The Construction of Femininities & the Racial Politics of Beauty

"Traditional vs. Cosmopolitan: Idealized Femininity and National Representation in Nigerian Beauty Pageants," Oluwakemi M. Balogun, Sociology
"The Look of a Woman: Surgical Reconstruction of the Transsexual Face," Eric Plemons, Anthropology


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 - 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm


691 Barrows Hall


Traditional vs. Cosmopolitan: Idealized Femininity and National Representation in Nigerian Beauty Pageants
Oluwakemi M. Balogun, Sociology

Drawing from interviews, ethnographic observations and content analysis, this talk compares two different pageants in Nigeria. The first pageant, the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria utilizes “international standards” to select and send contestants to Miss World and Miss Universe, the top pageants in the world. While the second contest, Queen Nigeria whose winners do not compete outside of Nigeria, brands itself as a Nigerian-based socio-cultural pageant. Through an analysis of the various discourses surrounding these pageants, I map two distinct ideologies of idealized femininity, one based on a traditional model and another based on a cosmopolitan standard, onto specific strands of national representation, situated at the local and transnational levels.  I argue that national representations can exist at multiple levels within the same country, and show how gendered discourses, specifically representations of women play a role in crafting nationalism. I examine the content, structure, beauty standards and associated bodily display of these pageants in order to substantiate my argument.

The Look of a Woman: Surgical Reconstruction of the Transsexual Face
Eric Plemons, Anthropology


Early surgical procedures intended to change a person’s sex focused on the genitals as the site of a body’s maleness or femaleness, and took the reconstruction of these organs as the means by which “sex” could be changed. Genital reconstructive surgery and endocrine interventions have remained at the center of both medical and popular imaginations in the question of somatic sex change. However, in the mid-1980s a novel set of techniques was developed in order to change a part of the body that proponents claim plays a more central role in the assessment and attribution of sex in everyday life: the face. Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS)—a set of bone and soft tissue techniques intended to feminize thefaces of male-to-female transsexuals—is predicated upon the notion that femininity is a measurable quality of the craniofacial complex that can be both reliably assessed and surgically reproduced. Such an assertion begs the questions: What does a woman look like? What forms of knowledge are used to support a claim to know?


This talk will address the history and current application of these techniques, calling special attention to the discourses of “science” and “aesthetics” that surgeons use to both support their claims to recognize “the feminine” and plan their interventions to produce it. From these distinct ontological beginnings, surgeons work toward the production of a femininity that is not only normative, but one that is also staged as the realization of the transsexual patient’s “true self.” Patients and surgeons share a projected post-surgical future in which the patient “passes” as an ordinary woman. The uncertain place of race and ethnicity within the medical category of “femininity” will be discussed from the perspective of both surgeon and patients.