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The history and science of what makes us beautiful

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Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

That’s the big question posed by this exhibition in London.

‘The Cult of Beauty’ at Wellcome Collection goes more than skin-deep to explore the history, science and business of what makes us beautiful.

It includes more than 200 objects and artworks.

There are the classical ideals of Roman statues from the 1st century.

There’s a 4,000 year-old make up palette from Egypt, with wells carved into it to hold cosmetics.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and popstar Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line offered foundation shades for women whose skin colours had previously not been catered for by the beauty industry.

The exhibition celebrates different visions of beauty, from the ‘Miss Black and Beautiful’ winner of 1970s London, to a Brazilian prison beauty queen and the 9 year-old champion of a Texas pageant.

Curator Janice Li says she wants visitors to think about what it means to be beautiful.

"We've been told that there's a golden ratio of body proportions, there are golden rules that we can follow to achieve them. That's what we've been told through books, philosophy, for popular media or inter-generational knowledge from our parents, from our ancestors,” she says.

“But they are so different. People told us things that: do this, follow this, you'll be beautiful. But how do we end up chasing different things? Is that true, then? Is anything that we've been sold actually the universal standard of beauty?"

It’s easier than ever to change the way we look, with cosmetic procedures or non-surgical tweaks like Botox and filler widely available.

The exhibition touches on plastic surgery, including artist Shirin Fathi’s exploration of her Persian culture’s obsession with nose jobs.

But Li says the exhibition does not pass judgement on those who opt for operations like these.

"The pursuit of beauty can certainly be harmful, which is why it's so important also as a public institution to encourage our visitors to make informed decisions around beauty. We're in no way placing judgement on any procedures people might want to pursue for whatever reason. But at the same time, it's really important for any users to understand the implications of any commitment they are making to a particular product or procedures or a lifestyle," she says.

And beauty can have a unifying effect too.

The exhibition explores how traditions of beauty, passed down through generations can build a community.

Hairstyles photographed in 1970s Nigeria are set against a soundscape of Black British women who emulate the intricate designs, despite never visiting the homeland of their grandparents.

"Beauty absolutely can be a really powerful force for community building, for togetherness. We look into how hair, a hairstyle is so powerful to bring generations together who have never met each other, who might have lived in different places, and to feel a sense of connectedness to your ancestors, to your community," says Li.

Social media’s impact on beauty standards is not ignored.

Staged as a nightclub toilet, screens display make up tutorials by beauty influencers, posts about cosmetic procedures, and celebrity Instagram accounts.

Li says this is a positive comment on beauty, and how it can be a force for good.

"We have an installation called Mirror Mirror on the Wall by Xcessive Aesthetic, looking into how semi-public private spaces like a nightclub bathroom could be a place you start opening up conversation with strangers around beauty,” she says.

“And I think that is a form of inclusivity and diversity. I think we often talk about it on a really formal level, but ultimately it's building these human relationships and kinships that really bring us together."

The exhibition also includes a multi-sensory installation steeped in history.

This colourful display is a collaboration between scientists and artists who have recreated Renaissance beauty product recipes.

Visitors can sniff the bubbling concoctions and experience the aromas that were once made by 16th century women.

‘The Cult of Beauty’ runs until 24 April 2024.