cover image The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption

Katy Kelleher. Simon & Schuster, $27.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-982179-35-9

Science writer Kelleher (Handcrafted Maine) delivers grimly illuminating essays about the unseemly processes that produce beautiful goods. She examines what’s required to bring such luxuries as gems, makeup, marble, mirrors, pearls, perfume, and silk to market and contemplates their appeal. Musk, she notes, used to be harvested by killing deer and extracting their pungent glandular sacs; natural musk has largely been replaced by chemical substitutes, but studies suggest these artificial fragrances disrupt hormone functioning and might cause tumors. Waxing philosophical about the draw of mirrors, she links the madness that came over early mirror makers, who inhaled the fumes of the mercury they melted to create reflective surfaces, with the “insidious” “cultural obsession with looks” that mirrors enabled. Kelleher eloquently interrogates the allure of luxury items even as she remains clear-eyed about the damaging social expectations that drive their value, as when she admits she gets a “thrill” from makeup shopping despite knowing it’s motivated by unrealistic beauty standards that cause women to “exercise our desire until it becomes the strongest muscle in our hearts.” The author’s perceptive analysis and self-reflection raise intriguing questions about consumerism, aesthetics, and gendered understandings of beauty. The result is a thoughtful offering as precious as the goods studied. (Apr.)