've always learned it with a grand narrative. This happened in the enlightenment, this happened in that era. But in every culture and era, people are diverse and there are many stories happening at the same time. This exhibition is about creating a space to explore the ways in which we can see a world with sometimes conflicting, diverse stories coexisting. That’s why the manifestations and representations of beauty we see can be so diverse.

You mentioned the idea of that perspective of beauty over time becoming less binary and so much more diverse in terms of its representation. Was there anything else that you noticed in terms of the evolution of how we engage with beauty? Or are those codes still very much the same, it's just how they show up?

What was really interesting to me was the lengths that we would go to attain certain looks. You can say it is much easier to buy things at Boots or Dollar Pound Shops if you don't have the means, but for people who buy a serum like the Chantecaille anti-aging gold serum that costs over £400, which we feature in the exhibition, it's a significant portion of money to spend on one of the five skincare products of your daily routine. But this has existed for as long as we have interacted with material culture. The oldest object in the exhibition is a 4,000-year-old Egyptian stone slab with Neolithic engraving on it that used to hold cosmetic ointment. The design of it looks like an eyeshadow palette. Or the precious metal and craftsmanship that was used to make mirrors so we can see a blurry silhouette of ourselves, we can't even see a pimple or pores because they are not fully glass reflective. The technology required to make these devices or so we can have some sparkles on our eyes. The Unseen’s Spectra Eye Colour, Lauren [Bowker] and this whole team of material scientists and creative directors, made this eyeshadow so people's eyelids will glitter on-camera. It's crazy if you  think about it, the things we do just to adorn our features.

There is this fascinating exploration of this medium of cosmetics specifically in a desire to restructure its very foundations. There's so much about the material innovation and using these tools to better the ingredients while also creating these spectacular visual effects. It goes back to it being a very interesting period of beauty because it feels like for as much as there are the people questioning it and wanting to redefine it, there's also such an intense draw into it in terms of things like filters or cosmetic surgery becoming much more accessible to really young people. It ties back into what you're trying to say about nonbinary thinking because sometimes it feels like the system has made us very binary. In the cult of beauty, who are the leaders? Is it the brands, or the people—or are we all just equal members of the cult?

It's about multiple polarities, multiple centers. There are parts that focus on material science, women's role in scientific development and early engagement. They don't work in the boardrooms, they work in the domestic kitchens or in the early apothecaries run by nuns, but they are early sites of scientific innovations. That's one center. I would coin them as leaders, but who do they lead? They are probably not leading people on TikTok in the last installation. It's funny because that multi-screen installation, it's a really good example [for multiple centers]. The three bigger vertical screens are three separate video worlds. The one on the right looks into kind of social media trends and engagement. The one in the center looks into how the industry monetizes and commercializes digital technologies such as NFT and AR. Brands like Clinique and Charlotte Tilbury building whole virtual worlds, which is fascinating because they sell physical products. The last one is looking into global subcultures that are born out of contemporary beauty cultures. In a way, they're all leaders that influence each other. At first glance, it's a lot of social media content on the screen, but then when I start telling people they have different directions in terms of social commentary, they started seeing how the Brazilian culture and Indian culture kept focusing on different beauty standards, but some of them infiltrated social media trends and you see the more beautified mainstream version showing up on TikTok after those local cultures have a deep dive. It’s how these multiple cult leaders influence their followers and each other, somehow, that might go back to the scientists that will innovate new products inspired by these.

“The show, for me, is all about resisting binary thinking: the ugly, the beautiful, the digital and the physical, the natural or the artificial, either diverse or singular.”
By Janice Li, Curator, Wellcome Collection

What would you hope people working in the beauty industry can take away from an exhibition like this?

There's so many creative people in the industry—if anything, I really want to highlight Shellworks, they do the compostable packaging in the open tactile display. There are two sides to the display—one on accessibility and one on sustainability. On accessibility, we're featuring Guide Beauty and Kohl Kreative, beauty tools designed for different levels of ability and different uses. With Shellworks, I'm a big fan of their work because a lot of beauty packaging has to include multiple ingredients, components, and materials because of the mechanisms. You need something that can turn or a pump that can press, and they all require different materials to support that function, which is why it is infamously difficult to recycle cosmetic packaging. I am someone who won’t buy anything in plastic, but I can't sacrifice the performance of my cosmetic products for packaging. What they do is a combination of biology, design, engineering. It’s formula resistant and all home compostable, completely scalable, vegan. I'm sure that there is more innovation out there, but if anything, if more industry leaders can adopt material like that in their packaging, I think it will set a really good example.

It also speaks to the intersectional parts of beauty; biotech, sustainability, all these factors come together in an example like Shellworks. What are some of the other overarching themes of the exhibition?

Another thing is the emotive side of beauty. There is a critical, more analytical angle that you can dissect through the case studies that we talked about, but one thing that binds all the makers together is what we feel. One thing I really hope to do, especially with the commissioned works, is to make people feel. Obviously with the scents of the Beauty Sensorium, a lot of people talked to me about how they reminded them of their aunt or grandma. The original concept of Beauty Sensorium was to juxtapose the Renaissance tools with contemporary products. I had shortlisted a Nivea cream, Elnette hairspray, Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour cream, Max Factor powder, and a Jean Paul Gaultier perfume bottle as some of the most iconic, modern cosmetic products. With these things [people will say] “My grandma would use the Max Factor powders for Sunday church, she would spray the Elnette on me when we did dance performances.” It's the people that remember using this lipstick when they went out for the first time with their teenage boyfriend—memories and relationships. It is why one of the commissions in the last sections of Subverting Beauty is a big anthropomorphic hanging sculpture with a chair underneath by Narcissister, an anonymous NY-based performance artist whose entire career was about a masked persona. She's completely heavily made up and started that character as a form of rebellion against her lovely dreamy, romantic, beautiful mother who, in words of the artist, “had hidden all her shadow and trauma underneath, the nicety of beauty.”

The mask Narcissister wears, there's something slightly grotesque about it too. Beauty is often into this perfected ideal, but I love to see the beauty of the grotesque, highlighting the darker side to it as well. Even that image of the facelift being done and just seeing someone's skin being pulled like that…

There is also that feeling of fear as well. The reason why I insisted to have that image up, because it is a bit controversial, is young girls can access cosmetic procedures and pay £50-£100 on Klarna a month to get a small procedure done and the habit builds from there. It's quite dangerous. When you're talking about facelift, you'll say, “Oh, it's a quick procedure, you go to sleep, a couple of doctors get it done, you wake up after a couple of days, the swelling goes away, you'll be fine.” No one ever shows you having it cut off and lifting the skin off of your flesh. Hopefully that could urge people to make informed decisions. We're not saying to not do it because in the same section, you see that it could be a tool and process of self-actualization or self-affirming procedures. We're not judging anyone who wants to do it, but I think in the world we live in now with the ads we receive on social media and the access to it, we have to be vigilant about the risk behind it. Any medical procedure you would undertake, doctors would ask, “Are you sure you want to do this?” It'd be life saving, but these are the risks. Even taking paracetamol, you have this long brochure telling you you could die from all of these side effects. But no one does that for cosmetic surgeries. It is about showing the other side of that.

It was also really well done in terms of presenting both sides and not judging one side over the other.

Nonjudgmental is the approach that we're trying to take. It's not easy because even with the artistic collaborators we worked with, some of them hold opposite views on beauty. There are artists in the project who see the beauty industry in a really cynical way—that it is a money-sucking machine that preys on women’s insecurities—and are very vocal about it. That's one view. But then the most people could tell you about their empowering experience of using makeup. They can both be valid in their way. It's so important in the world we live in today to have the capacity to hold conversations, to accept that opposing views are okay.

I feel like in certain circles the art of having a debate with someone or being open to a different viewpoint than yours is almost getting lost. We're getting into such polarized territory these days, not just in beauty, but in general. I wonder how much social media and living our lives online can silo us. The algorithm will feed you what it knows you're already looking at so then you get more tunnel vision, perhaps even with beauty.

Absolutely, because the beauty content we get fed can be vastly different for every one of us, so it's really important to get out there, talk to people, and to remember that there's an unpleasantness as well. With the AI-generated animation, some people said, “This is actually strangely beautiful, I find it really peaceful.” But someone else told me, “This is really disturbing,” because there's not a single person that they've seen in that animation that had a fully functional body. Then some people find the Barbie display grotesque to confront. Like you said, what we've been fed online is catered to our tastes and then we'll only get the things that are pleasing to us, but in the real world we need to sit through a lot of discomfort on a daily basis. How do we build tolerance for that? As well, to sit with people in the room with all different political views and not see them as villains. In the political climate that we live in, it is so difficult. Even in this city, people of different political views don’t mingle.

The word villain, it goes back to your point about how the beauty industry is perceived by some artists. Of course, the industry does in a certain way capitalize on insecurity. It's this idea of, I'll be a better person if I have product X, Y, and Z, but that consumerism also happens in fashion or home décor. How much of the beauty standards are industry-built and manufactured versus an inherent human desire for beauty or even survival instincts? In the animal world, beauty is used to attract mates. Even if you were to completely take away the beauty industry, would people still be dealing with beauty standards? Because as long as we have eyes in our head, there will always be that visual element. I'd be curious to hear how curating the exhibition has shaped your own perception of beauty.

For me, my daily routine hasn't really changed, but I feel so much better about myself overall. I feel a lot less hesitation and shame. I am someone who enjoys dressing up and putting makeup on, but sometimes with beauty in the modern world we have a certain look for people in certain professiosn. As an academic and a curator, I sometimes wonder, am I looking too colorful for the office today? Am I too glittery for this thing I am doing? After this year of working on the exhibition, regardless of how successful it might be, on a personal level, I've gained so much. My relationship with myself has transformed. I don’t care [about wearing the wrong thing], I put on whatever I feel like that morning and that's fine.


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