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Beauty and the Making of Middle-Class Femininities in Turkey

Advertisement on the main boulvevard of Istanbul’s conservative Başakşehir district

Advertisement on the main boulvevard of Istanbul’s conservative Başakşehir district
Image Credit:  © Claudia Liebelt, July 2014

Principal investigator: Prof. Claudia Liebelt

Turkey now ranks among the top ten countries worldwide with the highest number of cosmetic surgeons per capita and of cosmetic procedures (ISAPS 2019), and its cultural and economic capital Istanbul has become a regional centre for the beauty and fashion industries. The research project argues that the politics of beauty are intricately bound up with the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Turkey.

Using ethnographic fieldwork carried out in beauty salons and clinics in different parts of Istanbul, it shows the profound effects of the recent beauty boom on urban residents’ body images, gendered norms and practices. It analyses a situation in which, in an atmosphere of social polarization and the common rhetoric of a strengthened division of society into secular and Islamic since the consolidation of power of the ruling party, there are strong and sometimes contrasting normative ideals of feminine beauty.

Hitherto dominant secular and culturally inflected norms of femininity are being challenged by the rise of a new pious urban middle class, as well as by ideals and images of hyper-femininity that rely on the ongoing consumption of beauty services in the urban beauty econ­omy. Confronting the common assumptions of self-proclaimed cosmopolitans in central neighbourhoods, beauty practitioners and customers in more peripheral or Muslim con­servative neighbourhoods prove not only well-informed of the latest styles and fashions, but also display a striking willingness to establish new intimate relation­ships and negotiate the boundaries of moral permissiveness and bodily well-being.

The research project centres on the affective politics of gendered beauty, aesthetic experiences and middle-class subjectivities in a global city. By doing so, it contributes to an interdisciplinary debate on beauty and femininities, which focuses on gendered desires, affectivity, and projects of self-making amid the global boom in beauty products and services.