#no excuses - Investigating acts of beauty

This post discusses beauty as an ethical ideal as defined by Heather Widdows in her book Perfect Me: Beauty As An Ethical Ideal, particularly focusing on the actions required to meet that ideal, and what happens when you are prevented from doing them. Before going into my argument, I want to clarify that this post does not wish to criticise people with disabilities or chronic illnesses who engage in beautifying behaviours; none of us are really free from beauty as an ethical ideal, including the author, so it would be wrong to condemn anyone who takes part in it. Part of the complexity of beauty is that these practices can genuinely be tools for bonding, self-expression and empowerment; to totally denounce them would be nonsensical. The aim instead is to consider how some of these behaviours support the concept of beauty as an ethical ideal. 

Beauty as an ethical ideal involves actions – meaningful pursuits towards a goal. These can include: ‘maintenance’ or routine behaviours to ensure the individual looks groomed and polished, eating ‘healthily,’ (or as Widdows puts it eating “the right amount to become or stay thin,”) and exercise (Widdows, 2018, p. 27). We are ‘good’ when we do these things, and ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ when we don’t. Actions are essential because, according to the ethical ideal, when we succeed in terms of beauty, then we succeed in terms of morality (Ibid.). Therefore we are to be respected and admired when we make attempts to ‘better ourselves’ through make up, hair removal, exercise, etc., but are deemed to have no ‘self-respect’ or to have ‘let ourselves go’ when we do not engage in these behaviours. In short, not taking part in “beauty activity” is a reflection of deficient or even deviant character. 1

But what happens when you cannot engage in the actions required to meet the beauty ideal? When it is not in your bodies’ capacity, or bodily events such as chronic illness make engaging in these behaviours low priority? 

It bespeaks the demandingness of beauty as an ethical ideal that the answer to this question is: nothing. There are no ‘get out of jail free’ cards for beauty, the standard is universal and inescapable. There is an expectation to conform to these behaviours, no matter the barriers put in one’s way. No one can reach the ideal in reality, but attempting to reach it instils worth in anyone and everyone. Beauty can be “an ideal to aspire to, and work towards” (Widdows, 2018, p.18) in order to improve any circumstance, even being disabled in an ableist world. For example, in conversation with Christie Harrison RD, disability rights activist Rebekah Taussig recalls dieting as a response to feeling different to the bodies around her, restricting her food intake as if it would “help me attain the shape and size that I was seeing as the goal” (Taussig and Harrison, 2018, emphasis my own). Reaching a part of the beauty ideal became about righting the ‘wrong’ that is Taussig’s paralysis; becoming thin was a way of replacing the sense of self-worth that living in an ableist society had taken from her, regardless of whether she could ever reach the ‘ultimate goal’ of an able body. 

The media perpetuates the idea that the beauty ideal is accessible for everyone in order to reach as wide a market as possible. Searches of ‘inspirational disabled people’ on Instagram bring up Paralympic athletes, kids with up-to-the-minute prostheses and astonishing make-up artists who happen to have no hands. It is clear that these disabled people are deemed more worthy; disabled people who engage in exercise, make-up application and fashion are labelled ‘inspirations’ and ‘body-positive queens,’ whereas disabled people who do not engage in these behaviours, or disabled people with larger bodies are often judged negatively - as if they are not helping themselves by being lazy (Perry, 2017). Online, this judgement manifests in trolling, offline in stereotyping.

While it is obvious that increasing visibility for people with disabilities is a good thing, and the achievements of disabled people should be lauded as much as any, it is the insidious influence of the beauty ideal that means this narrow portrayal of the ‘good’ disabled person can be damaging. This is because it is not the reality of most disabled people; in an ableist society in which benefits are cut, places are inaccessible, and stereotypes still form the majority of people’s perceptions of a disabled person, life with a disability can be exhausting, humiliating and dehumanising at times (Sutherland, 1981). Access to fresh foods, accessible spaces to exercise, and money for extensive grooming materials can be difficult, impossible or simply not a top priority. Not forgetting that simply having a disabled body can mean that one doesn’t, and will never, fit the beauty norm of slim, firm and luminous, no matter what actions are taken. But, as has been established, because beauty is an ethical ideal, if a person is perceived to not be within the beauty norm or not engaging in beauty behaviours, for any reason, then they have ‘failed.’ To deliberately push this message onto disabled communities is not just unethical, but an insult to something deeply embedded in a disabled person’s inalterable sense of self.

In recent years a response to the conviction that the beautiful body must be an able one has arisen. Body positive social media campaigns help to raise the visibility of disabled people and give marginalised people space to express themselves. Relatively small bloggers and content creators have seen huge increases in followers and exposure, with major brands such as Aerie including people with visible disabilities in their campaign (www.ae.com, 2018). So isn’t this progress? Isn’t this helping to dismantle the narrow scope of beauty as demanded by the ethical ideal?
Wheelchair model from Atipic Beauty (by Orgamea)

In the final few paragraphs, I want to argue that this is not the case; the selective inclusivity of people with disabilities in mainstream media campaigns strengthens rather than dismantles the current beauty ideal. It does this by primarily portraying people with disabilities who fit into multiple other facets of the existing beauty ideal, suggesting that the ideal can and should be in reach of everyone, no matter what. In other words, there are #noexcuses. The Aerie Real campaign provides an excellent example of this.

The disabled people used (yes, used) in the Aerie campaign might be visibly disabled, but they meet the other conditions of the beauty ideal in almost every single way: they are young, firm, luminous. Yes, there are models with diabetes and Down syndrome, but they are of an ‘ideal’ weight, with curves in all the ‘right places,’ despite many people with these conditions struggling with being ‘under’ or ‘over’ weight. The models with crutches or in wheelchairs are again, young, slim, almost-perfectly proportioned with lovely hair and the glowing complexion of someone with a multiple step skin-care routine. The campaign does not feature wheelchair users with body hair, swollen feet or larger bodies, for example. These features are more readily associated with negative stereotypes surrounding disabilities such as laziness or bitterness (Sutherland, 1981) – indicators of inner ugliness that these models have apparently rid themselves of through beautifying actions.

The problem here is not that conventionally-attractive disabled people are getting more opportunities to blog, model and generally have fun in the public eye. The problem is that the deliberate exclusion of disabled people who are comparatively further from the beauty ideal perpetuates the damaging implication that everyone must strive for beauty or be beautiful in order to be valuable. Beauty demands that you can be dark-skinned - but not too dark, a size 16 – but not a size 26, old – but not haggard, disabled – but pretty, glowing, and active. Only then will you be called an ‘inspiration’, given the care and respect that you deserve, and a platform for your voice. The message is clear: you must strive towards beauty whatever the cost. After all – if they can do it, why can’t you?

It seems then, that mainstream ‘inclusive’ campaigns are anything but, and potentially contribute to strengthening beauty as an ethical ideal. However, it would not feel right to close this article without acknowledging the internet-based undercurrent that continues to fight for true inclusivity. Non-profit sites such as The Mighty.Com, and independent bloggers such as The Lingerie Addict have made a concerted effort to showcase and promote bloggers who fall outside of the ethical ideal of beauty, but who proclaim it nonetheless2.These sites and others like them strike a chord with the thousands beginning to be disillusioned by the demands of beauty and their pages provide spaces for communities to grow, making them intensely popular influencers. Companies such as Aerie have begun to acknowledge that diversity sells, but they need to do better in order to be truly inclusive.

Maisie Gibson is currently a masters student studying the Philosophy of Health and Happiness MA at the University of Birmingham. She has a keen interest in healthcare ethics and bioethics, with a special focus on the philosophy of mental health. Her main areas of research have so far included factors of male suicide risk and issues of identity in the treatment of eating disorders.

Perry, D. (2017). The Juice Commercial that Pissed Off the Entire Disabled Community. Pacific Standard. [online] Available at: https://psmag.com/social-justice/heres-the-worst-juice-commercial-ever [Accessed 28 Jul. 2018].
Sutherland, A. (1981). Disabled we stand. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp.Ch 6. Paragraph 8. [Online] Available at: https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/library/Sutherland-CHAPTER6.pdf[Accessed 28 Jul. 2018)
Taussig, R. and Harrison, C. (2018). #148 Disability and Diet Culture With Rebekah Taussig. [podcast] Food Psych. Available at: https://christyharrison.com/foodpsych/5/disability-and-diet-culture-with-rebekah-taussig [Accessed 28 Jul. 2018].
Tinson, A., Aldridge, H., Bonn, T. and Hughes, C. (2016). Disability and Poverty. [online] London: New Policy Institute, Commissioned by Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available at: https://www.npi.org.uk/publications/income-and-poverty/disability-and-poverty/ [Accessed 31 Jul. 2018].
Widdows, H. (2018). Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1 Due to space constraints, this is a simplistic summary of Widdows’ argument, and does not encompass the interactions between privilege and choice when it comes to taking part in ‘maintenance’ behaviours..
2 Please see: https://themighty.com/2017/06/beauty-disability-instagram/; https://www.thelingerieaddict.com/2018/02/20-plus-size-bloggers-and-influencers-to-follow-for-lingerie-inspiration.html


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