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Beauty as business and culture

Photo by Christopher Huang.

Uta Poiger analyzes the history of race, gender and consumer culture in 20th century Germany through the marketing and use of mass manufactured cosmetics, such as lipstick, skin cream and eyeliner.

“Cosmetics can link an individual’s skin to the global marketplace,” said Poiger, the newly appointed professor and chair of the history department.

“They have been potent sites for international contests over the pleasures and dangers of physical beauty, over emancipation and cultural difference.”

Poiger, whose scholarship focuses on culture and politics in 20th century Germany, plans to release a book based on her research titled, “Beauty and Business in Germany: An International History.”

As part of her research, Poiger combed through women’s magazines and analyzed trade journals, anthropological tracts and cosmetics advertisements. Her findings shed light on how individual bodily practices are entangled in international webs of commerce, images and ideas.

In 1920s Germany, for example, tanning symbolized leisure, health and whiteness. In the 1970s and 80s, the punk subculture mocked cosmetics manufacturers and beauty norms by wearing eyeliner in unconventional ways.

“I have a longstanding interest in how consumer culture plays into formulations of self,” Poiger says. “Many social scientists would argue that people have begun to identify themselves more and more through products they consume.”

Prior to joining the Northeastern faculty, Poiger served as the Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington, Seattle. She has also served as a visiting fellow at the Minda de Gunzberg Center for European Studies at Harvard University and held visiting appointments in the Department of History and in the history and literature program at Harvard. She earned her PhD in history from Brown University in 1995.

Her peer-reviewed journal articles on topics such as masculinity in 1950s Germany, and books, including “Jazz Rock and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany,” have made path-breaking contributions to the study of race, gender and popular culture from a transnational perspective.

Poiger, who plans to teach a course on the Holocaust and comparative genocide next spring, praises Northeastern for its focus on interdisciplinary research and global engagement.

“I am eager to participate in Northeastern’s mission of educating students to become citizens of the world,” she says. “One of the things that brought me to the University is its strong interest in global history.”