American Beauty: Same Standards, New Medium

Throughout the history of mankind, there has been no term more contradictory than the word “beauty.” When applied to nature, beauty is ambiguous and no one can quite lay a finger on what truly qualifies something to be beautiful. On the other hand, once the beauty of a human being becomes the concern of focus, social institutions and traditions sternly enforce static prerequisites and standards of what is seen as truly “beautiful.” These prerequisites and standards vary from culture to culture. In Mauritania, Africa, the culture’s standard for an attractive woman is a plump woman.[1] However in the United States, which historically has maintained a preference for a thinner shape, any appraisal of a husky woman’s frame would be ephemeral. Here in the United States, women are socialized to believe that skinnier is better, and men compete to become the most ripped and fit. This is important because this desire to become more fit and thinner has created a vast demand in which our capitalist society has taken advantage.


Communicative media, including works of art, in any given area represent and reflect that area’s society and culture because a culture’s set of values will always find a way to permeate through. With this in mind, how do American values on beauty permeate through its own mediums of communication such as websites, social networks, television, and film?


On page 80 of The Cornel West Reader, Cornel West coins the phrase “normative gaze.” The “normative gaze” describes a past, yet common, belief that the ideal model of human beauty was symbolized through the forms of Greek statues. The statues represented a desirable specimen- blue eyed, horizontal forehead, bent back, and round chin amongst other features. [2]Anything that was deviant from this ideal was consequently dismissed as less than beautiful. An example of this in 2012 can be seen when the word “beauty” is typed into Google’s image search bar. The domineering majority of images that appear are all of people that fit the standards constructed and listed by the “normative gaze,” therefore excluding all of those that do not meet this standard. Only about seven images of people of color appeared and not one image of a portly person showed. The “normative gaze” has infused within Google’s database because its database represents popular interests and values. Many people that use Google recognize and affirm beauty in this way, a perspective that reinforces the “normative gaze.” This example illustrates the message that is being pushed, that our standards of beauty have affected the manner in which we present beauty in the “public” realm. It began with propaganda, and then posted ads, and now it has infiltrated the digital realm and Internet.


Created in 1982, Nancy Burson’s Beauty Composites indirectly addresses the “normative gaze.”Primarily, the piece’s purpose is to probe culturally-determined standards of beauty by merging the faces of female, film stars to create a composite face.[3] All of the faces that were merged together, including those of Marilyn Monroe and Meryl Streep, were the faces of thin, white women who were considered to be some of the most beautiful women of the twentieth century. With this in mind and placing it in context with the “normativegaze,” what the piece’s product additionally does is expose how truly “beautiful” women are imagined and represented in the media by creating another set of socially-acceptable faces. Beauty Composites inspired me to further investigate notions of beauty and their representations and examine whether the standards that Burson scrutinized in 1982 have managed to endure through to the year 2012. I chose to delve into the “normative gaze” head-on.

Nancy Burson, Beauty Composites: First (left) and Second (right), 1982


As a nation we have made strides towards equality in multiple fields, but what about how we see?  Have we gotten to a place where we see physical differences as equal? The answer to that question is no. In fact, as stated earlier, our capitalist society has managed to twist these differences and use the pressures placed on individuals to meet our standards of beauty to create products of commerce. Exercise supplements are advertised on television by the hour and sold by the masses to help reach the most “fit” state, thin models pose in companies’ merchandise on websites, and having the “look” plays a critical factor in not only attaining a role for a film or sitcom, but also whether or not one is acknowledged by Hollywood and the media. Several artists, like Nancy Burson, have used digital media to expose and combat these standards of beauty exploited by capitalism and digital media. My purpose is to help expose the faults of enforcing these standards.


Before creating my contribution towards the fight, I first inspected the social network Instagram. Instagram is like Facebook and Twitter, but with Instagram users solely post photos and captions to go along with those photos.[4] A user can receive comments under a posted photo or the photo can receive “likes.” I chose Instagram because people tend to post images of his/herself if they think the image is funny or if they think it is a nice representation of themselves. Millions of pictures are posted daily by celebrities and common individuals with the goal of sharing moments of their lives and getting others to “like” or comment on a posted photo. What is interesting about this process is that people become so fascinated with getting “likes” and comments on their photos that if a picture does not get any form of feedback, they delete it. This suggests that users and subscribers are searching for some type of approval from other users; a confirmation that their picture fits our standard of beauty. Without approval from others, that image that lacks feedback does not earn its place within the “public” digital realm and is soon terminated. Celebrities and socialites that are typically seen as fitting our standards of beauty and live for public attention are known for deleting pictures that do not receive any response. This is something in need of exploration.


After exploring profile pages on Instagram and contemplating how I could reveal the “normative gaze’s” affect on the way we see beauty and how that perspective infiltrates our digital forms of communication, I decided to make a webpage. Through the commercial site Weebly, I created the domain name[5] The title of my site is American Beauty which is a pun that scrutinizes America’s standards of beauty. The header field of the page is filled with an image of the United States’ flag merged with the face of Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe is noted as one of the most beautiful women ever according to our country’s standards, so using her image seemed very fitting for the purpose of this site.  Beneath the page’s header is an excerpt from the song Beautiful People written and performed by Marilyn Manson. The excerpt reads as follows, “Hey you, what do you see? Something beautiful, something free…The horrible people, the horrible people…Capitalism has made it this way, old-fashioned fascism will take it away.”[6] Though this song may be a little on the extreme side, the excerpt taken from its content does highlight the message that was stated earlier, capitalism reinforces our culture’s  rigid standards of beauty and furthers the gap between the “beautiful” and the deviant.  Below the Marilyn Manson lyrics is my own created piece which is a grid of collected images taken from the application, Instagram. When clicked on, the grid becomes larger for a better view. Like Beauty Composites, I use images of popular faces and celebrities. However, I do not stop at film stars. I began to branch off into my own developments by also including photographs of reality-television stars, socialites, athletes, and music personalities of both men and women of various ethnicities.  Though all of the photographs are not merged together like in Beauty Composites, when placed together the images do create one composite representation. Because the composite is filled with popular images of popular people with the “look”, the composite representation displays how the masses view beauty as being one way. This is proven by how many followers each person or profile has and how many “likes” the selected pictures received.

Grid of Instagram Images


To further expand on the grid of images, there is a slideshow that plays underneath the grid which provides an individual view of some of the images from the piece. When watching the slideshow, captions provide the name of the celebrity or user page. Also, the caption reveals the individuals occupation and how many “likes” that specific photo received. While viewing the slideshow, the viewer may note two occurrences. First, images in which more skin was revealed received more “likes” and comments on Instagram. Pictures taken from singer Justin Bieber and football star Chad Ochocinco’s pages exemplify this.  The second occurrence deals with two images of rapper/pop star Nicki Minaj. In both photographs Nicki Minaj reveals about the same amount of skin. The difference between the two pictures is the color of her hair. In one picture she has black hair and in the second image she has blonde hair. The black hair would be closer to her natural color presumably, but the picture of Nicki Minaj with blonde hair received the most “likes” and comments.  This could be caused by a number of reasons. Maybe Instagram users simply liked the change of hair color or maybe the picture with the blonde hair received a larger response because the picture was taken at a major event. These reasons are plausible, but one can also argue that the reason the masses prefer this picture over the other is because it stands better with the “normative gaze.”


The last item on the page is a photograph of the stout actress Gabourey Sidibe. Underneath her photograph is a poll that questions viewers whether they see her as beautiful or not. Viewers have the option to choose yes or no. Many people view Sidibe as obese, therefore she does not have the desired body structure. Despite voters’ identities remaining anonymous, I do not expect to get an accurate measure from the poll because people will not want to blatantly say that someone is not beautiful due to social ethics. However, I do hope that the poll will strike some form of evoking scrutiny towards the way we measure beauty.


Many people choose to disregard the “normative gaze” and its effects on the media. Those that choose to disregard the existence of this phenomenon are those that fit its criteria.  My goal with the webpage and the pieces I created for the page is to show viewers that the way our standardized definitions of beauty have filtered into the digital realm cannot be ignored. All of those that do not meet the criteria are underrepresented and ignored which causes communicative media to be far less rich than it could potentially become. The exclusion of people due to our rigid standards of beauty can be seen as a form of social domination. Take Gabourey Sidibe for example. Sidibe was advised to find another occupation other than acting because Hollywood is image-conscious and she did not have the “look.” There are countless others like Sidibe. This is important and relative to digital art because through the digital realm, artists like Nancy Burson can combat the “normative gaze” and completely alter the way we view beauty. The digital realm is a major vessel that transports many messages and many agendas. With an empowering message designed to combat the negative agenda produced by the “normative gaze,” a fulfilling experience can be made available to all people.


[1] In Abigail Haworth’s article Forced to be Fat, it is described how, in some parts of Africa, young girls are sent to “fat camps.” There they are force-fed so that they will reach the ideal standards of plus-size women.

[2] In The Cornel West Reader, the “normative gaze” is used to help chronicle the genealogy of racism. By setting a standard of beauty, European culture also created a group of the “other” which consisted of all those who did not meet the standard. This group of deviant individuals were then viewed as being inferior because they “fell short” of the determined model.

[3] Christiane Paul’s Digital Art discusses Nancy Burson’s Beauty Composites on page 29. Paul credits Burson as a pioneer in the field of computer-generated composite photographs.

[4] On the photo-sharing application, a user creates a profile in which they can begin sharing and posting photos and viewing other users’ posts. A user’s goal is to gain as many followers as possible and to get other users to comment on and “like” their pictures

[5] Weebly allows users to create and edit webpages and sites. With a purchase of the Pro package, users gain access to even more features.

[6] Marilyn Manson, “The Beautiful People,” Antichrist Superstar, 1999, Interscope Records.


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