Medieval lady

From Middle Ages to modern times – how women continue to challenge perceptions of beauty. 

Research by Swansea University’s Dr Laura Kalas draws parallels between the Middle Ages and modern times, investigating standards of female beauty and how women through time have challenged these perceptions.

Today our perceptions of beauty are heavily influenced by social media and advertising. Success is often measured by physical appearance and, as we age, we are increasingly targeted with messaging to persuade us to ‘change’ who we are through weight loss, anti-wrinkle products and so forth. Through social media we are constantly shown beauty ideals to replicate.

Through her research, Dr Laura Kalas, Senior Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Swansea University, explores parallels with the Middle Ages, where female beauty was also defined by society and used as a form of exploitation and weaponization – both against women, but also by them.

Dr Kalas explained: “Through the study of literature we can find many examples of women who have challenged cultural perceptions.

For example, in the 9th century, when St Ebbe's monastery at Coldingham was invaded by Vikings, Ebbe and her nuns cut their noses off to repel potential Viking aggressors. In the 15th century legend of St Wilgefortis, Wilgefortis is so against being married off to a pagan king that she prays for disfigurement - she subsequently grows a moustache and beard and succeeds in repelling the king.

These women are nevertheless killed and become martyrs. But for them, their inner beauty - the beauty of their souls - is more important than their outward beauty.”

Today, the modern 'gods' of cosmetic surgery to help clients match their outward appearance to their inner states to achieve their personal perceptions of beauty.

"Women in the Middle Ages, like today, were subject to strict standards of beauty which were often contradictory. I wanted to explore the ways in which women's success is often measured by their externality, and the ways in which women across history have exercised sometimes quite violent methods of resisting the categories they're placed in, and the threats they face”, Dr Kalas said.

‘Weaponizing Beauty, a talk by Dr Kalas, was discussed in an edition of BBC Radio Wales' programme 'The Idea'. 

Find out more about English Literature at Swansea University.

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