November 2012



The Cosmetic Gaze: Body Modification and the Construction of Beauty by Bernadette Wegenstein

Without a body to give him a face, man would not exist. Or at least this is what many anthropologists claim. And you tend to believe them every time you buy a new gym membership. If you are accustomed to seeing your own body as a compliant machine, then you already know that any of its actions can be easily oriented. But the user guide on the human body has changed over the years, looking more and more like the user guide we get when we purchase any home appliance. The human body is already compared to a machine whose warranty certificate guarantees its quality. However there’s something that can be easily overlooked at first sight, namely the fragility of our bodily construction. The body shows wear in an irreversible way. But now the human body can be corrected, its performance enhanced, its endurance increased. And yes, the human body can become a little laboratory where the plastic surgeon feels at home even without a gene map. The latest developments in cosmetic surgery can make each of us more attractive. But they can also leave us exposed, vulnerable and wanting for more with every new glossy magazine or reality/makeover show that delivers perfect beauties on a conveyer belt.

Our present-day way of looking at our bodies is strongly influenced by the almost schizoid split between the body and the soul, so common in the Western world. But this gaze is also informed by the expectations and strategies imposed by contemporary bodily modification. And in this regard, the contemporary gaze is a cosmetic one that focuses on bodies only to demand further improvement and make the final step towards the irreversible, almost pathological, rupture between the outside and inside of the human being. In the introduction to her latest book The Cosmetic Gaze: Body Modification and the Construction of Beauty, Bernadette Wegenstein defines this cosmetic gaze as a person’s own critical assessment, arguing that this particular type of gaze also perceives any physical change as being totally and genuinely linked to one’s self-identity: “The self, at its origin and center, is cosmetic all the way down. The cosmetic gaze believes in the body as the cosmos, the original (holy and whole) place, and at the same time is the operative force in its construction as endless adornment.” Tracing down a brief history of the cosmetic gaze, with a particularly detailed analysis of John Caspar Lavater’s work and his hand-drawn portraits, Francis Galton’s photographical endeavors in the physiognomy area, Cesare Lombroso’s theories about the deviant body and the eugenic ideals of the superior Aryan body in Nazi Germany, Wegenstein ultimately reaches the contemporary and highly popular reality television and makeover shows only to cast the light over the varying graphics of the cosmetic gaze, showing both its continuity and discontinuity.

In the first chapter of her book, Wegenstein turns to the Swiss poet and physiognomist John Caspar Lavater’s treatises concerning the connection between the moral and physical beauty, a connection highly motivated by his personal religious desire to discover the genuine essence of the human nature, which he strongly believed that it’s revealed by one’s outer appearance. Producing a series of hand made drawings and arbitrarily comparing them, Lavater was convinced that female beauty is a masquerade -- in this regard, the face of a beautiful woman is to be seen as a mask that covers devious traits of character and annihilation: “A woman with a beard is not so disgusting as a woman who acts the free thinker” -- well, this is certainly a gender theory (man equals the founder and woman equals the ornament). But the whole point in presenting Lavater’s cosmetic gaze is to underline that his perception, simplified and entirely based on his personal judgment and sometimes intuition, influenced the 19th culture but also fueled the Darwinian physiognomy and eugenics developed by Francis Galton whose work contrasted dramatically with Lavater’s theories. Galton looked for the identification of various groups of people whose members share the same hereditary raw material: “With Galton, Lavater’s notion of the good and the bad and their connection with beauty and ugliness experienced a translation into the language of evolution.”                

But it seems that nothing has deteriorated the cosmetic gaze on the human body more than the paradoxical theories of normal vs. abnormal delivered by the Italian psychiatrist and criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso. Another “lover of women,” Lombroso was keen on imagining a femininity that always comes with a more pathological potential when compared to its masculine counterpart. According to his biology derived from measuring heads and bodies and using photographs of criminals from all around the world, the prostitutes being the female equivalent of the male born criminal. Also, Lombroso claimed that the born criminals are very likely to have abnormal characteristics such as a large jaw, enlarged sinus cavities, jug ears and thick hair. His perverted-eye and discriminating diagnostics had the same main goal as the one delivered by Galton: to create and preserve the so-called better race -- an eugenistic concept we’re familiar with due to the Nazi ideology that reapplied these theories in a deadly combination designed to excise the bodies considered deviant. But the true revelation that defined the cosmetic gaze for good was the art of photography as it signaled the advent of one’s self as other: “Once I feel myself observed by the (camera) lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of posing. I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image… The photograph is the advent of myself as other.” It’s at this point that the cosmetic gaze becomes a more complex structure, informed by visual coherences, principles of perfect symmetry and various technologies of beautification that can be used in order to enhance, to improve one’s appearance.  

The following chapter develops the ideas introduced by chapter one, focusing on the way the Western world categorizes the human body based on its compliance to the norms or, on the contrary, based on its deformity. The result of this mixture is the recognition of the deformed body and its autobiography of ugliness, of the convulsive beauty that resides within. With case studies ranging from Michael Jackson’s extreme makeover to Jocelyn Wildenstein, a woman who became widely known for her extensive facial surgeries, or Lolo Ferrari, the French sex star billed as the woman with the largest artificial breasts in the world, Wegenstein argues that the human judgments on beauty have evolved due to the makeover culture promoted by reality TV shows. As a consequence, they permanently oscillate between the desire to wipe out, even eradicate the differences from the standard beauty norms and the constantly growing and genuine fascination with a wide array of mutilations that the eradication process leads to. In this context, the third chapter zooms out the cosmetic gaze characteristic to our early 21st century, pointing the finger at the way the present video games, software created for facial recognition and the reality TV shows influence the viewer’s cosmetic gaze and redesign it by constantly broadcasting the human body as something that should be and is to be improved.

The final chapter was the one that definitely interested me the most. Building on the premise that “The cosmetic gaze is a way of perceiving our own and others’ bodies as always requiring further modification to become complete. As it has developed in modernity, the cosmetic gaze has depended on a special relationship with women and with the female body. In the twentieth century, the cosmetic gaze incorporated both the traditional misogynistic fantasy that split woman’s being into a duplicitous mask covering an abyss of death and a blank surface receptive to man’s creative urge and also the avant-garde’s aesthetic revolution, which required beauty to endure convulsive change.” and with a strong focus on the cosmetic gaze as expressed and delivered by pieces of mainstream and independent cinema from different decades of time (The Face of a Woman, Time, In the Cut, Dans ma Peau), this final chapter dissects the female beauty projected on the screen and the viewer’s retina as a norm instituted by men and draws an interesting analogy between the male gaze that “objectifies the female body by totalizing it in a kind of corporatist fantasy as whole, fulfilled, ideal” and the cosmetic gaze only to conclude that the later includes the first but with a twist for the reader to discover.

Thoroughly documented and quite meticulously researched The Cosmetic Gaze: Body Modification and the Construction of Beauty is the perfect read for anyone interested in the subject but isn’t too familiar with it, tracing some of the most relevant episodes of the history of body image, the relation between the human being’s inside and outside, and analyzing how various visual media have designed and redesigned the cosmetic gaze. But in my case, this book managed only to scratch the surface of a matter that has always fascinated me and continues to do so. I guess I was expecting too much from it. Still, I consider The Cosmetic Gaze a firm step made in the right direction, namely towards the exposure of contemporary body fascism: “Modern makeover culture inherited the physiognomic predisposition of Johann Kaspar Lavater and the ethic of self-improvement that animated eugenics. That ethic remains, even as the horrors of the eugenicists’ concentration camps decoupled it from openly racist and genocidal politics. Although the cosmetic gaze once expressed itself in the politics of racial cleansing, it has now been repackaged by technology into a socially acceptable care of the self.”  I couldn’t agree more.      

The Cosmetic Gaze: Body Modification and the Construction of Beauty by Bernadette Wegenstein
The MIT Press
ISBN: 9780262232678
226 Pages