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Subversive Beauty

Published October 8, 2023
Published October 8, 2023
Karina Tess via Unsplash

We find beauty in many places. The classic paradigms of artwork may weather with age, if not properly cared for, but they otherwise stay mostly the same. For instance, we believe the painting we see at a museum was touched directly by Rembrandt’s hands and hasn’t changed since he touched it. There’s something comforting about these stable iterations of beauty. We know that a particular painting or song will produce a certain affect in us with some predictability, despite our changing attitudes and relationships. We usually don’t want to hear an overly happy song when we’re sad; we want a song that offers us more catharsis through its own melancholia. Despite the object not changing, our individual or societal attitudes may change toward that object. For example, AC/DC was once decried as a satanic band, and now songs, like “Thunderstruck,” are played as hype songs at public soccer games. So, society lessens or alters its rules of acceptable things as time moves on, altering individual perceptions as well.

When it comes to people, however, beauty is malleable. Clothing, makeup, hairstyles—these things change over time (sometimes over the course of the same day!). This changeableness is illustrated by the artist Felix González-Torres, whose audience-centric works included billboards, mirrors, light, candy, and newspapers. Describing his view of art, author and academic bell hooks writes, “Beauty is not best expressed or contained in the enduring art object; rather in the moment of experience, of human interaction, the passion of remembrance that serves as a catalyst urging on the will to create.” With static art objects, the regularity of our perceptions of them provides the opportunity to conceal our changing attitudes in their stability. They are stable, so we impose that onto our experience sometimes. Our old, familiar thoughts rise to the top of our mind as we gaze upon an old, familiar object. But with artworks and appearances that fluctuate, stagnation becomes less likely, almost impossible, regardless of whether we like the changes. 

People struggling with the imposition of beauty standards should challenge beauty and fashion. Those industries are uniquely equipped to understand beauty that subverts the social and political strictures of the current times. Social media has given more power and freedom to consumers to influence the leaders of these fields, rather than submitting to the top-down approach. Iris Apfel exemplifies that kind of freedom. She once said, “When you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t have to think like everybody else.” Beauty standards are criticized as things that are imposed onto people, or things that exploit our insecurities. There is truth to this criticism. How else to avoid these societal norms than by developing and following your own sense of style. We forget sometimes that beauty is a force. And that we don’t have to submit to passive beauty; we can assert an active beauty.

Speaking of this power, philosopher Herbert Marcuse writes, “The revolution would undo this repression and recapture aesthetic needs as a subversive force, capable of counteracting the dominating aggressiveness which has shaped the social and natural universe.” Marcuse reasons to this from the fact that the senses are not simply passive. Consider the idea of aesthetic taste. It derives from the physical sense of taste, which in reality is a form of touch. Just by touching food to your tongue, you technically taste it. We too easily accept this passive notion of taste in many areas of our lives: popular clothing, office decor, film stars, and so on.

Then, there’s the active side of taste. The first sip of Scotch may ripple through your system with an abhorrent intensity. With things unfamiliar to you, your brain isn’t prepared to understand them. We perceive the lack of familiarity sometimes as dislike. But it may only be caused by our distance from the object. Once we close that distance by becoming more familiar, then we may learn that we enjoy something new. This is the active role in developing and expanding our taste. We should not passively accept what society (or even ourselves) deem worthy in any given moment but question what we can do to expand our notion of beauty. While art objects may remain the same over time, our comprehension of beauty continues to expand. And we need to expand with it to subvert its demands.

The woes that have been caused from an imposition of beauty standards by culture, industry, and politics can be subverted and overcome by the freedom people can exercise by conjuring their individual aesthetic choices onto their lifestyle as a work of art. Feminist scholars and artists—such as Simone de Beauvoir, Laura Mulvey, and Cindy Sherman—pointed out the male gaze that drives decisions in fashion, beauty, and art. But in the struggle against beauty standards, we still need to acknowledge a basic human drive toward beauty. To which bell hooks writes, “Rigid feminist dismissal of female longings for beauty has undermined feminist politics.” Rebelling against beauty standards without offering alternatives may provide a starting point, but it is unsustainable. People revert to the same old-fashioned positions and problems of the male-dominated system. Continuing this thought, bell hooks says, “Until feminists go back to the beauty industry, go back to fashion, and create an ongoing, sustained revolution, we will not be free. We will not know how to love our bodies as ourselves.”

Who better to provide the alternative than those within the beauty industry (and also fashion)? Those outside the industry will continue to raise concerns and may yield some influence, but the leaders of the beauty industry have the authority to enact change. As a consumer, at first glance this may  feel again like submission. There’s strength in numbers. At industry events, I have witnessed leaders claim they want to hear from their customers. Tell them what you want. Take an active role in the development and future of the industry. We often hear that ideas about beauty have changed over time. But do you see the passive verb in that sentence? Rather than allowing our ideas of beauty to change, let us change and expand our ideas of beauty as we play, experiment, and subvert.


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