Rowman and Littlefield International

What’s in a Face?

Published on Monday 08 Apr 2019 by Elaine Stratford, University of Tasmania, Australia

When I visit the local pharmacy, I find myself wandering down the beauty aisles trying to decipher claims made in two font size on various products. This habit stems from once working as a research assistant to Peter Mühlhäusler, the professor of linguistics at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, who was working on a book about the rise of “green” language, including in relation to consumer products. [i] My work for Peter was fascinating — the promises made on so many products were seductive and offended my growing commitments to feminism and social justice.


Among the most interesting claims I read were those that insisted on a correlation between [natural] health and [the artifice of] beauty products and that fuelled a range of discourses and practices that constitute “the feminine”. That was 25 years ago. Over the intervening quarter-century, I have been slowly working to understand some of the historical, cultural, and political geographies and antecedents to the modern health and beauty industry. My research has unsettled—yet not wholly removed—some of my earlier assumptions about the oppressive characteristics of the industry. But I get ahead of myself.



Beauty’s moral code


"The face is a powerful entity, laden with meaning."

During the long nineteenth century, the periodical press moved into lockstep with an emergent consumer ethic. [ii] Over those years—from around 1789 to around 1914—commentaries and advertisements on the broadsheets of increasing numbers of newspapers and magazines helped to change the ways in which gender, class, and other forms of identity were expressed. Included among them were national and imperial ascriptions. Consider the idea of the “English rose” as code for a particular (and superior) kind of Anglocentric beauty extensible to a particular (and superior) kind of race.


As a cultural and political geographer, I am interested in the intricate relationships that exist between and among consumerism, communication, and identity (even if their dynamics have shifted dramatically in the period since 1914). I want to understand how and why the pursuit of beauty was considered women’s first duty because outward appearance was seen to be a barometer of inner being. And I want to discern the effects that arise because—among sighted people interacting in physical proximity—the face is often the first part of the body that is recognized. It is a powerful entity, laden with meaning.


I am fascinated by the ways in which this fixation with beauty’s moral coding produced all kinds of moral geographies that implicate the interior of the body; the face and other parts of the body’s surface; or of the body in relation to other spaces such as the home, the street, town, or nation. How did the visage become so over-burdened as a chief signifier of the wellbeing or the degeneration of the individual, the race, or the empire? How was it that a woman’s face promised refinement and allure and, when cultivated—but never over-cultivated—signified her health and moral goodness? Or that clear eyes, clear skin, healthy hair, full lips—all hinted at her fecundity and capacity to maintain the health of nations and advance their imperial ambitions? After all, generations of women were told that the hand that rocked the cradle also ruled the world. [iii] By such means—and among the upper and burgeoning middle classes, often (and increasingly almost only) by such means—could a woman make apparently natural, powerful contributions to family and society.


Woman’s first duty – the visualization of power


How, then, did the pursuit of beauty constitute a larger duty through which to communicate one’s physical and moral proximity to (if not full achievement of) a feminine ideal that underpinned the biopolitics and geopolitics shaping the health of the population and national and imperial vigour? For communication this was: according to Deleuze and Guattari, visagéité or “faciality” traits are a language. [iv] Building on this idea, Rosi Braidotti describes faciality as the visualization of power. [v]


"Categories such as beauty and ugliness have come to signify goodness and evil."


In turn, Deborah Dixon and Elizabeth Straughan speculate about whether ‘the deployment of the hands for technicity allows for the face to become the apparatus for human speech’. This conjecture then informs their larger quest to comprehend how the body’s interiority—‘psyche … soul … meat, flesh and bones’—and the exterior world of ‘other people, life forms and objects’ relate such that ‘the human is able to emerge’. [vi] Considering surfaces, Isla Forsyth and her colleagues work with ideas about faciality, suggesting that the ‘face, skin, retina, ear drum, vocal chords, [and] taste buds’ profoundly affect encounters, engagements, experiences, and expressions. [vii] Connections between faces and biopolitics are also well-established by Jenny Edkins, who forges clear links between projects to dismantle the face and the risk of exposure to madness or abjection or unreason. [viii]


The sociologist Anthony Synnott has written some of the most persuasive work on what can be called the semiotics of the face, and it is possible to augment his work with a spatial sensibility—something central to geographical thought. [ix] Synnott maps how the borders of the face give expression to different kinds of identity, which are communicated to self and others, make meaning, and are interpreted. As Hegel, to whom he also refers, has noted: ‘meaning is always something wider than what shows itself in the immediate appearance’. [x] So, Synnott also analyses in great detail how categories such as beauty and ugliness have come to signify goodness and evil, reminding us how powerful such groupings can be—how they shape life’s chances and trajectories.



Naturalizing beauty as a regime of power


Consider, then, just two regular columns in two periodicals. The first, entitled “Toilet Talk”, appears in the Australian paper, The Sun. Written by “Sunflower”, the column provided advice to women readers wishing to enhance the methods they applied their grooming, deportment, and associated regimes. On 4th September 1896, for example, Sunflower wrote a piece entitled “How to Retain Beauty”, in which she asserted that ‘every woman, although she will not always care to confess it, is possessed with the desire to be beautiful’ and will, to such ends, use every possible means in her power. Sunflower exonerates such determination because, she writes, it is:


"woman’s mission to be beautiful, and as a French moralist has it, “her first duty”. Therefore let me urge upon my fair sister the necessity of endeavouring to retain, by care and precaution, the good looks she may possess. Nature is not always generous in her physical gifts, but remember this, every defect has an opposite quality, and by attending to a few simple toilet rules … everyone may … resist the inroads of time and the fret and worry of life generally." [xi]


Note how Sunflower argued categorically that women universally long to be beautiful because they know it signifies goodness. Therefore, and to such ends, Sunflower insists that women must understand the cultivation of beauty as a pressing moral obligation. Indeed, women who fail to conduct themselves according to a few simple beauty rules are threatened with the prospect of being marked by capricious Nature. Time is literally spatialized in this passage—etched line by line onto the faces of those who have neglected to follow prescribed beauty regimes and the disciplinary conduct they imply. [xii] Little wonder, then, that Sunflower would argue that simple beauty regimes could influence a woman’s life-course, capacity to flourish, and ability to contribute to society by fulfilling her natural roles.


And Sunflower was certainly not alone, as the second column I touch on suggests. On 15 June 1909—as on other days—London’s broadsheet Daily Mail contained a column entitled “My Lady’s Toilet”. That Tuesday, the column comprised a lengthy article entitled “The Face & its Treatment”. [xiii] In it, claims are made about the most effective natural restoratives for the skin, and the ways in which perfumes, gemstones, hair-oils, and face creams, help women achieve beauty. Attention is given to the smile and good teeth. Each claim is elaborated upon by narratives promoting certain products, and all of them together are front-ended by an introduction that provides a highly embellished and abridged history of beauty’s power. The ‘science of beauty culture’, as touted by entrepreneurs such as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, is also celebrated in the column. As Lindy Woodhead has noted of those two women, their:


"intuition in taking “beauty culture” out of the realms of snake oil salesmanship and into the realms of respectability was a masterstroke. But their real genius was to put their name above the door of their own beauty salons, creating shrines to the mysteries of the skin and the body beautiful, in a mise-en-scène that was as inspired a business move as it was inspiring to their clients." [xiv]



Thinking about the up-side


This morning, I went to the pharmacy to pick up some protein powder. At fifty-something, I know I need to maintain my muscle mass to keep decrepitude at bay. Strength training and supplementing with “1gm protein for lb of body weight” has helped me do that. I managed not to pick up any lipstick and told myself the moisturizer would last until payday.


I have not been immune to the promises made on beauty products. Nor have I found an antidote to the galling sense that much of the industry is oppressive on multiple fronts. However, by slowly working to understand some of the industry’s antecedents and their historical, cultural, and political geographies I have come to appreciate that the periodical press was a crucially important vehicle by which women found voice in the public domain. It would be easy—even glib—to dismiss the way in which many of them wrote about, read about, and put into practice countless snippets of advice about how to cultivate healthful beauty. This includes truly diabolical ones that touted the efficacy of belladonna in the eyes or arsenic and lead on the skin, to give one that fashionable consumptive look. But another insight emerges from sustained engagement with the archive, and “collaborative conversations” between that archive and contemporary texts. Alongside those snippets was a growing number of claims about women’s real health needs, their real domestic burdens, the conception of them as property, and their intelligences and capacities to do and be more.



[1] Harré, R., Mühlhäusler, P. & Brockmeier, J. (1999) Greenspeak: A Study of Environmental Discourse. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

[2] Law, G. (2012) Periodicalism. In M. Hewitt (ed.) The Victorian World. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 537–54.

[3] Wallace, W.R. (1865 [1890]) The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. In: Northrop, H.D. (ed.) Beautiful Gems of Thought and Sentiment. Boston, MA: The Collins-Patten Company.

[4] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia (with Notes on the Translation and Acknowledgements by Brian Massumi). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 115.

[5] Braidotti, R. (2015) Punk women and riot grrls. Performance Philosophy, 1(1), pp. 239–54.

[6] Dixon, D. & Straughan, E. (2010) Geographies of touch/touched by Geography. Geography Compass, 4(5), pp. 449–59.

[7] Forsyth, I., Lorimer, H., Merriman, P. & Robinson, J. (2013) Guest Editorial. What are surfaces? Environment and Planning A, 45(5), pp. 1013–20, at p. 1015.

[8] Edkins, J. (2013) Dismantling the face: landscape for another politics? Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31(3), pp. 538–53.

[9] Synnott, A. (1989) Truth and goodness, mirrors and masks – Part I: A sociology of beauty and the face. The British Journal of Sociology, 40(4), pp. 607–36.

Synnott, A. (1990) Truth and goodness, mirrors and masks – Part II: A sociology of beauty and the face. The British Journal of Sociology, 41(1), pp. 55–76.

[10] Hegel, G.W.F. (1975 [1835]) Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art. Volume I. Translated by T.M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, at p. 20.

[11] “Sunflower” (1896) Toilet Talk. The Sun, The Society Courier. 4 September, p. 3.

[12] The irony is that inadvertently Sunflower raises two spectres here: the millions of women who died before thirty, most often from consumption or complications in childbirth; and the figure of the “crone”—literally withered woman, from the French carogne, meaning carrion.

[13] (1909) The face & its treatment, Daily Mail, 15 June, p. 10.

[14] Woodhead, L. (2017) War Paint: Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry. London: Hachette UK.



  1. Oleg Magni, Pexel,
  2. Mrs Elizabeth Stone (1845) Chronicles of fashion : from the time of Elizabeth to the early part of the nineteenth century, in manners, amusements, banquets, costume, etc.
  3. Cover of Puck magazine, 6 April 1901. Columbia’s Easter bonnet / Ehrhart after sketch by Dalrymple.




Elaine Stratford works as a research professor in the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Her latest book, Home, Nature, and the Feminine Ideal: Geographies of the Interior and of Empire, was published by Rowman & Littlefield International in January 2019.