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“Freedom, Equality, Beauty for Everyone”

Notes on Fantasizing the Modern Body

Laura Bieger

Pages 663 - 688


“Freedom, Equality, Beauty for Everyone”—these were the words of a recent advertising slogan of one of the world’s leading producers of purely natural cosmetics. Drawing on the emphatic creed of the French Revolution and capitalizing upon its iconic formulation of democratic values, the slogan captures a powerful double bind of modern culture that plays out with special force in its dominant mode of bodily production. For implied in this call for a radical democratization of physical beauty is the idea that one has to work for it; that universal beauty is, indeed, not given but the product of achievement; and that it takes commitment, for example by buying the right cosmetic products and using them with dedication and care. As something that one ‘has’ and cultivates rather than ‘is,’ the modern body is, indeed, a primary resource to gain recognition in a society of equals. In turning to material as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Figure,’ Theodor Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, the godfather of body-building Eugene Sandow, the video-clip for Pink’s song “Stupid Girls,” the Madonna of the album Hard Candy, and the work of contemporary artists such as Vanessa Beecroft, Cindy Sherman, and Orlan, I argue in this article that the history of the modern body as a primary site in the struggle for recognition evolved from an immensely productive (and equally problematic) conjunction of the actual and the imagined body. But the call for universal beauty not only captures this basic constitution of modern bodily production. In promoting ‘natural’ rather than surgical enhancement, it also speaks to its latest installment: a mode of production that, in blurring the different ontologies of the material body and its virtual image, creates substantial problems for living in the bodies thus produced.


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