Aesthetic Labour programme

Jamie Khoo

PhD thesis topic
Contemporary constructions of feminine beauty and body image

Jamie, PhD student


Talking Looks: Aesthetic Labour Colloquium

University of Sheffield, 11-12 July 2016

Director of CWS, Professor Victoria Robinson, and doctoral student, Jamie Khoo, attended and presented at Talking Looks: Aesthetic Labour colloquium
(article by Jamie Khoo).

Talking Looks

Much contemporary research around bodies, body image and notions of beauty is seen as increasingly important for refocusing attention on the value that we place on ‘doing looks’ (Frost, 1999). These studies consider not just what we look like, but also the practices and labour that we invest to achieve particular aesthetics, and the value and meanings we attribute to these activities.

The Aesthetic Labour colloquium, held over two days in Sheffield in mid July 2016, brought together researchers and academics, some with direct experience in medical and fashion-related industries, to discuss discoveries, concerns and current research in the area of beauty and aesthetics. The international inter-disciplinary colloquium was jointly organised by Dr Sean Williams from the University of Sheffield, Professor Victoria Robinson from the University of York’s Centre for Women’s Studies and Professor Giselinde Kuipers from the University of Amsterdam, who all also presented papers across the two days.

I presented a paper on the practices of ‘doing beauty’ in conventional print media (fashion magazines) and alternative online media platforms which attempt to challenge mainstream beauty ideals. Alongside me in the same panel were two researchers from Sheffield: Aysha Musa who spoke first about the representations of feminine beauty in artistic depictions of the biblical figure of Judith; and Dr. Caroline Ardrey who discussed the ‘doing’ of beauty in the works of late 19th-century French poets, Baudelaire and Mallarmé. In all our papers, there was a linked focus on the intersections between femininity, physical bodies and appearances, and fashions; and how these physical displays of beauty are often so intricately tied to more intangible, non-physical characteristics of individuals – morality, affective experiences, emotions and judgements.

This was followed by Prof Giselinde Kuipers’s presentation, outlining key findings from a research project she current heads, The Comparative Sociology of Beauty. In particular, she spoke of the ‘aesthetic capital’, which draws on Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital, examining if, how and why it has become more important to be beautiful today, the values we place on looking beautiful, and how we both internalise and express these values. The project looks in depth at how we form and make aesthetic judgements: What do we find beautiful? How does our gender, race and ethnicity, cultural and social backgrounds affect what we think of as beautiful? What emotions, desires and expectations do we bring with us in our judgements of what is beautiful or not?

Other talks during the first day included discussions on how tattoos create strong identities for people within communities – among ex-Navy men and gang members, for example – and how tattoos carry with them very specific and meaningful narratives about an individual’s life. This leads to interesting questions about how the practice of tattooing has itself changed, becoming more a fashionable trend now than as a practice heavily embedded with meaning, identity and commemorative value.

The final panel addressed issues within the more ‘outward’ practices of aesthetic labour – cosmetic and dental surgery, hairdressing and wigs – and the dilemmas inherent within these industries. To what extent, for example, can these practices be ‘justified’ for aiding individuals with disabilities or illnesses, without inadvertently reinforcing very particular – and perhaps ultimately harmful – body and beauty ideals or trends?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the second day of the colloquium, when our own CWS Director, Professor Victoria Robinson spoke on footwear, identity and everyday aesthetic transitions. Panels on this day featured talks about the spaces where aesthetic labour and beauty practices are conducted, such as hair and nail salons, and window displays in stores; and talks that called into question notions of femininity and masculinity in the way that we (aesthetically) present ourselves.

With speakers from across diverse disciplines – including arts and humanities, languages, management, education, dentistry, architecture, sociology and gender studies – the Aesthetic Labour colloquium brought into focus the significance that aesthetics and its related practices / labour, has in far more areas of Western society and culture than we might realise. It explored how individuals are expected to dress, look and ‘perform’ within their work spaces; how we absorb cultural and social mores and expectations which are then reflected in the way we present ourselves, whether consciously or not; and how ‘doing beauty’ is regarded as a part of our work and jobs, or contributes much more strongly to constructions and representations of the self.

Talks presented during the colloquium and the following discussion between speakers and participants opened up further questions for inquiry: how technology aids or harms aesthetic practices; how changing notions of beauty and aesthetics across communities, cultures and history enhances or complicates our understandings of the ways bodies are seen and received; how aesthetic practices can be empowering – or not.

As much as we might shy away from being valued for our physical selves, the bottom line is that first impressions count – unfortunately, who we are is still so often judged by what we look like (Finkelstein 1991, Orbach 2009). Colloquiums like this one in Sheffield sought to bring researchers together to query existing representations, constructions, knowledge and meanings around aesthetic labour; and in turn, find ways to expand the conversation around bodies to encompass more than just our immediate, outward appearances.

A video of the colloquium and the ongoing collaboration that organisers hope to foster after the two days can be viewed here. More information is available on the colloquium website.


Finkelstein, Joanne. 1991. The fashioned self. Cambridge: Polity Press
Frost, Liz. 1999. "Doing Looks': Women, Appearance and Mental Health." In Women's Bodies: Discipline and Transgression, edited by Jane Arthurs and Jean Grimshaw, 117-136. London: Cassell.
Orbach, Susie. 2009. Bodies. London: Profile Books.


Last Updated: November 11, 2016 |

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