Beirut Looks - Racial Capital, National Aesthetics, and the Female Body

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Culture Media and Creative Industries


This study investigates fashion and commercial models' embodiment of racial and linguistic capital within Beirut's fashion modelling industry. Taking the example of Beirut as the fashion metropolis of the Middle East, this study explores the impact of conflicting hegemonic neocolonial narratives of racialized and nationalized aesthetics on female Lebanese models as aesthetic labourers. Rooted in Lebanon's colonial history and ethno-religious diversity Beirut's fashion industry is strongly marked by conflicting racial and national aesthetic ideals, mirrored by the diverse bodily appearances of Lebanese models. This research asks how models, as active labourers and in charge of their bodily transformations, possess agency to either reproduce, but moreover resist and disrupt hegemonic aesthetic ideals, and thus challenge overarching racial and national hierarchies within the Lebanese fashion industry. It will shed light on the techniques with which models volitionally consume, manage, and employ bodily and linguistic symbols imbued with racial meaning as essential parts of their self-commodification and self-presentation.
The proposed methodology consists of a mixture of participant observation, as a way to conceive embodied knowledge and as a base for subsequent interview questions. Visual ethnography, i.e. models' video diaries, will help to interpret the very practical visual constructions of models' 'selves'. Structured and semi-structure interviews with models and agents will help gain a deep understanding of models' bodily practices, and linguistic patterns. The use of language(s), namely Arabic, English and French, by models within their work space, during interviews, and video recordings will be unpacked through conversation analysis to understand the verbal (re)productions of racial, national and personal model identities in talk-in-interaction.
This project is motivated by prior ethnographic research on modelling practices in the fashion industry of Amman, and research about national identity and dress, and racial capital in Cairo. Further, it is informed by extensive writing and researching about fashion, the body, and aesthetic labour. Through years of living in the Middle East and being multilingual myself, I have developed high sensitivity to the strategic use of visual and linguistic metaphors employed by fashion professionals to express racial and national background and ideological orientation. In addition, my work as a fitness instructor in Amman has revealed crucial shifts in bodily female beauty standards in the Arab world, symbolizing the disruption of imperialist aesthetics promoted by 'Western' fashion industries.
Embedded in a Bourdieusian approach to fashion as a field of cultural production, this study builds on Maurice Merleau-Ponty's works on embodiment to dissect the discursive nature and transformative power of bodily practices. Further it draws on literature on the female body as a representative medium of racial and national identity.
This project will contribute to knowledge about the underexplored domain of aesthetic labour in the Middle East and it's racial and linguistic implications.
Key Literature
Bernard, H. (2006) Research Methods in Anthropology. Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Lanham: Alta Mira Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1993 [1984]) Sociology in Question. London: Sage.
Entwistle, J. and Wissinger, E. (2012) Fashioning Models: Image, Text and Industry. London et al.: Berg.
Mallat, S. (2011) More Than Just Another Pretty Face? Understanding Motivations for Plastic Surgery Among Lebanese Female Youth. Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Beirut, American University of Beirut, Master of Arts.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1981) The Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London.
Sidnell, J. (2009) Conversation Analysis: Comparative Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
1916678 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 28/09/2023 Leoni Franziska Schwandt
Description This research explores the aesthetic landscape within the modelling and beauty industries of Beirut, Lebanon. It specifically looks at the aesthetics of femininities in the context of a post-colonial and neo-liberal working environment.
Understanding gendered and ideological legacies of Orientalism and European imperial projects in the Levant are central in order to untangle how female bodies have been racialised, sexualized and otherwise objectified, and employed as markers of 'the nation'.
Using ethnographic data from models, beauty pageant contestants, fashion professionals, but also feminist activists, I address how women manage their physical, emotional, and sexual selves within a context (neo-liberal aesthetic industries) that poses high demands on their appearance and demeanor.
The data was collected during a field research in Beirut in 2019. The women who participated in the research were of different economic and racial backgrounds, from different age groups, and with different sexual orientations. Despite the manifold differences, they were all involved to varying degrees in the fashion and beauty industries and hence demonstrated a high awareness of aesthetic norms and ideologies attached to certain physical features, dressing styles etc. Developing strategies for resistance was key for these women to create and maintain a sense of self and control over their bodies in an environment prone to silence female voices, desires and sexualities, and to divide female bodies into aestheticized fragments. The analysis of individual and collective resistance strategies will provide insights how female agency operates and counteracts patriarchal and racist impositions.

The research thus far has been proven to be successful, however the analysis is yet to be completed.
Exploitation Route Within academic literature the focus on modelling and beauty industries is notoriously eurocentric. Interpretations of beauty in the global south tend to rely on colonial fantasies of exoticism and eroticism. The results of this research will provide new insights on different aesthetic preferences and their negotiations within a multi-racial environment, as well as their entanglements with Orientalist and neo-Orientalist ideologies.
Further, it emphasizes the great need for collaborations between European and Arab academic institutions and scholars, in order to foster a deeper and more differentiated understanding of the respective other beyond Orientalism and anti-Orientalism. Only such cooperation can then tackle persisting stereotypical and racist images of the 'other'.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Collaboration in the field 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The field research of the project has been based on collaboration and sharing of ideas about aesthetics, respective social-cultural, and working conditions within different beauty industries. As the results are yet to be published, so far, my presence in the field as a white European female researcher, cooperation and researching with fashion professionals mainly from Lebanon, but also Syria, Russia and Romania, has hopefully contributed to an intercultural dialogue.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019