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

“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 Chambers stressed three key parts of Perfect Me. Firstly, its convincing account of beauty as an ethical ideal. Dr Chambers commented:

“If beauty was simply a demand of perfection then it might be possible to call it a choice rather than an ethical ideal. However, we are all vulnerable to the beauty ideal, none of us are good enough without work. The standards to just be ‘good enough’ and pressures to not ‘let ourselves go’ are exponentially increasing.”

Secondly, Perfect Me enables us to reconsider our assumptions and cast a critical eye on both women’s participation in and refusal to participate in Beauty practices. Finally, Dr Chambers commended Professor Widdows for her combination of both philosophical and empirical analyses in Perfect Me. 

Following on from Dr Chambers, Professor Alison Jagger applauded Professor Widdows for her bold claims, commenting that Perfect Me, rather than conforming to existing waves of feminist thought contributes towards a new fourth wave. For Professor Jagger, the most important aspect of Perfect Me is the recognition of the beauty ideal’s scope and demanding nature. To quote Professor Widdows; “we need to be camera ready in our daily lives and be our best virtual self”. Professor Jagger made reference to the existence of a popular beauty app, (also called ‘Perfect Me’) that can help reshape our bodies to give women curves in the ‘right’ places. However, the existence of such an app, Professor Jagger argued, highlights the importance and cultural relevance of Professor Widdows' work. 


The final talk of the evening came from Professor Widdows, who after thanking the evening's speakers and all guests in attendance, rounded off the speeches with recommendations to challenge the beauty ideal. There already exists shame regarding what we do to our bodies, therefore we should not be blaming people for what they do or do not do. Rather, she argued:

“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”

The Perfect Me book launch was a great success that has garnered further publicity in the Time and BBC News following its release. 

A ‘duty’ to be beautiful

Professor Widdows also spoke at the Hay Literature and Arts Festival on May 29th 2018. Her talk ‘A Duty to be Beautiful’ explored the idea of beauty as an ethical ideal, one of her key claims in the newly released Perfect Me. The four aspects of the beauty ideal; thinness, firmness, smoothness and youth, were explored and unpacked. Whilst some of these aspects are more dominant than others, they symbolise a narrow range of acceptable appearance norms for the face and body. 

Professor Widdows acknowledged that a common response to this recognition is “ok, so what? This is nothing new, the young have always been beautiful, and appearance has always mattered. It’s just another version of a long-standing beauty ideal”. Despite our relationship with beauty always having been complex, beautiful is no longer a superficial pursuit, but has become an ethical one too. This makes our quest for the ‘perfect’ self, something more problematic.

What is becoming increasingly harmful is the demand in beauty practices that were not always global, argued Professor Widdows. For example, body hair removal, or ‘defluffing’ has become routine across all cultures where there exists a level of disgust at women’s body hair. Failure to conform to this practice is not only considered an ‘aesthetic’ failure, but implies a moral failure too. Even more problematic is the increasing normalisation of cosmetic surgery practices, and there is no reason that this trend in body modification will not continue. Ultimately the modified body may become the new ‘natural’. Professor Widdows calls this the technological imperative – where, now we have the means to alter our body parts, it becomes essential we do so. 

Drawing on the Girls’ Attitudes Survey (2016) by Girlguiding UK, Professor Widdows highlighted troubling statistics to the audience, concerning young girls' attitudes towards their bodies. For example, 47% of girls aged 11-21 years say the way they look holds them back, and 84% of the same age demographic stated they feel pressurised to be perfect all the time. Part of this pressure to be perfect is because of the “Visual and Virtual” culture we are in. With increasing possibilities in apps to enhance selfies, rate attractiveness and identify imperfections, Professor Widdows argued “the more we can do, the more we feel we should do”. The beauty ideal, Professor Widdows argued, affects us all, and as it becomes more dominant, it becomes accepted, unquestioned then normalized. 

Professor Widdows concluded her talk by summarising her reasons why beauty IS an ethical ideal:
  1. Beauty success is moral success
  2. Beauty language is moral language
  3. Beauty emotions are moral emotions 
Categorically, beauty will not make us happy argued Professor Widdows:

“These beauty myths we aspire to are in fact myths. The future will be bleak if we continue. However, there are many futures and we can change in a communal way. We need to recognise the ideal for what it is, and it is an ethical ideal”.

References:

Shannon Oates is a masters student studying Religion, Politics and Society at the University of Birmingham. She is currently working as the Project Administrator for the Beauty Demands network, and Research Assistant for Professor Heather Widdows. 




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