Guest Post: Malia McAndrew on American Beauty Culture

Malia McAndrew blogs about the larger contexts of American “beauty culture” as they related to her forthcoming article “Japanese American Beauty Pageants and Minstrel Shows: The Performance of Gender and Race by Nisei Youth during World War II.” McAndrew is assistant professor of history at John Carroll University who regularly teaches an undergraduate history course on Twentieth Century Youth Culture and is currently finishing a monograph entitled Beauty Culture Battlegrounds: Race, Sex, and America’s Redefinition of the Feminine Ideal, 1945-1972.

The Pursuit of Perfection: A Historian’s Reflections on the Meanings of American Beauty Culture

Historically, the 4th of July has been a popular day for beauty contests in the United States. In this 1940 image girls of all ages are shown lining up for a local pageant in Salisbury, Maryland. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection. <a href=

While researching the history of Japanese American beauty pageants, fashion shows, clothing trends and hairstyles for my article in this month’s edition of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, I often found myself contemplating our society’s current obsession with youth, beauty, and physical perfection. While my article focuses on the experiences of one very small subset of Americans –young people who came of age inside U.S. incarceration camps some seventy years ago– the daily struggles these youngsters faced will no doubt seem familiar to the modern reader. Inside the camps, young people worried about their appearance, they spent hours trying to look more attractive, and placed great value upon popular American standards of beauty. Today, many of us continue to obsess about our hair, our weight, our clothes, and every other aspect of our physical appearance. Particularly for young women and girls, an intense drive to model our bodies after predominant standards of beauty leaves many of us feeling perpetually inadequate. As a historian, I encourage others to look to the past for perspective on our contemporary situation. Indeed, I suggest that by looking at beauty culture’s history we can begin to reconsider our own practices, understand how the society we live in came to be, and chart a different future.

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