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What is it about models that makes us regard them as 'beautiful'? How is beauty distinguished, shaped and disseminated? Do people in different countries hold different views on beauty? Dr Giselinde Kuipers, senior university lecturer in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam aims to answer these questions in a new study, for which she was recently awarded a €1.2 million ERC Grant.

What is it about models that makes us regard them as 'beautiful'? How is beauty distinguished, shaped and disseminated? Do people in different countries hold different views on beauty? Dr Giselinde Kuipers, senior university lecturer in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam aims to answer these questions in a new study, for which she was recently awarded a €1.2 million ERC Grant.

As Kuipers found, the concept of beauty did not play a key role in people's daily lives until the emergence of the mass media. ‘About 150 years ago, we didn't have that many means at our disposal to look at images of other people. It wasn't until the last 50 years that we came to live in a world of images. As a result, the idea of beauty has come to play an important role in all our lives. I want to find out more about the way in which we form our ideals of beauty, and whether or not aesthetic ideas vary both within and between individual countries.' For the purposes of her research, Kuipers will be focusing on six European countries, including three key style centres: the United Kingdom (London), Italy (Milan) and France (Paris) and three countries that play a marginal role in the world of fashion: the Netherlands, Poland and Turkey.

IKEA catalogue

Kuipers, who recently conducted research on the international dissemination of humour on the basis of a Veni grant, is focusing her study - funded through an EU ERC Grant - around the transnational modelling industry. ‘The industry offers an intensified cross-section of the prevailing views on beauty. Most people associate modelling with major fashion brands, but the industry is much broader than that - our research will also encompass so-called plus size models, very young or very old models, and the sort of models featured in publications such as the IKEA catalogue. We will be focusing on both male and female models.'

Kuipers will be assessing the views of professionals in the transnational modelling world - photographers, agents, stylists, managing directors of modelling agencies. A doctoral candidate will be conducting an in-depth assessment of the models' own experiences - what are they taught about beauty, what are their own views? Another doctoral candidate will be analysing both national versions of international magazines (such as Cosmopolitan) and local publications in terms of image content, by assessing the models depicted in these publications. Finally, a graduate researcher will interview ‘everyday people' and conduct a survey of their views on beauty.

Skinny models

Kuipers' research is a perfect complement to the current debate on the skinny models -photoshopped or not, as the case may be - used by major fashion brands. However, she is keen to stress that her research does not set out to measure the effects of media and fashion industry influence.

‘I assess people's views on skinny models in order to find out to which extent they buy into this concept of beauty. However, I'm not operating on the basis of an effect model that points the finger of blame at the fashion industry and media, if only because I'm not at all sure that such an effect can actually be isolated. You can also view the fashion industry as a prism of sorts. Society regards ‘skinny' as beautiful, the industry picks up on these signals and reflects them back to society in a somewhat altered and exaggerated form. Society and the fashion industry interact with one another; we cannot simply lay the blame at the industry's doorstep.'

No McDonaldisation

Kuipers is far more interested in examining demonstrable processes, such as globalisation. ‘There's a general assumption that we are currently seeing a process of homogenisation: the same images and models keep cropping up around the world. This is only partly true, however. The international fashion industry does tend to use the same models, there's no denying that. Within individual countries themselves, however, the divide between international and local culture has actually widened. This may result in a deepening gulf between people who only read national magazines and people with a more international outlook. I expect to see further fragmentation rather than a process of McDonaldisation.' According to Kuipers, this development could also have some undesirable outcomes: ‘This cultural divide could result in growing inequality and distance between social groups. For example, people with a more cosmopolitan outlook will know what sort of ‘look' to present when applying for work at companies and other organisations; those with a more local outlook won't have access to this knowledge, and may be overlooked as a result.'

The study will commence in May 2010 and will run for a period of five years.