Books | Mags | Articles | Ads | Film On other Photographers

An Article: The Price of Beauty

I found this article in Marie Claire magazine (May 2010, South Africa), I’m not a magazine buyer so this probably got left at my house by a visitor or I tore it surreptitiously out of a magazine in a waiting room. The article is written by Zed Nelson about his then new book “Love Me” (Thames & Hudson).


Over a five year period this photographer visited 17 countries while documenting this project on society’s obsession with beauty and youth. The article published in Marie Claire was an intriguing read with some quite radical reportage style images… Here are my best bits with images taken from the article as well as from his website which had  a wider range of the images published in the book:


I began Love Me when I was in my mid-thirties. I’m sure that was no coincidence. Like many long-term fascinations, I don’t know exactly when the idea seeded itself. Perhaps it began quite simply, one day, when I looked in the mirror and realised I would not live forever.
I’m sure I’m not alone in being surprised by that revelation. And I’m sure it comes at the age when you realise that the body you inhabit has been loaned to you, that it is not fully yours, not fully under your control. I realised, too, that the way I perceived myself was increasingly being influenced by others.


We live in a society that celebrates and iconizes youth. Beauty is a R1.1-trillion-a-year worldwide industry and the pursuit of body improvement has become like a new religion. The promise of bodily improvement is fuelled by advertising campaigns and commercially driven Western media, reflecting an increasingly narrow palette of beauty.


The modern Caucasian beauty ideal has been packaged and exported globally, and just as surgical operations to “Westernize” oriental eyes have become increasingly popular, so the beauty standard has become equally prescriptive. In Africa the use of skin-lightening and hair-straightening products is widespread. In South America, women have operations that bring them eerily close to the Barbie doll ideal, and blonde-haired models appear on the covers of most magazines. Anorexia is on the increase in Japan and, in China, beauty pageants – once banned as “spiritual pollution” – are now held across the country. “westernizing” the human body has become a new form of globalisation, and the homogenisation of appearance has made “Beauty” into a crude universal brand.

"Kill me, but make me beautiful" - Ancient Iranian Proverb
“Kill me, but make me beautiful” – Ancient Iranian Proverb

The more rigorously our vision is trained to appreciate the artificial, the more the beauty industry benefits. But who creates this culture? However much we may confidently point the finger at sinister commercial forces, we can’t deny our own tacit involvement. Like it or not, we have created a world in which there are enormous social, psychological and economic rewards and penalties attached to the way we look.

Vaginal tissue. Removed during ‘designer vaginal rejuvenation’ surgery, to ‘tighten and neaten appearance’. Los Angeles, USA.
Vaginal tissue. Removed during ‘designer vaginal rejuvenation’ surgery, to ‘tighten and neaten appearance’.
Los Angeles, USA.

Few of us can deny we want to be attractive. Don’t we all won’t to be loved? But have we been brainwashed into believing that in order to be loved, to be loveable, we need smaller noses, bigger breasts, tighter skin, longer legs, flatter stomachs and to remain forever youthful? Banks now offer loans for plastic surgery in Europe, and families in the USA with annual incomes under $25 000 (R185 487) account for 30% of all cosmetic surgery patients. Americans now spend more each year on beauty than they do on education.
As our role models become ever younger and more idealized, we are so afraid of ageing that the quest for youthful preservation generates an obsession with our bodies. As we align our sense of self-worth with self-image, the psychological and emotional consequences are tortuous….

Hair Extensions, London, UK. From Zed Nelsons book Love Me
This is one of the key topics I’m fascinated with myself. And questions like “what kind of beautifying is ok and what is extreme or over-the-top and who is the judge?” often come up.
At what point of effort or interference, with how your body appears naturally, is it too much, when do we go too far? Where is the line between a normal need for good presentation of ourselves and an excess of it fed by media? Is a needle and a blade the tipping point or not? Teeth bleaching or whitening tooth paste? Liposuction or excessive dieting? Eyeliner, mascara and eye brow tweezing? Labiaplasty? GHD’s? I suppose ones answers are derived from ones individual context and history…

I consider myself reasonably tom-boyish or maybe I just don’t have the inclination to maintain a certain kind of “up-keep” I see in many women around me. Although even I am happy to have laser hair removal and gelish re-applied bi-monthly (if I get around to doing it)… Its also ridiculously expensive to maintain some of the basic beauty standards without spending in excess of a couple of thousand a month which is obviously exactly the spending the beauty industry is punting. But apart from spending money and time (wasted?) “beautifying” or maintaining, we are basically self-made slaves to exactly this industry Zed discusses and looks at so well in his book.

I enjoyed these this comment about the book on his site:

“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.”
-Maria Popova

More here on the book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *