Society’s Demand for Perfection Explored

Curated by Marley Healey

From lead makeup to arsenic dresses, the adage "beauty is pain" has continuously rung true.


Through the centuries, the ideal female form has taken many shapes. From the strait-laced Victorians to the modern seekers of flat stomachs, the desire to change one’s appearance is dwarfed only by the myriad of objects that have been created to do so. But just what is it that would make a woman take a burning metal rod to her hair or stagger in stilettos?

Throughout this exhibit, examine up close some treacherous and downright torturous objects of beauty that have been both advocated and condemned over years of fluctuating fashion. Explore the evolution of the impossible standards of beauty that women were, in some cases, literally dying to achieve as beauty ideals shifted radically from decade to decade.


Beauty, as communicated via advertising images, marketing materials, and the exaltation of celebrities, has always been aspirational, and as fashion and beauty continues to change, women will continue to chase new standards.

How far would you go in pursuit of the illusion of beauty?

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Beauty or Torture?  invites visitors to explore the shifting standards of feminine beauty that have affected women’s self-image with a micro-focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What is most titillating about this exhibition is how much the individual viewer’s own perceptions come into play. The assemblage of objects and material culture items provoke visitors to unfold their own experiences, stoke their personal interpretations, and draw their own conclusions about the objects and elements of physical beauty that are displayed throughout the exhibit.


The investigation of what constitutes beauty is a profoundly thought-provoking but also challenging subject to unpack because each woman experiences her own deeply personal journey in pursuit of her own ideal.


After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


Women's Museum of California

C/O San Diego History Center

1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

Phone: (619) 233-7963
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