Molding women: Beauty ideals, self-image, and body work in American culture

Plan Author

  • Kimberly Geraci, 2009

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Tutorial: Cosmetic Surgery and Contemporary U.S. Culture
  • Tutorial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Eating Disorders
  • Tutorial: The Body, Beauty, and Self-Image in American Culture

Project Description

An exploration of the social, historical and psychological contexts surrounding feminine beauty ideals, self-image, and body work in American culture.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Rebecca Hains, Salem State College


Societal definitions of physical beauty have always incorporated both biological and cultural influences. In the past 100 years of American history, however, mass media and cosmetic surgery have allowed cultural standards to become the dominant force in defining beauty. As a result, a hegemonic standard of feminine beauty has emerged, which expects women to by thin, young, fair-skinned, and (preferably) blonde. This Plan examines the effects—both physical and psychological—that this modern standard of beauty has on American women.

Cosmetic surgery first entered mainstream American culture after World War II, when a large number of reconstructive surgeons who had been trained to treat injured soldiers were suddenly in need of new clients. Their target demographic quickly became middle-aged, middle-class women, who were returning to domesticity after years in the workforce during the war. Over the decades, the media would help this fledgling industry define a cultural standard of beauty, complete with reality shows (such as The Swan) and children’s books (My Beautiful Mommy). Today, over 14.6 million cosmetic procedures are undertaken in the U.S. each year; the women who undergo them often suffer significant physical and psychological trauma.

The body image issues at the root of cosmetic surgery can also lead to potentially fatal eating disorders such as anorexia. The development of pro-anorexia (“pro-ana”) online communities, in which anorexics share “thinspirational” poems and images that make their fasting easier, has only made this eating disorder more dangerous.


“For a disturbing proportion of these females, body image dissatisfaction does not fade with adolescence, or even with adulthood. As a result, millions of American females devote the better parts of their lives to altering their physical appearances in hopes that, one day, they will look in the mirror and finally feel that the image they see is good enough for society and thus for themselves.”

“Pro-ana communities follow the ideology that it is easier for a person with an eating disorder to embrace her compulsive and unhealthful behavior than to resist it. Sufferers unite to support one another in Sisyphean efforts to attain ‘perfection’ through starvation, compulsive exercise, purging, and any other behaviors they deem useful.”