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The Beauty Problem and an Assessment of the Western Ideal of Female Beauty*

By
Adam F. Bailey
The New School for Social Research

________________________
*The author can be contacted at baila263@newschool.edu
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The Beauty Problem and an Assessment of the Western Ideal of Female Beauty

Abstract

This paper attempts to answer the question "what is beauty?" The author argues that

nothing natural or man-made has beauty inherent in itself. Humans' conceptions of beauty are

defined by society. The main argument of this work is that beauty is primarily a product of the

habitus, leaving existential free will to explain individual differences in perception of beauty.

The second half of the paper deconstructs the Western beauty Ideal using the theoretical

framework put forth in the first section of the paper.

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The Beauty Problem and an Analysis of the Western Ideal of Female Beauty

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.


-John Keats

What is beauty? The simplest definition is that it is something which is aesthetically

pleasing. But who decides what is aesthetically pleasing? Is Marilyn Monroe beautiful? Is the

Empire State Building? The Mona Lisa? What about the view from the summit of Mount

Everest, or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? Most people would probably agree that these things

are all beautiful to some degree, but there will always be detractors. Thus, beauty is not

universal; nothing is inherently beautiful. Why, then, do we today still consider the ceiling of the

Sistine Chapel beautiful? Perhaps it is because past generations thought it was beautiful, and we

just accept it as such. But if beauty is socially constructed, how does the idea travel across

cultures and still carry the same weight? I think it is safe to assume that a Roman, Muscovite,

New Yorker, Nepali and Filipino would all have essentially the same reaction to the Sistine

Chapel ceiling. Every one of these people experiences beauty differently, yet they all have

generally similar ideas about what constitutes beauty.

How does one go about answering these questions? One could study aesthetics, and look

for common properties in things generally considered to be beautiful. But that is too

quantitative; part of beauty’s allure is its mystery. Talk of symmetry and continuity takes away

some of that mystery. My aim is not to look to the objects of beauty themselves, but into the

human mind and attempt to find out what makes us think certain things are beautiful and others

not. I also intend to deconstruct the Western ideal of human physical beauty in order to support

my argument. I hope at the end of this project to have developed a “theory of beauty” which can

be applied to any kind of beauty to aid in our understanding of how the concept works.

So, things are beautiful, but only because we say they are. No two people will agree

exactly on what is beautiful, and when they do agree, their reasoning will be different. Beauty is

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an opinion. But different cultures and generations often seem to have very similar opinions on

what is beautiful.1 Because of this generational and cultural similarity (if not because there is

any agreement whatsoever on what is beautiful), and because beauty is not inherent in any

object, we must assume that something exists in the mind that allows us to recognize and

experience beauty. Differences in opinions regarding beauty are defined by one’s cultural milieu

and personal experiences. That is not to say, however, that if environment and experience did

not factor into a person’s understanding of beauty, everyone would have the exact same ideas

about what is beautiful and what is not. That could not be further from the truth. Even if it were

possible for two people to live in the exact same environment and experience the exact same

things in the exact same way, their ideas would still form independently, because, to paraphrase

Jean-Paul Sartre, humans are doomed to freedom.

THE PROBLEM

The principal dilemma in aesthetics is that of defining beauty. Aristotle had this to say

on the subject: “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness” (quoted in

Synnott 1990:614). It is my contention that there are no specific qualities that will put an object

into the category of beautiful things, and that aesthetics is wrong in trying to assign specific

criteria to beauty. One’s sense of beauty is very personal, and no concrete definition could

possibly account for the infinite variations and kinds of beauty.

Personal as it may be, a person’s sense of beauty is also inextricably linked to the society

in which they live, to the world society at large, and to history. Therefore, the concept of habitus

is the most appropriate way to make an attempt at explaining how we recognize beauty.

1
Of course, there are vast cultural and generational differences in perception of beauty as well as striking
similarities. I will address these cultural and generational differences later in this work.

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An individual’s sense of beauty is defined by habitus. In Outline of a Theory of Practice,

Pierre Bourdieu defines habitus as “systems of durable, transposable dispositions…which can be

objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without in any way being the product of obedience to

rules…” (1977:72). Essentially, the habitus is responsible for an individual’s unconscious

decisions, their likes and dislikes, and explains their actions. A person’s habitus is in part based

on their environment, and, as Bourdieu argues, their social class, and is modified by their

individual experiences. Because a major part of habitus is collective within a society, it explains

why so many people have similar ideas on what is beautiful. The habitus produces regularity; it

is because of the habitus that people generally agree on what is beautiful, not because any object

has inherent beauty.

Anything man-made cannot possibly have inherent beauty, because in being man-made,

an object is conceived of and created by a human who was influenced by his own habitus and

sensibilities, and any beautiful man-made object likely went through several not-so-beautiful

iterations before reaching its ultimate, “beautiful” finished state. But even natural things with

beauty are the products of society and habitus. There are so many humans in the world that the

physical attributes of some are going to conform to the collective ideal of physical beauty out of

sheer chance, but, as it is with all beauty, it is impossible to quantify and to prove that there is no

pattern to the existence of beautiful human beings.2 As for scenic vistas untouched by human

hands, such places are so seldom seen in modern society that they are bound to be considered

beautiful if only due to their rarity. That is, many people do not experience grand scenic vistas

on a daily basis and therefore will experience their beauty on a different level than would

2
The line “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” (in reference to Helen of Troy) from
Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus has spawned a sort of folk measurement of beauty
called the millihelen, or, the amount of beauty it takes to launch one ship. This of course has no scientific
validity whatsoever, and for our purposes, serves as an illustration of the futility in attempting to quantify
beauty.

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someone who, for example, lives in the Rocky Mountains. I discuss this idea in greater depth

below.

Elaine Scarry (1999), in her essay “On Beauty and Being Wrong” offers her own

interpretation of beauty. She ends up essentially agreeing with Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth

beauty” statement, saying that

The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental
event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state this is that ever
afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate
enduring sources of conviction – to locate what is true (P. 31).
Beauty and truth are not exactly one in the same, but they do work in tandem. Scarry says that

seeing something beautiful makes a person want to replicate its beauty, whether it be by drawing,

writing, or by simply staring at the beautiful thing as long as possible. She also says that

beautiful images cause us to look for precedent, to ask ourselves if this is the most beautiful thing

we have ever seen, and challenges us to be certain of that fact before claiming an object’s beauty,

lest we end up making an error. It is the incitement of longing for the truth (truth in this context

being the most beautiful) that dominates Scarry’s argument of the effect beauty has on the mind.

As compelling as Scarry’s argument may be, she makes a crucial error in her assessment

of what beauty is. She presumes beauty to be inherent in objects. While she acknowledges that

cognition is required to recognize beauty, she seems to take for granted that beauty is something

inherent in an object. This is especially apparent in her discussion of error, specifically,

recognizing beauty in objects that have none, or not recognizing the beauty in a beautiful thing.

The entire idea that it is possible to err in recognizing beauty takes for granted that beauty can be

and is inherent in objects. Here, she explicates the “error” of not recognizing an object’s beauty:

In [this] genre of error a beautiful object is suddenly present, not because a new
object has entered the sensory horizon bringing its beauty with it but because an
object, already within the horizon, has its beauty, like late luggage,
suddenly placed in your hands [emphasis added] (P. 16).

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She does not even acknowledge the option that beauty might not be inherent in objects. She

simply accepts that things contain beauty in themselves, and it is an error of mind when we do

not recognize them as beautiful or if we recognize false beauty in an object. This is of course,

preposterous, as I have already mentioned, because it is impossible for an object to contain a

metaphysical quality such as beauty within its concrete existence. Objects are what they are,

nothing more, and nothing less. A painting, a book, even the human physical form contains

absolutely no abstract qualities such as beauty within itself as such. Any such qualities are

assigned to an object by humans, and these qualities gain their meanings via cultural

transmission.

On Cultural and Generational Differences

The habitus explains similarities of opinion regarding beauty on multiple levels:

-Throughout history

-Throughout the world in the present time

-Throughout a given culture

-Within a culture

But there are vast cultural and generational differences in opinion regarding beauty as well that

must be explained. I will illustrate with the example of the human physical form, as this is where

such differences are most apparent. The human form is arguably the most common visual

stimulus for humans in most cultures, save perhaps for those primitive cultures where nature is

likely a more common stimulus than are other humans.3 In the Western world, especially in

large cities, people are presented with many examples of many different human forms on a daily

3
I submit that because the populations of these cultures are greatly smaller (and homogenous), and they
have little or no exposure to Western media such as television and film, where heterogeneous human
forms dominate, that their physical environment may be a more common visual stimulus than
differentiated human forms.

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basis. This tremendous amount of visual stimuli is what sets in motion cultural differences of

opinion regarding beauty. As it is true with any other form of beauty to which one has large

amounts of exposure. For example, a musician will find minute details in a given piece of music

beautiful, being able to pick out these small details because of his training, whereas a non-

musician, while still just as able to find the piece beautiful, will be far less likely to appreciate

the piece in the same way. Habitus is far less of a factor in explaining one’s opinions on beauty

in an area in which a person is more knowledgeable than the average person. Their education

and exposure to a given type of beauty gives them a familiarity which allows them to see a given

subject differently than would a layperson, and allows them to see beauty in places where the

habitus would not direct them.

History also accounts for difference of opinion regarding beauty in the human form.

Aside from changing style and fashion, humans simply look different now than they did several

hundred, or even fifty years ago. Partly due to advances in medicine and nutrition, the bodies of

humans develop and mature differently now. People in general are taller, and women are

thinner, although the latter may have as much or more to do with the cultural ideal of beauty than

with better nutrition. In comparing visual depictions of beautiful women from different

generations who fit the cultural ideal of human physical beauty in their respective generations,

one sees the differences immediately.

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Figure 1

Figure 2

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Figure 3
Above are three depictions of female beauty. Figure 1 is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus,

painted around 1483. Figure 2 is Marilyn Monroe, arguably the personification of beauty in

mid-twentieth century America. Figure 3 is Kate Moss, a present-day fashion model whose

image is very prominent in Western media. I chose these particular images because I feel they

are accurate representations of the societal ideal of female beauty for the time period in which

they were composed. Botticelli’s Venus is the heaviest of the three women, and her body is the

least shapely. She has small breasts and very long hair. Ms. Monroe is thinner than Venus, has

more prominent curves, larger breasts (made even more prominent by her attire) and shorter,

curly hair. Ms. Moss is rail-thin, has small breasts, and long, straight, unkempt hair. All three

do look similar, but the differences in their appearances are significant. These differences can be

wholly attributed to the different ideals of beauty in the time periods in which these images were

recorded. While all three women are beautiful, only Ms. Moss conforms to the early twenty-first

century Western ideal of physical female beauty.

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WHY IS BEAUTY WHAT IT IS?

The modern Western world has very convoluted, conflicting, and some would say,

artificial ideas regarding what constitutes a beautiful human. In this section I will examine the

Western ideal of human beauty and attempt to discern how this ideal formed and how it evolves.

The Word Itself

The word “beauty” has immense connotations, most of which have been manufactured in

recent history. When referring to art, nature and other inanimate objects or to abstractions, the

word largely means the same thing: that the object or concept the word is applied to is appealing

in some way or another to the speaker. When discussing human physical beauty however, the

word takes on entirely different meanings. Of course, the simple meaning I just mentioned does

still apply, but oftentimes the meaning is deeper when discussing a human. This is likely

because of the fact, delineated above, that images of humans comprise the majority of our visual

stimuli.

When used in terms such as beauty salon and beauty products, the word seems to imply

that in going to this salon or using these products, one will become beautiful. These uses of the

word set a precedent for a kind of trivialization of the word itself, and along with it, the concept

of beauty. The word today is bandied about; many people give no thought to its real meaning.

For me, to say that someone is beautiful is to give them one of the greatest possible compliments.

True, many people use the word beautiful as the highest in a number of adjectives on par with

attractive, appealing, pleasing, and lovely, but far fewer truly understand the gravity of the word

beautiful. Scarry qualifies it as meaning something that is “sacred, lifesaving, having as

precedent only those things which are themselves unprecedented” (1999:28). I am of the mind

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that the weight carried by the word beauty is similar only to that carried by the word love. Both

have complex webs of meaning and elicit a range of emotions from whoever speaks or hears

them, and both can be ecstatic and heartbreaking at the same time.

The Western Ideal

The modern Western ideal of human female beauty (hereafter referred to as the Ideal) is

perpetuated by celebrities, media and advertising. Its origins can be attributed to capitalism and

to the rise of the leisure class, as documented by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book, The Theory

of the Leisure Class. Veblen defines the leisure class as the highest social class of people, those

who do not perform manual labor in order to make a living. A key concept in his book is that of

conspicuous consumption. The leisure class has large amounts of disposable income, and so

they consciously seek out extravagant items to purchase, such as sports cars (albeit not in 1899),

mansions and designer clothes. They then flaunt these items as evidence of their wealth, hence,

conspicuous consumption. The portion of Veblen’s analysis that concerns us deals primarily

with fashion, but it can also be applied to the Ideal, of which fashion makes up a large part.

Until the mid-1800s, all clothing was custom made. Now, only the highest quality (or at

least, most expensive) clothing is tailored specifically for one person. Of course, custom tailored

clothing will fit a person better than anything purchased off-the-rack, and a good fit makes for

beautiful clothing. According to the ideal, beautiful clothing makes for a beautiful person. Since

the vast majority of Americans cannot afford bespoke clothing, and/or because they have a thirst

to consume massive amounts of clothing that no bespoke tailor could possibly quench, there are

many designers who produce ready-to-wear clothing that is very expensive (but less so than

bespoke) and highly “fashionable.” A cursory glance through any style magazine such as Vogue

(targeted to females) or GQ (for the male point of view) sends the message that in order to be

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beautiful, a person must have expensive clothing, and one must follow the trends in fashion,

which are dictated by these types of magazines in concert with executives at high-end clothing

designers and cosmetics companies. Veblen notes that no one argues that the clothing from

twenty years ago was inherently less fashionable than the clothing of today; the changing of

fashion is entirely in place to get people to guy new clothes every season. And so, capitalism is

one of the reasons the Ideal is what it is.

A person’s weight also factors a great deal on whether or not they are considered

beautiful. Many of today’s fashion models are extremely thin, some so much that they look

emaciated. In fact, Kate Moss has been very controversial in part because of her extremely thin

frame. Despite this and many other controversies including stormy personal relationships and

alleged drug use, she remains extremely popular, having appeared on over three hundred

magazine covers over the course of her career which began in the early 1990s. Before Ms.

Moss’ rise to fame, fashion models were typically tall, statuesque and voluptuous, but because of

Ms. Moss, the 1990s and early 2000s saw a glut of waiflike models whose thin, unkempt look

was termed “heroin chic.” Currently, the waif look seems to be becoming slightly less desirable

as more celebrities and models are emerging who, while still thin, look healthy and not at all

emaciated.4 The pressure by society on young women to be ultra-thin is cited as a major catalyst

for eating disorders. A large part of this pressure stems from the fact that plus-sized models do

not appear in the ad campaigns of major fashion designers or on runways. Thin is indeed still in.

To get a closer look at the state of beauty in 2006, I consulted The New York Times Style

Magazine issue subtitled “Beauty Fall 2006.” The subtitle alone connotes that what is contained

inside the magazine is the current Ideal, and that it will only last for one season. I chose this

magazine in part because of the provocative title, and because New York City is the epicenter of

4
For example, the actress Scarlett Johansson, whose body more closely resembles that of Marilyn
Monroe than of Kate Moss, was named Esquire magazine’s “Sexiest Woman Alive” for 2006.

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North American fashion and beauty trendsetting. Almost everything in the magazine is hyper-

real and represents the loftiest, most impossible ideal of beauty, therefore making it an excellent

specimen for the kind of analysis I wish to undertake. Publications such as this are without a

doubt the source of the ever-changing Western ideal of human physical beauty.

The magazine’s cover (Figure 4) features the actress Evan Rachel Wood, with ultra-

stylized hair and makeup and seeming to proclaim that Ms. Wood is representing “The Next

Wave” of beauty. However, even the most astute fashion observer would admit that the look

seen on Ms. Wood would rarely, if ever, be seen outside a magazine photo shoot or fashion show

runway.

The content of the magazine is very similar. It is packed with advertisements for skin

care, perfume, cosmetics, underwear, and luxury goods such as watches and jewelry. There is

also an advertisement for slimming jeans that are supposed to “Flatten your tummy/Lift your

butt/Allow you to wear one size smaller/Make you look and feel younger.” Another, in the back,

is for a bra

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Figure 4

that “Eliminates bra bulge and makes you look 10 pounds thinner – Bra-vo!” Obviously, both of

these items are targeted at women who want to look thinner. These kinds of products perpetuate

the idea that to be thin is to be beautiful, a viewpoint which is made even stronger by these

advertisements presence in this particular magazine.

One two-page Victoria’s Secret advertisement near the front of the magazine features

several nude supermodels and proclaims in large type at the top of the page: “THE SEXIEST

WOMEN IN THE WORLD WEAR ‘VERY SEXY’ MAKEUP,” “Very Sexy” being a line of

makeup sold by Victoria’s Secret. The advertisement perpetuates the idea that the women

pictured are the sexiest – and therefore most beautiful – women in the world. Sex appeal is

equated with beauty in the Ideal because of the eroticism present in advertisements such as this

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as well as in other forms of media including film and popular music, coupled with the taboos that

Western (especially American) society places on sexuality.

Past the advertisements, there is little real journalistic content in the magazine. Many

pieces are simply reviews of products, which serve essentially as more advertisements. One

particularly interesting tidbit is about a new digital camera made by Hewlett-Packard which has a

“slimming” function. At first, I thought this must have been a joke, until I confirmed my

suspicions on the HP website that it is indeed a real product. HP has actually developed a

camera based on the old saying that “the camera adds ten pounds,” which is of course,

completely untestable and silly. HP is using it simply as a gimmick to sell cameras, but if The

New York Times Style Magazine felt it was worthy of mention, it is significant. Because this

cameral allows photographers to alter images in order to make their subjects look thinner, it

makes yet another contribution to the idea that in order to be beautiful, one must be thin.

On cosmetic surgery and imperfection. Cosmetic surgery has become an increasingly popular

component of the Ideal. Such procedures are especially popular in the United States, where the

pressure to conform to the Ideal seems to be the strongest. The term “cosmetic surgery” refers to

a kind of surgery whose sole purpose is to improve the looks of the recipient. Of course,

“improve” is used as a relative term here, as cosmetic surgery can leave a person with unnatural

looking features. Cosmetic surgery is a subset of plastic surgery, whose original purpose was to

repair physical defects and injuries such as burns in humans. Recent years have seen an

expansion of the field to include strictly cosmetic procedures such as facelifts and breast

augmentations.

The prevalence of cosmetic surgery has normalized the idea that beauty must strive for

physical perfection, and that if one’s body does not fit into their own personal ideal of beauty

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(which, as we remember, is formed by their habitus, and acquires its meaning largely from the

Ideal) it can be “fixed” with surgery. One of the most controversial forms of cosmetic surgery is

female breast augmentation. This type of surgery is seen as being the least necessary, producing

in the recipient psychological effects similar to those of conspicuous consumption, even though

it is rarely obvious by sight that a woman has had the surgery. While women who have had

mastectomies can and do benefit from this type of surgery, the vast majority of breast

augmentation recipients have no physical abnormalities whatsoever. These women’s desire for

larger breasts comes from the idea that large breasts are sexually attractive and small breasts are

not. A Freudian analysis of why men like large breasts, while germane to this topic, is beyond

the scope of this paper.

Several recent television shows such as Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210, and MTV’s I

Want a Famous Face (on which teenagers undergo massive amounts of cosmetic surgery in

order to resemble a celebrity) are devoted to depictions of individuals trying to improve their

appearance (that is, trying to more closely conform to the Ideal), which in turn causes more of

the general public to be exposed to what this kind of surgery can do for one’s appearance. These

television shows bring cosmetic surgery to the forefront not only in people’s minds, but in the

popular culture generally, which in turn makes cosmetic surgery more and more inextricable

from the Ideal.

Recently, the ideal of surgical “perfection” has come under fire, and a sort of “anti-ideal”

has formed which finds imperfection to be beautiful. That is, in an age where cosmetic surgery

has become so popular that surgically achieved “perfection” is becoming the norm instead of

being so rare that it “[has] as precedent only those things which are themselves unprecedented”

(as Scarry says of beautiful things) some people today find imperfection (crooked teeth, smaller

breasts) to be the rare form of beauty, and assume that perfection is unnatural, thus taking away

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from the beauty a person would enjoy if their “perfection” was not surgically produced.

However, this kind of reaction to the Ideal is still the exception rather than the rule (if there are

any rules when dealing with beauty).

Cosmetic surgery adds a new dimension to thinking about beauty. Before, a person’s

natural face was always on display, whether they liked it or not. Now, if a person does not like

one or another aspect of their body, they can change it with surgery. This leaves all human

beauty to question. If a person sees another person and thinks they are perfectly beautiful, they

are left to wonder if the person has had any cosmetic surgery. In a sense, cosmetic surgery

contaminates our ideas of perfect beauty. If the relationship between beauty and cosmetic

surgery is not contamination, it is at the very least complication.

CONCLUSIONS

Beauty in all its forms is an enormously complex phenomenon whose true origins and

motives will likely remain hidden for all time. I have tried to offer a reasonable explanation for

how our minds recognize beauty, but I do not intend my argument to be the end of the debate. I

expect this discussion to continue until the end of humanity. My aim, therefore, is to aid in the

understanding of one of humankind’s most compelling mysteries. I hope I have achieved some

level of success in furthering the appreciation of such a beautiful concept. We are all slaves to

beauty; attempting to understand it in terms of its effect on the mind is the best we can do.

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References

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Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

------. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard

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Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1943. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York:

Washington Square Press.

Scarry, Elaine. 1999. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Synnott, Anthony. 1990. “Truth and goodness, mirrors and masks – part I: a sociology of

beauty and the face.” The British Journal of Sociology 40:607-636.

------. 1990b. “Truth and goodness, mirrors and masks – part II: a sociology of beauty and the

face.: The British Journal of Sociology 41:55-76.

Tonchi, Stefano, ed. 2006. The New York Times Style Magazine: Beauty Fall 2006.

Articles and photos available online at:

http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2006/10/22/style/t/index.html

Veblen, Thorstien. [1899] 1992. The Theory of the Leisure Class with an Introduction by C.

Wright Mills. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Wikipedia. 2006. “Kate Moss” Retrieved December 10, 2006.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Moss

Zangwill, Nick. 2002. “Against a Sociology of the Aesthetic.” Cultural Values 6:443-452

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