Beauty as a Crude and Universal Brand


“I don’t know exactly when the idea seeded itself: perhaps it began one day when I looked in the mirror and realised I would not live for ever”.

Zed Nelson is the perfect judge for our theme ‘Humans of the World’, by his own admission spending a career “trying to make sense of what makes us human”. He’s traveled to the farthest-flung corners of the world photography Brazilian boxers, the modern-day Ku Klux Klan, Welsh miners, the French foreign legion and the new nation of South Sudan to name a few, but has never found a place that has fully escaped his own Western culture.

His ambitious project and photobook ‘Love Me’, is perhaps his attempt to confront that Western culture head-on. For a period of 5 years, and across 17 countries, Zed explored the notion of beauty, and how far people will go in their quest for physical perfection. His exploration not only shines a light on the commodification of beauty (it is estimated that American families with incomes under $25,000 now account for 30% of all cosmetic surgery procedures) but its homogenisation. There exists an increasingly narrow palette of what beauty is – youthful, Caucasian, blonde, skinny – and almost everything else is erased from the pages of our magazines and from our billboards and televisions.

Across the series, Zed examines surgery addiction, social discrimination, eating disorders, beauty pageants and bodybuilding, all with a masterful, unflinching eye. He paints a damning picture of our obsession with the superficial and presents a sad, torturous reality. As we continue to align our sense of self-worth with our self-image, we’ll always strive for something unachievable, always remain unhappy. Everyone’s body after all, will eventually betray them.


Ox and Angela, plastic surgeon and wife. Rio, Brazil.


Ms. Olympia competition. Las Vegas, USA.


Manaus, Brazil. Each football team is required to field a beauty queen, who competes in a parallel beauty pageant. Rules state that if a losing team is knocked out, they can be reinstated if its beauty queen reaches the final rounds of her competition.


Miss Essex. Loser, Miss England competition, Leicester, UK.


Plastica & Beleza, ‘Plastic Surgery and Beauty Magazine’, editorial meeting room. Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“We have created a world in which there are enormous social, psychological and economic rewards and penalties attached to the way we look. Can any of us honestly say, ‘I don’t want to be attractive’? Don’t we all want to be loved? But have we been brainwashed into believing that in order to be loved we need smaller noses, bigger breasts, tighter skin, longer legs, flatter stomachs and to appear ever youthful?”


Christopher, 22. Chest wax. J. Sister’s salon. New York, USA.


Spray-tan booth. Professional Beauty Expo. London, UK.


“Arnold is my favourite.” Anuja Bandara, 24. Apollo Fitness Center. Henawala, Sri Lanka.


Katie, age 9. Winner. Universal Royalty Texas State Pageant. Texas, USA.

“But who creates this culture? However much we may confidently point the finger at certain industries, we can’t deny our own tacit, albeit culturally conditioned, involvement. Like it or not, we are judged, and judge, by appearance”.


Elham, 19, and her mother, 55. Rhinoplasty ‘nose job’ operation.
Tehran, Iran. For more than 20 years strict social rules have required modest dress and covered hair. Laws forbid women to publicly sing, dance, or wear make-up. There are reportedly more nose jobs being performed in Iran than in any other country in the world.


Billboard. Dakar, Senegal.


Eyelash extensions. Brentwood, UK.

All images © Zed Nelson

See more at: www.zednelson.com

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