Appearance and Identity



In postmodern society, physical appearance has become increasingly central to defining personal identity, as evidenced by the proliferation of features in newspapers, magazines, and television concerned with the health, shape, and fashioning of the body, and by the advent of a plethora of products and technologies for modifying the body, such as diet pills, exercise programs, and cosmetic surgery. Individuals are now expected to undertake regimes of body maintenance designed to sustain and improve their health and physical appearance, and failure to do so is seen as a sign of moral laxity. As Mike Featherstone (1991a, 187–93) points out, in our modern consumer culture, a new conception of the self has emerged— namely, the self as performer—which places great emphasis upon appearance, display, and the management of impressions. This replaces the nineteenth-century concern with character in which primacy was given to such qualities as citizenship, democracy, duty, work, honor, reputation, and morals. Whereas previously, greater emphasis was placed on other sources of identity formation than that of personal appearance, increasingly, the self is defined primarily in aesthetic terms—that is, in terms of how one looks rather than in terms of what one does.


Physical Appearance Cosmetic Surgery Outward Appearance Body Project Contemporary Culture 
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  1. 1.
    Douglas Kellner (1993) has a useful discussion of the “problem” of identity in postmodernity.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Arthur Marwick (1988,13–22) also argues that physical appearance is accorded a greater importance today than ever before, though he fails to see this as being in any way problematic.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See Bonnie English (2007, 28–42) for a more detailed account of the democratization of fashion in the early twentieth century.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    See Malcolm Barnard (1996, 166–69) for a discussion of this concept in relation to postmodern fashion. However, while I am using the terms “pastiche” and “bricolage” interchangeably, Barnard seeks to distinguish the latter from the former, suggesting that bricolage is less nihilistic than pastiche.Google Scholar
  5. 15.
    Alison Clarke and Daniel Miller analyze this phenomenon (2002). As they argue, in contemporary culture, where there is no single dominant fashion but rather a multiplicity of different styles, individuals face increasing anxiety about what to wear. In response to this, there is a tendency to retreat into forms of dress that are less individualizing or expressive in order to avoid possible social embarrassment. Even in instances where individuals are knowledgeable about fashion and style, they are often at a loss as to what is most appropriate for them to wear.Google Scholar

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© Llewellyn Negrin 2008

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