After the feasting of Christmas, January is a time of self-improvement, detoxing, and even self-denial. It is the time when we start new diets, begin new exercise regimes and make New Year’s resolutions. Next year, we promise ourselves, we will do better; we will better ourselves. But what do we mean by bettering ourselves? Increasingly we mean improving our physical bodies. Very familiar New Year’s resolutions are:
- I will lose 10 pounds
- I will go to the gym three times a week
- I will start to run/run a half-marathon
- I will eat cleanly
- And so on…
It is significant that a good amount of our New Year’s resolutions are focused on our physical selves it is a change from previous generations and long standing views about the nature of the self. Increasingly we identify ourselves with our bodies and, in a very real sense, think that improving our bodies is improving ourselves. This is a profound change from previous ideals and one which is transformative of how we construct and navigate the world.
Compare today’s New Year’s resolutions with those of past generations. Self-improvement has traditionally been about character, the inner self, not the outer self. For example, an extract of an adolescent’s diary in 1892 reads:
“Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others”.
Constructing self-improvement – becoming better – as character improvement is a long way from current understandings of bodily-improvement. Yet it is increasingly the case that very many of us judge ourselves according to the extent to which we conform to beauty ideals. We think of ourselves as successful when we have attained some aspect of our ideal; when we’ve reached our goal weight, filled our wrinkles or firmed our thighs. It is also true of daily accomplishments. We are ‘good’ when we do all kind of beauty related actions: when we say ‘no thanks’ to cake, chocolate, cheese or carbs; force ourselves to go out for a run; or when we routinely remove make up, body brush, and perform the tasks of routine maintenance. We must ‘make the most of ourselves’ and will be chastised if we fail to ‘make an effort’ or ‘let ourselves go’.
That physical improvement will lead to other goods, employment success, relationship success, happiness is a widely shared and increasingly believed ideal; especially among the young. Girls as young as three judge character based on body shape, and young women would rather be thin than smart: “I reckon that if I fitted into size 10 jeans I would be happier. I would rather have that than straight A’s”.
And key studies such as the 2016 YMCA report, ‘The Challenge of being Young in Modern Britain’, put body image as the third biggest and most harmful challenge facing young people (after lack of employment opportunities and failing to succeed within the education system). And the 2016 Girls attitude survey reports that girls “tell us they have to confront intense and unobtainable appearance pressures to be perfect and many say they feel they’re not good enough”.
The expectation is that work on the body will pay off. Of course there comes a point where this is not the case. We all ultimately sag, wrinkle and wither. Yet we increasingly believe that improving the physical self makes us better. By better we don’t just mean physically better – healthier – but better overall, and that the goods of the good life will belong to us.
In universities, while we know that this is not true, that great eye-wear and the right outfit does not make the scholar, we are not immune. In a visual and virtual culture how could appearance not matter – but should it matter most? Should it matter like this? Should this be the ethical ideal we live by? If you think not then you might want to think about who your ‘best self’ is, and perhaps revisit your New Year’s resolutions.
This is the subject of my forthcoming book, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton University)