It is now routine to speak critically of the way that women are depicted in our popular visual media. There's too much sex in movies, television and magazines, people say. And this is often coupled to complaints that the media represent women as sex objects, provide unrealistic beauty standards, or focus only on women's outer beauty, instead of the more important attributes of character and accomplishment. There is truth in all of this. But often these claims seem to imply that there is an obvious "thing" called beauty or sexual attractiveness, and that the question is simply whether or not the media should display so much of this "thing."

The following web essay casts doubt on the belief that there is such a simple, self-evident "thing" as beauty. It looks at beauty as a cultural construct, at how beauty is defined, at how fashion magazines cultivate a very particular notion of what it means to be attractive or beautiful. And it suggests that this particular notion may be less about sex, less about actual human sexual behaviors, than it is about power.

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