Skip to content

Beauty as business and culture

Uta Poiger ana­lyzes the his­tory of race, gender and con­sumer cul­ture in 20th cen­tury Ger­many through the mar­keting and use of mass man­u­fac­tured cos­metics, such as lip­stick, skin cream and eyeliner.

“Cos­metics can link an individual’s skin to the global mar­ket­place,” said Poiger, the newly appointed pro­fessor and chair of the his­tory depart­ment.

“They have been potent sites for inter­na­tional con­tests over the plea­sures and dan­gers of phys­ical beauty, over eman­ci­pa­tion and cul­tural difference.”

Poiger, whose schol­ar­ship focuses on cul­ture and pol­i­tics in 20th cen­tury Ger­many, plans to release a book based on her research titled, “Beauty and Busi­ness in Ger­many: An Inter­na­tional History.”

As part of her research, Poiger combed through women’s mag­a­zines and ana­lyzed trade jour­nals, anthro­po­log­ical tracts and cos­metics adver­tise­ments. Her find­ings shed light on how indi­vidual bodily prac­tices are entan­gled in inter­na­tional webs of com­merce, images and ideas.

In 1920s Ger­many, for example, tan­ning sym­bol­ized leisure, health and white­ness. In the 1970s and 80s, the punk sub­cul­ture mocked cos­metics man­u­fac­turers and beauty norms by wearing eye­liner in uncon­ven­tional ways.

“I have a long­standing interest in how con­sumer cul­ture plays into for­mu­la­tions of self,” Poiger says. “Many social sci­en­tists would argue that people have begun to iden­tify them­selves more and more through prod­ucts they consume.”

Prior to joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Poiger served as the Gio­vanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Pro­fessor of His­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ington, Seattle. She has also served as a vis­iting fellow at the Minda de Gun­zberg Center for Euro­pean Studies at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and held vis­iting appoint­ments in the Depart­ment of His­tory and in the his­tory and lit­er­a­ture pro­gram at Har­vard. She earned her PhD in his­tory from Brown Uni­ver­sity in 1995.

Her peer-​​reviewed journal arti­cles on topics such as mas­culinity in 1950s Ger­many, and books, including “Jazz Rock and Rebels: Cold War Pol­i­tics and Amer­ican Cul­ture in a Divided Ger­many,” have made path-​​breaking con­tri­bu­tions to the study of race, gender and pop­ular cul­ture from a transna­tional perspective.

Poiger, who plans to teach a course on the Holo­caust and com­par­a­tive geno­cide next spring, praises North­eastern for its focus on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research and global engagement.

“I am eager to par­tic­i­pate in Northeastern’s mis­sion of edu­cating stu­dents to become cit­i­zens of the world,” she says. “One of the things that brought me to the Uni­ver­sity is its strong interest in global history.”

– by Greg St. Martin

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish