Encountering Beauty: Appearance and Exclusion in Berlin’s Everyday Life

By Amelie Bauer, Paul Gredig, Maysun Hijazi, Kesho-Tabitha Imadonmwinyi, Marie-Helen Jakob, Izabela Matulewicz, Jennifer Rosenberg, Arowotosuna Olaitan Smith, Elisabeth Winterer and Jodi Cheuk Tung Wong

Preface: In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, on 22 March the German Federal Chancellor and the Prime Minister closed all service providers in the field of personal care, such as hairdressers, beauty salons, tattoo studios, etc. by official decree. Many of the people we interviewed for our research are directly affected by these measures in their everyday life and their very economic existence. We very much hope that such go-to points for cosmetic services and body care will soon be re-established as spaces for social encounters, physical intimacy and overall well-being!

Ever since the 1980s, the global consumption of cosmetic products and services in the beauty sector has been increasing rapidly.  In Berlin, too, there is a growing number of body-centered services and spaces dedicated to beauty consumption, from “Brazilian” waxing studios to hairdressing salons and fitness centres as well as nail and tattoo studios. In this blog post, we, students of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin, wish to present our field research, which took place in Berlin as part of two seminars (“Anthropology of Beauty: Global Norms, Local Bodies?” and  “Beauty and the Norm: Appearance and Exclusion in Berlin’s Everyday Life ”) between October 2019 and February 2020. In February 2020, we also presented the multimedia outcomes of our research to a wider public at the Café be’kech in Berlin-Wedding.

Presentation "Encountering Beauty," Café be'kech, 12 February 2020:
Opening/Introduction/questions for the discussion/listening to a podcast on
Black hair/discussion groups (photos: Paul Gredig).

“True beauty comes from the within” is a well-known saying  – and hardly anyone would disagree. Nevertheless, probably each of us has experienced encounters during which the first visual impression triggered more in us or in the person gazing at us than we would have liked. In a city like Berlin we meet numerous persons each day, but whether or not we find them attractive, attribute certain competencies to them, trust them or are open to further interaction depends not lastly on their appearance. So how do we react to people who upon first glance look different or foreign? What experiences do people of colour (POCs), FLINT * persons (German acronym for Women, Lesbian, Inter, Non-Binary, Trans*), people sporting tattoos, the elderly or those living on the streets make? What prejudices do they have to face? How do clothing and beauty practices change in transnational contexts?

We tackled these and other questions with the help of an ethnographic approach: we employed “participatory observation” in various locations in Berlin, wrote so-called field notes, audio-visually documented our encounters and attempted to face our research participants with a high level of respect and self-reflection. We believe that meeting people who do not resemble the conventional ideals of beauty helps us to see the beauty of diversity and to better understand the social meaning of beauty, which is needed in order to combat social inequalities. In the upcoming weeks, we will provide further insights into our research outcomes in two blog posts on “Encountering Beauty”.