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'Strong, thick and shiny’: a story of hair and beauty ideals

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‘Will you please put a comb through your hair? You look like a madwoman’. This admonition from my mother, which echoed through my teen age years with troubling regularity, was delivered in a tone filled with exasperation and incredulity. That an otherwise seemingly reasonable young girl would want to pass as insane, was beyond her understanding.
But I get ahead of myself.
When my respectable, middle-class Bengali parents left India for Europe in the early 70’s, they packed a few essentials otherwise not found across the seven seas. These included some mundane items, such as a terrifying screaming pressure cooker and carefully folded silk saris guarded by moth-balls. But more importantly, they brought with them the norms, standards and traditions from the motherland, deemed particularly scarce and inadequate in the West.
Strange rites
As a child, it struck me that in our house, the norms around hair (among many others) were different and quirky. I grew up in a small town with very few n…

Have a better relationship with your body

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[This piece was originally published in Healthy magazine]

We’re encouraged to think of ‘looking good’ as a moral imperative - if you don’t have a great body then there’s a sense that you must have let yourself go (Widdows, 2018). While appearance is key to how we present ourselves to the world, most of us are unnecessarily self critical and our relationships with our bodies suffer as a result.
There are a number of issues at play here, primarily our urge to measure ourselves against others (social comparison theory). While some measures such as academic achievements are objective – qualifications prove what you can do – comparing appearance is subjective, and difficult to get into proportion. This works in tandem with self-discrepancy theory, which suggests we have three views of the self: the actual, the ideal – what we aspire to look like - and the ought – what we think we ought to look like. Evidence shows that our view of the ‘actual’ self is distorted by the other two views, which…

Ugly Selfies, Irony and Instagram

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Selfies have often been associated with the ongoing influence of beauty ideals as an aspirational imperative (MacCallum and Widdows, 2016) but simultaneously have been criticised as forms of narcissism (Burns 2015, Walker Rettberg, 2014).In fact, selfies are a diverse form of self-representation that includes images which their creators characterise as ‘ugly’. This is perhaps surprising given that ‘ugly’ carries strongly negative connotations. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective as:
Offensive or repulsive to the eye; unpleasing in appearance; of disagreeable or unsightly aspect
A word sketch of ‘ugly’ in the British National Corpus confirms that the evaluative negativity of the adjective in its contemporary use, showing that it is used typically to modify unpleasant creatures (brute, ogre, beast, troll, monster) or an insult (motherfucker, bastard, bitch).Why then would a person characterise their selfie with the modifier ‘ugly’?
In the mainstream media, ‘ugly selfies’ h…

Are beauty ideals so dominant and demanding that we feel a duty to be beautiful?

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“The beauty ideal is not an evil taskmaster, but it is an ethical ideal and powerful and only when we recognise it can we begin to address it. What we need is beauty without the beast”
Friday 1st June 2018 saw the official launch of Professor Widdows' new book ‘Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal’, published by Princeton University Press, at the University of Birmingham.
Perfect Me is the culmination of nearly ten years of research in the philosophy of body and beauty for Professor Widdows. The book explores the changing and ethical nature of the beauty ideal, where the pressure to achieve the ‘perfect’ body has become increasingly more dominant, more demanding, and more global than ever before.
Guest speakers for the launch included Dr Clare Chambers (University of Cambridge), and Professor Alison Jagger (University of Colorado at Boulder and University of Birmingham) who each summarised the arguments in Perfect Me before highlighting its most significant aspects. 

Dr Clare Cham…

Rebel with a Cause

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And would you call that beautiful which wants and does not possess beauty?1
Summer is in full bloom. Our screens are filled with Love Islandand the World Cup. Tanned, toned and athletic bodies are ubiquitous, and as we aspire to achieve these ideals, magazine stands are full of titles that promise to help us achieve beach body fitness (e.g. Men's Health) and beauty, through a variety of exercise or diet plans. Emerging from the toxicity of popular media, are movements such as 'I weigh',  which has shunned conventional societal beauty demands and aims to move away from physical appearance as being a valuable determinant of self-worth. Many ‘body positive’ movements, fitness plans and media sites nonetheless still have at their core a particular physical ideal to which to aspire. Fitspo and ‘Strong is the new skinny’ (Holland & Tiggemann, 2016) strongly associate a specific narrowly defined physical ideal with good health, or fitness.In promoting strength and fitness, and…

“I think everyone looks better in pictures than in real life”: Posting Selfies and Women’s Body Image

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Almost all young adults aged 16 to 24 years in the UK (98%) access the internet on their mobile phones or smartphones (Office of National Statistics (ONS), 2018), and 91% of 16-24 year olds in the UK used social media in 2016 (ONS, 2017). When using social spaces such as Facebook and Instagram, women (and men) choose how to represent their bodies to others in the online world, and arguably the kinds of images they present tell us something about how they view their bodies. Selfies: Problematic or empowering?Many scholars have focused on the role of selfies in how we present ourselves online (e.g. Lasén, 2015; Miguel, 2016), including the choices we make about which aspects of our bodies to reveal, and ways in which we might self-censor our bodies in selfies to protect against any potential backlash. Views of different researchers have been mixed in relation to impact of selfie posting on women’s body image; on the one hand, it has been argued that posting selfies encourages body object…

What Role does Social Media play in Young People’s Perceptions of their Bodies?

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Social media is often referred to as a ‘toxic’ or ‘dangerous’ environment for young people, particularly in the case of body image. Celebrity and/or advertising cultures, and increased exposure to vast amounts of unregulated content are commonly identified as ‘risky’ online practices (see Fardouly and Vartanian, 2016). Yet, the extent to which social media impacts on young people’s perceptions of their bodies is relatively unknown. There is little understanding of the types of content young people engage with, and how and why their knowledge and behaviours are influenced. 

To better understand how to support young people’s body image-related knowledge and behaviours, we need to learn from them about how they experience social media. It is well-established that young people make extensive use of social media and for many young people, social media can be regarded as an extension of self and a primary mode of communication, entertainment and social engagement (Goodyear and Armour, forthc…