The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror

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As part of a feminist commitment to collaboration, this article, which appears as a companion essay to Minh-Ha T. Pham's "The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terror," offers a point of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite, the fashionably modern and implicitly Western woman, become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as human rights concerns, as rescue missions, as beautifying mandates. This essay examines newer iterations of this opposition, after September 11, 2001, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics of fashion and beauty. After the events of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush's administration launched a military and public relations campaign to promote U.S. national interests using the language of feminism and human rights. While these discourses in the United States helped to reinvigorate a declining economy, and specifically a flagging fashion industry (as Pham addresses in her companion essay), feminism abroad was deployed to very different ends. This article considers the establishment of the Kabul Beauty School by the nongovernmental organization Beauty without Borders, sponsored in large part by the U.S. fashion and beauty industries. Examining troubling histories of beauty's relation to morality, humanity, and security, as well as to neoliberal discourses of self-governance, the author teases out the biopower and biopolitics of beauty, enacted here through programs of empowerment that are inseparable from the geopolitical aims of the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)359-383
Number of pages25
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Gender Studies


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