- Introduction:Revisiting Beauty
As Central America's smallest, but most densely populated country, El Salvador sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. In some ways, El Salvador is a progressive nation following its civil war (1979–1992), spurred by military repression and income equality. For example, despite its small geographic size and poverty, El Salvador is internationally known for refusing to accept Monsanto's genetically modified seeds (Malkin 2014). Monsanto, a large and powerful corporation based in the United States, holds a monopoly over seeds sold to farmers throughout the globe. However, El Salvador is also the most violent nation in the Western hemisphere (Data Team 2017) fueled by political corruption, economic depression (partly due to changing the currency to the U.S. dollar in 2001), and patriarchal and homophobic norms governing post–civil war Salvadoran society. While the violence of Salvadoran gangs—largely comprised of disenfranchised and undocumented youth growing up in U.S. cities who are frequently deported to El Salvador—are often reported in U.S. news outlets, non-gang-related violence is less known outside of El Salvador. For example, trans people face the most violence in El Salvador than in any other nation in the world (Renteria 2017). Trans women are most often attacked because of their appearance and whether or not they pass for cis women. Beauty practices are at the heart of this type of violence because one's life is dependent on conforming to local, hyperfeminine beauty ideals.
We open Beauty with this specific case as a reminder that beauty is not a frivolous concept nor practice. In many corners of the world, if and how one chooses to challenge beauty regimes cannot only lead to marginalization [End Page 13] but also sometimes violence. As such, this issue emphasizes the materiality of beauty.
The politics of beauty have been heavily debated within feminist studies and LGBTQ studies. While some feminists critiqued beauty as an extension of patriarchal gender regimes, other feminists reconceptualized beauty as a form of play and identity expression (Church Gibson 2013). At the same time, women of color feminists, particularly black and Chicana feminists, such as bell hooks and Amalia Mesa-Bains (2006), and María Elena Cepeda (2008), acknowledge the significance of beauty—not only as personal adornment but also as a mode of survival. Moving away from white second wave feminists who dismissed beauty as mere compliance with patriarchal expectations, some women of color feminists embraced beauty as a site of agency. In response, LGBTQ studies and critical disability studies critique heteronormative beauty regimes and explore the potentials of non-gender-normative stylizations and more inclusive modes of recognition. This issue of WSQ places new interventions in gender and sexuality studies in conversation with these debates.
The pieces in this issue take a critical and transgressive approach to gendered and sexualized conceptions of beauty. What is gendered beauty? How can we know that something is beautiful? Is the pursuit of beauty a fruitful endeavor in gender and sexuality studies? How is beauty being redefined, especially in light of race, disability, class, gender, sexuality, and economics? How are dominant beauty regimes steeped in racism, gender binaries, sexism, able-bodiedness, homophobia, colonialism, and capitalism? How do marginalized communities engage in beauty practices as forms of survival and resistance? How does beauty undergird countercultural movements? What is the relationship between beauty and aesthetics?
Early germinal feminist scholarship dismisses beauty as a form of patriarchal subjugation. For example, in her classic text The Beauty Myth (1990), Naomi Wolf calls attention to the unrealistic beauty standards expected of women in our male-dominated society. In Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1993), Susan Bordo builds on Wolf's critique and links popular culture representations of beauty to female pathology, particularly eating disorders. Bordo also notes that women's beauty regimes are not only sexist, but also largely Eurocentric. Black feminists also note the Eurocentrism in dominant beauty regimes, but at the same time note that beauty politics are complicated in Black communities. For example, Maxine Leeds Craig in her book Ain't I a Beauty Queen? Black [End Page 14...