Nell Irvin Painter


"What Fifteen Leading Historians Are Working on Now," Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 January 1998

From the issue dated January 9, 1998


By Nell Irvin Painter
Princeton University

The project I'm managing not to work on now is a study of personal beauty. This project grows out of my book on Sojourner Truth, who did not read or write, but did sit for photographic portraits, which showed her as a well-groomed bourgeoise, not the hell raiser of late-20th-century mythology. Her photographs presented a source so fascinating that it held my interest even after I finished Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (W.W. Norton, 1996).

Theories and practices of beauty have come and gone over the past two millennia without following a historical progression. At any one time, multiple ideals of beauty have coexisted, varying with class, time, place, race or ethnicity, and so on. Reflecting the enormous range of people who cultivate their beauty, my inquiry is not limited to middle-class women, nor to white women, nor to Western women, nor to heterosexuals, nor even to women. By recognizing that all people pursue ideals of beauty, I expect to broaden what we mean by "beauty" and to show the relationships among beauty, sex, health, respectability, fashion, wealth, and labor.

Reproduced from The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 January 1998. Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.

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