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Another Look at 'Beauty CULTure'

Backstage at the Paul Smith Women fashion show, London (© 2002 Felicia Webb, courtesy Annenberg Space for Photography)
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by Zach Bourque/Special to LAist

We are all members of the church of beauty. We worship the long legs and skinny waists of Vogue models, and while maybe 2 percent of the general public can look that way, the quest to gain this unattainable appearance drives people to buy the newest diet book or eye shadow.

This sad but inevitable truth lies at the heart of Beauty CULTure, an exhibit that runs through November at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City. What made society this way? What has led to the vast industry that fuels the forever-in-flux industry of looking good. And what defines beauty in this day and age? The answer is as fleeting as the term itself.

Beauty CULTure (see what they did there?) aims to change our perceptions of just what’s pretty in the modern era. Combining audio/visuals and segmented photo exhibitions, the exhibit is nothing less than a full-blown mental hijacking that aims to leave us shaken as we leave the small museum space.

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Plastic surgery, racial tensions, retirees, baby beauty pageants and Marilyn Monroe are just a handful featured throughout the exhibit. The short, pre-exhibit documentary is of particular mention, appropriately setting up the zeitgeist of pretty faces and shallow shells and features commentary by a variety of models, moms and actresses such as Jamie Lee Curtis.

Most importantly, the exhibit never drips into condescension; merely self-reflection. Why is it that 70 percent of plastic surgery recipients earn less than 50,000 a year? What age is it appropriate to start sexualizing our youth? Why must models continually trend taller and skinnier?

Its visuals aren’t always pretty, an ironic if not wholly predictable juxtaposition that stands out after you leave. Graphic (though never over the top) images of live plastic surgeries; uncomfortably thin models and visual story telling of just what it takes to succeed in the business of beauty.

One particularly heartbreaking story chronicles the tale of a single, lower-middle class bus driver from Los Angeles whose obsession with plastic surgery has led to her daughter’s obsession with cutting herself.

Taken at first glance, this exhibit might not be for everyone. However, and I’ll try and refrain from sounding too much like Dad here, you’ll learn something from this experience.

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The Annenberg Space for Photography is open Wed-Fri 11- 6, Sat 11-9 and Sun 11-6.