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Media and Cultural Analysis

The Dominant Narrative: 1990’s Beauty Standards

To fully understand our counter archive, one must have a comprehensive idea of the archive to which we are contradicting. This page is dedicated to creating a clear background for our viewers.

Female Beauty Ideals

In the past the media has glorified a certain ideal for feminine beauty. According to what was displayed in magazines and on runways, there was a very clear and unrealistic ideal of what women should look like. To give context, this project will focus on gendered beauty in the media and how it has progressed from around 20-30 years ago, to now. To center ourselves in a background, we will focus on the 1990’s and thus all contrast going forward will be in comparison to this.  The 1990’s look suggested that women should be extremely thin with bones protruding out from the skin. Collar bones, ankles bones and other protrusions were glamourized.  This ideal included height, in that women who were very tall were considered more beautiful. The “look” is also centered around Eurocentric features, which meant that many high fashion models had very pointed faces and sharp jawlines. This look was colloquially termed as “heroin chic” as it was stated that most of these models were so thin, they looked like they suffered from an unhealthy drug habit. A New York Times article from 1996 even stated that 90’s fashion was “….a pusher of what appear to be the best-dressed heroin addicts in history.”


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This is the Vogue cover of January 1990. Pictured are the group labeled “The Big Five” and they were known as the most iconic models of the 90’s. This group includes Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista. Out of the five of them, the only one who is starkly different is Naomi Campbell, who still subscribes to the classic supermodel look. You can see hey collar bones protruding, and her hair is straightened to coincide with the rest of the models. Although she is different, she still subscribes to this Eurocentric ideal. They are all extremely thin, tall and have sharp jawlines that create a pointed look.  

Male Beauty Ideals

At the same time, during the 1990’s, the male ideal was changing as well into what it called the “metrosexual”, where men began to dress nicer, use fragrances, and become lean and toned to be “beautiful”. Previously, in the 70’s and 80’s, “male fashion, skin care and vanity in general were identified with gay men” (The Age). Although at the time this was considered a huge shift, these 1990’s male ideals were still within the sphere of the typical gender binary of what was considered to be “masculine” and “attractive”.

In the 1990’s, males were expected to be “chiseled, tall, and well defined” (Novella), with a rop of top male models - Marcus Schekenberg, Mark Vanderloo, and Tyson Beckford - setting the standard for male beauty. The meterosexual man was “extremely image-conscious and product-consuming” with ideals such as “glistening pecs and abs” and “painstakingly pumped and chiselled bodies” (Simpson). All of these ideals and descriptions were part of the dominant narrative that men only could be attractive if they embodied these “masculine” qualities. According to The Age Magazine, “Mark Wahlberg’s semi-naked appearance for Calvin Klein Underwear in the early 1990s is often cited as the beginning of mainstream male vanity”, with many advertisers using this example of “sex sells”. Fashion magazines and beauty brands would barely feature any other type of man who did not embody these characteristics.


Featured in this photo is Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss in an advertisment for Calvin Klein in 1990. Mark, here, is representative of the "metrosexual" ideal expected of men in the 90's - being incredibly fit to be masculine and attractive. Kate Moss is also feature in this photo, representing the "heroin-chic" ideal for women, that being stick thin is what makes you beautiful and sexy. 

Transgender Ideals

As for the transgender narrative in the beauty and fashion industries during the 1990’s, there was silence. Although MAC Cosmetics did attempt to get a drag queen to lead a beauty campaign, some of their retail partners believed that consumers would never accept the campaign due to stereotypes from gender normativity. Many of the transgender community’s “firsts” (i.e. first beauty campaign, beauty partnership, magazine cover, etc.) all occurred in the 21st century.


The images displayed above allow for a general understanding in general beauty in the past. It can be seen that the major successful female models of this time all subscribed to this one style, which was an extremely thin, tall, Eurocentric beauty ideal and major successful male models of this time all subscribed to the "metrosexual" ideal. It is not to say that other aesthetics did not exist at this time, however those that did look different were not as successful  in their careers during this time period. Throughout the display of this counter-archive we will display how over time, more inclusive and diverse narratives are coming into play and gaining momentum, countering the gender ideals set in the 1990's.  

The Dominant Narrative: 1990’s Beauty Standards