Brain Pickings

Love Me: The Cross-Cultural Manufacturing of Beauty

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What Chinese noses and hairy Brazilians have to do with the Moore’s law of breast.

The “beauty industry.” The glaring oxymoron of this very term — standardizing and industrializing something that’s supposed to be abstract and subjective and “in the eye of the beholder” — aptly reflects its status as one of the most controversial yet ubiquitous facets of culture. We’ve all read about, heard of or seen first-hand the various disjointed manifestations and consequences of humanity’s unhealthy obsession with “beauty” — eating disorders, plastic surgery addiction, plain old nacrissism and social discrimination — but capturing the complete, wide-angle story of this cultural idée fixe is an incredibly ambitious task.

That’s exactly what photographer Zed Nelson explores in Love Me — a gripping, powerful series of images that capture the conflicting social, psychological and economic rewards and penalties of appearance obsessions.

Beauty is a $160 billion-a-year global industry. The worldwide pursuit of body improvement has become a new religion.

Elham, 19, and her mother, 55. Rhinoplasty 'nose job' operation.

Tehran, Iran.

The idea that blonde is best began as early as the eighteenth century when ethnologists, sociologists and English anthropologists such as Englishman Charles White began drawing up hierarchical gradations for mankind, starting with what were believed to be the lowliest — the negroes, bushmen and aborigines — to the yellow races and Slavs, until they reached the white race, thought to be the supreme species.” ~ The Observer

'I'm competing with men 20 years younger than me.' - Anthony Mascolo, 46. Liposuction to chin and abdomen.

New Jersey, USA

The book reveals the frightening commodification of beauty, both industrially and culturally, (did you know that ten years ago, reconstructing a woman’s breasts cost $12,000, compared to $600 today?), exposing the intricate network of transactions and businesses that govern it — the fashion, cosmetics, diet, medical and entertainment industries, with their powerful propaganda mechanisms and meticulous marketing plans.

‘Westernising’ the human body has become a new form of globalisation, with ‘Beauty’ becoming a homogenous brand. The more rigorously our vision is trained to appreciate the artificial, the more industries benefit.

Nose bridge prosthetic implants, to increase size of nose.

Beijing, China

Like it or not, we are judged, and judge, by appearance. Perhaps we are obsessed with the way our own bodies look because we know how instinctively judgemental we are of the bodies that we look at.

'I want to be thin. I was always very sporty at school. Now I am a skeleton.' - Fiona Harris, 44. Anorexic. 6.5 stone.

Winchester, UK

The body has, in a sense, become just another consumer purchase. Everyone can, in the spirit of our age, go shopping for bodily transformation. Banks now offer loans for plastic surgery. American families with annual incomes under $25,000 account for 30 per cent of all cosmetic surgery patients. Americans spend more each year on beauty than they do on education.

'Men's Health magazine (USA) hasn't had a hairy chest on its cover since 1995.' - Wall Street Journal

Copacabana Beach. Rio, Brazil.

From sexed up teenage club-hoppers to prison beauty queens to a brilliantly curated Alain de Botton quote, the book is a cover-to-cover gem that explores, with superb creative direction and a merciless confrontation with superficiality, the most uncomfortable fringes of cultural anthropology.

Ox and Angela, plastic surgeon and wife.

Rio, Brazil

Nelson’s introductory statement about the project is very much worth a read. Explore the collection online, or grab a copy of Love Me for the real deal of glossy-paged coffeetable indulgence.

On a tangential design-pet-peeve aside, it’s worth noting that Nelson’s site exemplifies everything that a well-designed, slick, navigable, share-friendly photographer website should be, combining the seamlessness of Flash with the link shareability of HTML, all delivered in a brilliantly architectured and user-friendly interface — a welcome break from the unshareable, nightmarish to navigate flashturbation dominating today’s photographer portfolios. Hat tip to you, Sir Zed.

Nelson is represented by INSTITUTE for Artist Management, where you can find out more about his work.

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