Modern cosmetic surgery and autumn moto jackets. Cosmetics surgery and practices are now taken for granted in contemporary and modern Western culture as a way to present oneself in public or make a social body. But is that all they are? Cosmetics spin in and out of the orbits of sex, love, and culture. Above all, cosmetics establish identity, both social and sexual.

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The twentieth-century emphasis on skin, eyes, and mouth in cosmetic practices illustrates the paradoxical resonances of cosmetics. Makeup and seduction are inextricably linked, and facial features are symbols of sexuality. Different cosmetic practices convey different aspects of bodily performance and sexual references, whether it is the blankness of a Kabuki white face; the black-eyed menace of Goths; the overtly sexualized red lips of a Hollywood siren; the stylized, color-coded masquerade of Chinese opera performers; or the exaggerated makeup of a female impersonator.

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Modern cosmetic surgery can be broadly defined as techniques and materials used to enhance a person’s appearance according to the cultural norms of the social group to which she or he belongs or with which she or he identifi es. These techniques may be temporary or permanent ways of decorating or manipulating the body. Wax (1957) lists a comprehensive range of manipulations: “Bathing, anointing, and colouring the skin; cutting, shaving, plucking, braiding, waving, and setting the hair; deodorising and scenting the body; colouring or marking the lips, hands, nails, eyes, face, or other exposed regions; cleansing, coloring, and fi ling the teeth; shaping, restraining, and concealing various parts of the body; and so on.”

Modern cosmetic surgery and practices include embellishing the bodily surface—for example, face makeup, henna ( mehndi) decoration of the feet and hands, perfume, tattoos—and adding objects to the body (e.g., false eyelashes, body piercings). Cosmetic surgery, from scarifi cation to rhinoplasty, is also a permanent form of bodily augmentation and reinvention.

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People are often heard saying, “I must put on my face,” and “I feel naked without makeup.” The act of putting on cosmetics becomes a habit or routine, almost an unconscious part of getting dressed. The body is like a canvas on which the artist paints a pattern that creates a desired image of the self. Cosmetics are both a mask (to disguise oneself or create a new identity) and a mirror (to refl ect a desired identity). We call this “cosmetic behavior.”

Although the use of cosmetics is thought of as a modern practice, ethnographic evidence suggests that forms of bodily decoration and manipulation have always been part of human culture, from CroMagnon uses of ocher, ancient Egyptian uses of kohl, and the Chinese and Japanese preference for whitening the face to African body painting and Asian tattooing.

While Western culture usually makes blended products from artifi cial ingredients, other cultures use natural ingredients. The myrrh (camphor) and frankincense (conifer) carried by the biblical three wise men are such an example. All kinds of natural ingredients can be used to make cosmetics: fl oral and vegetable extracts (e.g., patchouli, jasmine, belladonna), animal products (e.g., lanolin, bones, egg whites), minerals, and natural substances (ocher, charcoal, arsenic).

Some ingredients for example, lead—have been used in the pursuit of beauty despite serious physical side effects. Cosmetic practices are as variable as the cultures in which they are practiced, but within a culture, such practices are regarded as natural. They are internalized and repeated as an essential component of belonging to that culture or subculture.

Such historical and cross-cultural uses and meanings of cosmetics have shaped the ways in which modern cosmetics are understood and interpreted today.

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If cosmetic practices are relative and context specific, they are linked also to the previous uses that they reject and deliberately differ from as “not statements.” Cosmetics are used as means of fashion cycles, symbols, and fl ows identifying with or visually rejecting particular social roles in that they draw on sets of opposites: casualness versus control, exposure versus concealment, plasticity versus fi xity. Different ways of scenting the body illustrate the infi nite play of cosmetic between these polarities.

Deodorants may be used to conceal natural body odors and control bodily excretions (e.g., perspiration, mucous), while scents may be used to expose the “desirable” body or cover unpleasant smells (e.g., body odor, halitosis, infected fl esh). The makers of deodorants often use sports stars to promote their products since the athletic performance of the star can be metonymically linked to both the performance of the product (in stopping perspiration) and the wearer of the product (in enhancing social performance).

Cosmetic manufacturers also segment the market; for example, scents come in different forms concentrates, aerosols, and eaux de toilette indicating different strengths of scent and associated cultural connotations, and priced according to their social value. Like deodorants, perfumes use advertisements to project the attributes of the perfume onto the attributes of the intended consumer.

By imbuing perfume with the magical power to transform the wearer, consumers purchase the desire to transcend the everyday and assume another perhaps more glamorous, successful, or seductive identity. An effective advertising technique is the use of a popular role model as the face of the brand or product.

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At one level, we can think of cosmetics as just another kind of clothing or dress that completes the social body to equip it for the diverse roles it performs. We “wear” our bodies through the ways we decorate, shape, and wrap the body. How we do this is dependent on knowledge of detailed rules of cosmetic and clothing practices, what to use, and how to perform in the made-up body.

Throughout history, references to cosmetics have more often than not been negative; that is, cosmetics have been perceived as a moral problem that poses a threat, incites inappropriate passions, conceals the “real” person, or creates an undesirable persona. Very often, this moral tirade has been an attack on “unruly” women along with the implication of sexual impropriety.

Cosmetics, it is argued, cause women to concentrate on the body instead of the spirit, stray from the path of virtue, and deceive people by appearing unnaturally attractive, and they drive the quest for conformity by making all women look the same.

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