The “beauty and inequality” research project was funded by the European Research Council (ERC)the research funding agency of the European Union. In 2023, Giselinde Kuipers received an Advanced Grant for this five-year project. With this study, we aim to  build a comprehensive new theory that explains how evaluations of physical appearance work, and how they re/produce durable inequalities in today’s media-saturated, service-based, globalized consumer societies. This study brings together insights from various social sciences to study the following hypotheses: 

1. in 21st century societies beauty has become a central resource or form of capital for all genders across the life-course; 

2. beauty as a form of capital intersects with existing axes of inequality like gender, race, class, age, sexuality, nationality; 

3. the growing importance of appearance spawns new forms of inequality.

These hypotheses are investigated in 5 global cities on 4 continents: Accra, Buenos Aires, Brussels, Hong Kong and Tehran. An international team of researchers will employ a mixed-method design to study how aesthetic evaluations of appearance are shaped, and to identify the mechanisms by which these evaluations shape social dis/advantage.

This research project promises to break new ground in our understanding of human beauty and its social consequences. It brings together scattered insights from many disciplines in a new theoretical model, and tests and refines this model with explorative (Q-sort, survey, ethnography) and hypothesis-testing (lab/field experiments) methods. It addresses central societal and scientific challenges by foregrounding the importance of a “soft” cultural factor in shaping social divides, and the growing role of media in shaping social dis/advantage and exclusion. All subprojects study two domains where mediatization has made appearance more salient: dating and job search. The project structure is designed to deal with its high risks: its global scope, multidisciplinarity and its ambition to simultaneously develop novel methods and a new theory.


How does physical beauty contribute to social inequality?

5 global cities on 4 continents: Accra, Buenos Aires, Brussels, Hong Kong and Tehran

Our cities


Ghana’s vibrant capital city Accra is a fascinating intricate of ethnic diversity and a developing center for aesthetic cultures. Accra, which is situated along the Gulf of Guinea, has a lengthy history, a diverse population, and a distinctive fusion of tradition and modernity that have formed its unique position as a periphery hub to a variety of local and global beauty standards.

With a population of more than 1.4 million (GSS, 2021 PHC). Accra has a mixture of beauty cultures that incorporate both historical traditions and modern influences including clothing, hairstyle, skin colour, face, body shape, etc.  The city’s tech-savvy population has embraced platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to showcase, challenge, and reshape beauty norms. Social media serves as a virtual space where traditional and contemporary beauty ideals are exchanged, critiqued, and redefined, and Accra is not an exception to this. The diverse neighborhoods of the city form a nuanced lens through which to examine how beauty standards are established and upheld. The socioeconomic diversity of Accra and the interaction of many ethnicities offer a nuanced perspective on how beauty has become an asset, and as a place where identifications and classifications are made.

Therefore, the city’s status as a peripheral hub to beauty cultures is a captivating subject of study. Hence, this subproject uses four distinct but related cases to see how beauty standards are used to create identifications and classifications and how these cultural processes lead to symbolic boundaries and inequalities in both online and offline places in Accra.


As Belgium and Europe’s capital, Brussels (FR: Bruxelles/NL: Brussel) plays a vital role in shaping global and European beauty trends. Brussels currently ranks as one of the most superdiverse cities in the world, its population made up from people of many different races and ethnicities, sporting a great diversity of languages, residential statuses, political affiliations and age groups. This heterogeneity suggests that many different beauty standards will exist. Variations in beauty standards, as Kuipers (2022) points out, do not reduce the effect of the beauty regime, but rather serve to strengthen it. To legitimise the existence of diverse beauty standards, cultural narratives emerge to reinforce them among different social groups. This leads to conflicts over the definition of social reality and the preservation of dominant positions.

For this project, I will examine four cases that explore the existence of local beauty standards in Brussels by focusing on the concepts of beautifying bodywork and habitus. Bodywork encompasses four closely related interpretations: the work we do on our own body, for instance by going to the gym or getting lip filler, paid labour involving others’ bodies, including hairdressers, personal trainers and dietitians, the regulation of emotional expression in a labour context and body creation or alteration through work (Gimlin, 2007). Using four case studies, I will investigate how bodywork can serve as a way of learning and perpetuating beauty standards.


Known as a metropolitan city where the East meets the West, Hong Kong has a fascinating mixture of cultures. With its traditional Chinese roots, British colonial impact, local Cantonese culture, and cultural import from other East Asian countries, this city has great hybridity and diversity in the sphere of beauty. As such a “peripheral hub” (Kuipers, 2022), how beauty evaluations are shaped by culture will be very well demonstrated in this case. Along with culture, the population in Hong Kong also shows a large variety, which entails many kinds of inequalities across the society.

Since the end of the last century, consuming has become a significant lifestyle for people living in Hong Kong (Mathews and Liu, 2001), which not only renders beauty a central place in social life. It also provides a platform to manifest beauty under different cultural influences and social inequalities. To investigate how beauty evaluations are shaped by culture in Hong Kong and its relation to inequalities through a lens of consuming culture, I will conduct q-sort interviews combined with three case studies. How beauty standards are produced locally in TV channels will be examined as a case of consuming local culture.

The second case will be a K-pop cover group that shows how people consume imported cultures and put them into beauty practice. The last one is on what beauty products people consume in malls, based on how they make distinctions there.


BINQ’s research in Buenos Aires makes its focuses on beauty and cultural elites. It sets to study how beauty is shaped within the city. Firstly, through a general but situated mapping of beauty evaluation and its implications in social inequality. In addition, regarding different subgroups of cultural elites such as political elites, football elites, and an ethnography over the exclusive neighborhood of Puerto Madero.

The history of Buenos Aires displays a constant tension over the definition of its own character and that of its inhabitants. Said tension has been accumulated and transferred onto social practices still ongoing, visible within the realm of beauty. Therein, distinction processes are performed, and symbolic boundaries are drawn in relation to beauty standards (re)producing social (dis)advantages.

The study of beauty through the cultural elites in Buenos Aires within the BINQ project aims to contribute to a comparative international study of the topic, offering a situated answer to how beauty and inequality are related, and what are the mechanisms in place at a macro, meso and micro level to (re)produce ongoing and new boundaries in social sorting, classification and exclusion.


The research focuses on cosmetic surgery in Tehran, Iran, where physical beauty has become a valuable form of social capital in a media-saturated consumer society. Despite economic challenges, cosmetic surgery has flourished in Iran, particularly for rhinoplasty. This is a paradox, as there are strict religious and political regulations on appearance, particularly for women, while the demand for cosmetic surgery is increasing. The research aims to explore the implications of cosmetic surgery within the sociocultural dynamics of Iran, particularly in relation to different forms of inequality. Through three case studies, the research will analyze medical clinics, cosmetic surgeons’ Instagram pages, and mixed urban areas in Tehran. Various research methods including interviews, ethnographic research, observation, and media analysis will be used to gain a comprehensive understanding of the cultural and social aspects of cosmetic surgery in Tehran and its relationship to inequality.

Tehran is an ideal case to study the relationship between beauty, cosmetic surgery and inequality because of its socio-economic diversity, gender dynamics, media and cultural influences, access to cosmetic surgery services and the intersection of cultural norms and values. In addition, the presence of social divisions, including religious, political, class, gender, and ethnic differences, coupled with Iran’s economic challenges, make Tehran a unique and relevant setting for exploring the complex interplay between beauty practices and various forms of inequality.

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