My body, my self?

Last New Year, I wrote a short piece for The Conversation on how we believe – and often unreflectively – that we are, or will be, better if our bodies are better.

That our bodies have become our very selves in a visual and virtual culture is one of the main arguments of Perfect Me. This is so widely believed that we often don’t recognise either that it is true (until someone points it out) or how surprising and transformative this is. To think that our selves are our bodies is new. New Year’s Resolutions show us very clearly what we value and what matters to us. These are the goals we set for ourselves. We think these things are valuable and having them is important to us. The top New Year’s Resolutions for 2019 again show this focus, with the top three all being aimed at transforming the body:

1. Diet or eat healthier (71%)
2. Exercise more (65%)
3. Lose weight (54%)

The next two are not body related:
4. Save more and spend less (32%)
5. Learn a new skill or hobby (26%)

The fourth is pragmatic, about saving money, which you might think would be the choice of more than a third of people in an age of austerity, and the fifth, at only a quarter, is about improving our capabilities. Improving capabilities – learning a new skill – is a hangover from an older way of thinking. We used to think of ourselves as our ‘inner’, our personality, character and capability set, not our ‘outer’. How we looked was not who we were. Self-improvement was not improving the body but improving the mind or the soul, the inner person. Being better was knowing more, having a better character or being able to do more. Whether or not we are a half stone heavier makes little difference to whether we have ‘bettered ourselves’ by learning a language, being kinder, giving more time to our friends or children, or volunteering in a good cause.

The inner is falling down the list. Success is becoming appearance-success, and recognising the moral element in this is crucial to understanding what is going on. The beauty ideal is transforming, and it is changing how we think about ourselves in fundamental and startling ways. The moral language of better, best (and its implications for being worthy or not) are no accident. When it comes to making judgements about what a better, best (worse or failing) self is, morality matters. That we often don’t see it until it is called out speaks to just how ingrained it is. And when it is pointed out, the reaction is often – “Doh! But of course!”. The moral imperative not to ‘let yourself go’ and the guilt and feelings of failure which attach to body shame are indicators of how fundamentally we have moved to valuing the outer self, the self that is ‘to be looked at’, over the inner self, the doing or being self. In a visual and virtual culture we write ourselves onto our bodies, we seek to transform ourselves (and assume to transform our lives too) by transforming our bodies. Body work has become virtuous. If we work hard enough – stick religiously to our diet, pump iron, run, buff, smooth and firm – we will be rewarded. And the rewards will be significant. We won’t just be lighter, or slimmer, but better. We will be better people, and, in the logic of the beauty ideal, we will be rewarded with the ‘goods of the good life’. Better relationships, better jobs, happiness, better lives. 

But this logic is flawed. In a visual and virtual culture, it is not surprising that the body matters, and the body should matter. We are embodied beings. It is worse to ignore and neglect the body, to think we are only minds (the ghost in the machine), than to reify the body. But the body cannot matter most, or only. If it does we will always fail, we will never be happy, the goods of the good life will not come to us. We need to reject the ubiquity of the beauty ideal, the dominance of its claims, we need to see it as it is. See what it can and cannot deliver. As I say in the final chapter of Perfect Me, we need ‘Beauty without the Beast’. 

Find out more about my work here [https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/strategic-framework/Research/perfect-me.aspx] and read the introduction of Perfect Me here [http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/i11281.pdf]. 




Heather Widdows, Professor of Global Ethics, Department of Philosophy, University of Birmingham. Follow me on twitter @ProfWiddows


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