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HOPE IN A JAR by Kathy Peiss

HOPE IN A JAR

The Making of America's Beauty Culture

By Kathy Peiss

Pub Date: May 21st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8050-5550-9
Publisher: Henry Holt

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder—but the power of the beauty culture to control women’s behavior is impressively illustrated in this study of the growth of America’s beauty industry. A history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Peiss (Cheap Amusements, not reviewed) chronicles the use of cosmetics over time and their economic, sociological, and psychological impact through the ages. She begins in the late 19th century, when cosmetics, often filled with such toxic substances as lead, were mostly the stuff of hussies and fallen women. She details the gradual acceptance of cosmetics, including their very important role in establishing women as entrepreneurs in business. Still, the frustrating standards created by make-up and its manufacturers (in idealizing blondes, for instance) have done damage to countless women’s self-esteem for long decades. Peiss does a particularly good job in tracing the impact of various standard WASP beauty fantasies on people, such as African-Americans, who could never hope to fulfill the fantasies. She does not succumb, though, to the seductions of militant feminism. While noting the paradoxical messages sent frequently to women from employers, who may focus to an absurd degree on physical appearance as a measure of professional value and achievement, Peiss also recognizes the positive roles played by the beauty culture in a woman’s private, social, and imaginative life. She concludes that cosmetics, if used sagely, can even serve to make a declaration of selfhood as one of many tools used by women “to announce their adult status, sexual allure, youthful spirit, political beliefs . . . and even to proclaim their right to self-definition.” A compelling look at beauty as a lightning rod for the bigger conflicts surrounding women’s still-evolving social place. (75 b&w photos, not seen)