Blog, Event, Women's History

What does beauty mean to you? By Dr Daisy Payling

In November 2019, the University of Essex’s Body, Self and Family project put on a series of health and beauty-themed events as part of the Being Human Festival. In my work as a post-doctoral research assistant on this project investigating women’s bodily, emotional and psychological health in Britain (c.1960-1990) I have been reading women’s magazines such as Nova, She and Cosmopolitan and noting how health is discussed and how women’s bodies feature in articles and advertisements. I have become increasingly interested in the link between health and beauty. Immersing myself in historical advertisements for products such as slimming foods and skincare has also prompted me to think more about my own relationship with my body.

For the Being Human Festival, my colleagues and I organised ‘Made Up: Health and Beauty Secrets Past and Present’; three events designed to engage members of the public in histories of women’s everyday experiences of health and beauty, and to hear from people about how beauty, style and hygiene inflect their understandings of health.

You can find out more about each of the events at our project website, but in short the three events were:

  • Beauty School Drop In – A historical beauty salon with talks, craft activities, and the opportunity for people to donate photographs and record reflections on their personal style
  • Faces – An exhibition of changing Essex style showcasing photographs and stories collected at Beauty School Drop In.
  • Glow Up – A zine-making workshop with Grrrl Zine Fair artist Lu Williams

At each of the events we asked people to fill in an evaluation form inspired by Mass Observation’s 1992 Personal Hygiene Directive. I have used responses to the 1992 Directive in my work exploring how vaginal deodorants were marketed to women in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and have found them invaluable in helping me think through the emotional impacts of everyday habits like washing, and how they are remembered – or not. As Joe Moran notes in Queueing For Beginners (in which hygiene practices are conspicuously absent), ‘social habits are so often ignored or taken for granted that they only become truly visible when they are suddenly absent or changing’ (Moran, 2008, 217). With these questionnaires, we aimed to use everyday objects to open discussions of little-talked about topics, and to encourage people to recognise that their daily lives take place in historical time.

Our questionnaire asked:

  • What hygiene item could you not live without?
  • What is your favourite beauty product, past and/or present?
  • What does beauty mean to you?
  • What have you learnt about the history of beauty and make-up?

Here are some of the responses:

People offered a range of suggestions for what hygiene item they could not live without. What struck me when reading the responses in comparison to the 1992 Directive is how far fewer people mentioned toilet paper or conceived of it as a hygiene item, possibly due to fewer of them having memories of using newspaper instead!

Among the many moving and amusing responses to the question ‘What does beauty mean to you?’ one immediately leapt out at me because it is handwriting I would recognise anywhere. It is the handwriting that taught me to form my own letters, the handwriting of shopping lists and notes on the calendar, and the handwriting that still forwards my post to me when the need arises. In response to the question ‘What does beauty mean to you?’, my mother wrote ‘Blending in and being invisible’.

(She also listed ‘Dermalogica Age Smart Moisturisers’ as her favourite beauty product, which I was not surprised by. She had me moisturising when I was fifteen and is the only person who thinks my increasing obsession with anti-wrinkle cream is normal.)

‘Blending in and being invisible’. At times doing this research has forced me to reckon with my own body image, and it has crossed my mind before that I would not necessarily have been able to do close and sustained work with magazine sources when I was in my early twenties due to the discomfort I felt about how I looked. Hearing my mum talk about some of the photographs she brought to the event (of her with my dad at a wedding  and on holiday when she was in her early twenties) and listening to her reflect on how she can now see she was beautiful, but at the time she felt anything but, really hit home. It echoed how I feel when I look back at photographs of myself posted on social media a decade ago, and makes me want to go back in time and tell us both that we’re fine.

I asked my mum to complete the evaluation questionnaire shortly after we had spoken about those photographs and her feelings about them. I don’t know whether she still feels that beauty is about blending in and being invisible or whether she filled out the form in the mind-set of her younger self. Either way, this project’s focus on personal stories (my mother’s and those of other women her age) continues to move me in ways I could not have expected at the beginning, and one upside is that I will be giving my mum many more hugs.

Centre and right: Daisy and her mum Sally

We are still conducting oral history interviews for the project. We’re looking to talk to women born between 1940 and 1970, if you are interested please get in touch at

Dr Daisy Payling is Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Body, Self and Family: Women’s Psychological, Emotional and Bodily Health in Britain, c. 1960-1990.’ This major project explores how social changes in postwar Britain influenced women’s understandings of their bodily and emotional wellbeing. It examines women’s experiences at different stages of the life cycle, their relationships to various sources of authority and expertise, and how the emergence of new reproductive and contraceptive technologies affected their lives.