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

Professor Heather Widdows explored the question of whether we have a duty to be beautiful at the Hay Festival on Tuesday 29 May 2018.

In her talk, Professor Widdows explored the idea of beauty as an ethical ideal, a shared value framework that we are required to work towards, and against which individuals judge themselves and others. The four aspects of the beauty ideal - thin (with curves), firm (and buff), smooth (hairless and golden) and young - 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.

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 has always been complex, being 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 Widdows. For example, body hair removal, or ‘defluffling’ 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: now we have the means to alter our body parts, it becomes essential that we do so.

Drawing on the Girls’ Attitudes Survey (2016) by Girlguiding UK, Widdows highlighted troubling statistics concerning young girl’s 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 “visual and virtual” culture we are in. With increasing possibilities in apps to enhance selfies, rate attractiveness and identify imperfections, Widdows argues “the more we can do, the more we feel we should do”. The beauty ideal, Widdows argues, 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 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”.

The talk was followed by insightful questions by audience members, whom, before asking direct questions, reflected upon their own experiences of grappling with the beauty ideal. Such reception was also taken to social media too, where audience members took to twitter to commend Professor Widdows for her fantastic talk, clarity of argument, and for many, being the highlight of their Hay Festival experience.