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Park, RE 2007, 'Race representation and subjectivity : a study of cultural responses to female beauty ideals in Australia', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright RE Park 2007


This inter-disciplinary research project draws upon media, cultural and visual art studies concerned with Western beauty ideals affecting non-Caucasian women in Australia. Primary research material obtained through a series of participant interviews and secondary research data have been used in various ways for the production of a series of artworks. The artworks are informed by a response to the data, and critique issues related to the ‘institutionalisation of whiteness’. Observations about experiences of Australian culture by the interviewees combined with an examination of the work by other artists in the field of race and identity, have informed a body of artwork.

The exegesis examines the role of idealised images of female beauty in stating, reflecting and reinforcing social attitudes and institutional priorities. The current ideal of female beauty is determined by a dominant Western culture that defines certain Caucasian physical features of skin colour, body structure and facial characteristics as being ‘more beautiful’ than those of any other. Personal semistructured interviews with a convenience sample of non-Caucasian women living in Australia identified bias towards a Caucasian / European ideal in relation to body image. A multiplicity of cultural productions associated with the body, its promotion and apparel reinforce this ideal.

Interviewees perceived a negative bias against non-whites through media imagery and visual representations, facilitated through the use of digital manipulation, stereotyping, physical exclusion and under representation of non white women. They also noted a dominance of idealised white women in media imagery. In addition to biased media representations, interviewees identified bias in the design, manufacturing and promotion of particular consumer products. These included clothes, sunglasses and makeup designed for a European body shape and physical structure. These products reinforced their sense of having alien status within the Australian community and the undesirable nature of their own particular physical features.

Western media and culture restate beauty ideals by situating stereotypes within visual images of idealised beauty, and facilitate a subconscious exchange of information. Women can measure their own worth based on a comparison to this ideal or stereotype. Significant historical factors have influenced the idealisation of whiteness. By examining visual art archives the practice of idealising whiteness is traced throughout the history of Western civilization, dating from the ancient Greeks (500BC). Motivating factors include an association with the elite, privileged and powerful as well as moral associations with chastity and purity. These values were exported globally following European expansion and subsequent colonisation of many countries from around the 16th to 20th centuries.

Responding to these issues my work explores issues associated with identity and power and to this extent the artwork highlights the individual encounter of non-Caucasian women within post-colonial Australia. Their experiences interrogate contemporary global culture in the context of national and individual identity in Australia today. My art works offer a set of interpretations and analyses of these concerns.

Constructed from wax, resin, clay, glass, installation and video extracts the work explores these narratives through figurative representation. The personal journey travelled throughout this PhD candidature is reflected through the exhibition material and highlights the renegotiation experienced as one traverses into unfamiliar cultural territory.

The interview contributions to the research enable projection of private perceptions into the public domain. The artworks made in response to and analysing issues raised through the theoretical research bring together the outer world of the social with the inner world of the psyche. The tension created between the spheres creates a spatial metaphor that is both interpreted and challenged through my visual art practice. The notion of an inner and outer space parallels fabrication methods used in the creation of my work where a hollow internal space is shelled by a ceramic skin separating it from the external space it occupies. The conceptual bridges connecting the internal experiences of the individuals involved in addition to my subjective response, and the external expression of this experience through the practical artworks produces a framework for intertextual analyses. This dynamic facilitates a transfer of meaning deployed through an understanding of how the work is made, where it comes from and what its meaning may infer for me and the viewer.

The inter-disciplinary format of this research has enabled a multifaceted exploration of theory and visual art practice, resulting in a diversity of outcomes aimed at contributing to social understanding in Australia’s future.

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