Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal - book launch report

“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 1 June 2018 saw the official launch of Professor Heather Widdows' new book, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal, published by Princeton University Press, at the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

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 that Professor Widdows gives a convincing account of beauty as an ethical ideal. Dr Chambers comments: “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.

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 forth wave. For Professor Jagger, the most important aspect of Perfect Me is the recognition of 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 makes reference to the existence of 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 argues, highlights the importance and cultural relevance of Professor Widdows work.

The final talk of the evening came from Professor Widdows, who after thanking the evenings speakers and all guests in attendance, rounded off the evenings 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 argues:

“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 speeches were followed by a drinks reception where attendees were able to purchase signed copies of Perfect Me (which all sold out on the evening), network, and further discuss the books ideas and arguments. Overall, the book launch was a great success that has garnered further publicity in the Time and BBC News following its release.