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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

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