How is beauty transforming the self to become our actual, transforming and imagined body?

We met with Professor Heather Widdows to discuss how the nature of beauty is changing

You’ve recently published a new book, Perfect Me, can you tell us what it’s about?

In Perfect Me I make four new arguments about the nature and consequences of the emerging beauty ideal. First, the core Perfect Med book coverclaim of the book that the beauty ideal is an ethical ideal. Second that the beauty ideal is becoming global – that local ideals are converging and as a result there are fewer competing ideals making the beauty ideal more dominant, demanding and naturalised than ever before. Third, that key to understanding the power of the beauty ideal is understanding the construction and location of the self under it. The self is located in the body, but not just in the actual flawed body. It is also in the transforming body, a body of potential and possibility, and the imagined body, the perfect me. Fourth, I argue that despite the rhetoric of individual choice which surrounds beauty – “I’m doing it for me” – the choice we have when it comes to beauty engagement is significantly limited and constrained.

How concerned should we be about this transformation of self?

In one recent research paper I considered what beauty would look like if we viewed it not as a collection of individual choices but as a public health concern. Would this transform how we regard the harms of beauty, and the extent to which we think we should intervene to address such harms?

When it comes to beauty much of the discussion, especially among policy-makers, ethicists and lawyers has focused on harms to engaging individuals; cosmetic surgery recipients and beauty practices users. Yet individuals choose to engage, and therefore if harm occurs, this can be said to be ‘self-harm’. A broad definition of self-harm includes the practices that individuals do to themselves, and those which they employ others to do to them.

How do you begin to capture all the negative impact from beauty?

To consider accurately the harms of beauty a broad frame is required, one which can recognise the harms-to-others which result from increasing engagement in beauty practices and the knock-on effects as engagement is normalised. Such harms fall not only on those who choose to engage but on those who don’t, or who only engage enough to meet minimal standards of beauty; who wish to be ‘normal’ or ‘good enough’. There are direct, indirect, individual, group, communal and general harms which might attach to the rising demands of beauty.

You talk about different types of harm in your paper, can you tell us more about those?

Firstly, there’s direct harm to providers. While the focus has largely been on surgery, many beauty practices (including invasive practices) are not carried out in medical settings or by medical professionals: nail technicians, beauticians and hairdressers. Given the relatively low value placed on such beauty work, such workers often find themselves in highly competitive environments, vulnerable to being priced out of the market or replaced. As such they are unable to ask for, or to provide for themselves, better pay and less risky working conditions if they wish to remain competitive.

Secondly, there are indirect, specific harms to those who are abnormal. I use the uncomfortable and problematic term ‘abnormal’ deliberately to define those disfigured at birth or by accident or who have physical features which fall dramatically outside the normal range. Those in this group are more visible in a culture where we ‘fix’ what can be fixed, and are therefore more vulnerable to harm. The harms which such a group might suffer include: harms with regard to self-conception and identity (including increased feelings of shame and anxiety); harms of increased stigma and discrimination; and harms of exclusion. As appearance increasingly matters for presentation and communication, social exclusion is a real risk for those who cannot meet the appearance norms of the digital world.

Finally, there are the indirect, general harms to all. As more is required to meet minimum standards more of us fall short and fail. For example, it is the hairy body which is now abnormal. Body image anxiety is now ubiquitous resulting in lower self-esteem, disordered eating behaviours and eating disorders, impaired social and occupational functioning and well as poorer day-to-day interactions and increased problems with sexual functioning. Some argue that “the high prevalence of negative body image is a significant public health concern due to its negative physical and psychological health outcomes” If these effects could be tracked to a physical cause, for instance recreational drugs or pollution, such causes would immediately be targeted.

Could you give an example of a particular type of harm and its effect?

One type of harm would be the risk of increased discrimination on appearance grounds. In some forms appearance discrimination could be considered a general communal harm in that a society which discriminates on appearance grounds creates a toxic environment in which appearance matters more than other goods. Alternatively, it can be considered group harm; limited to a specific group which is singled out and discriminated against. Finally, it can be an individual harm; experienced by individuals who are denied employment or other goods on appearance grounds.

Why do you think policymakers have failed to engage in this debate?

While professional organisations, such as doctors’ associations, understandably focus on engaging individuals (they after-all are the ones doing the operations), why policy-makers have limited themselves is perplexing. It is exactly their task to consider harms across their jurisdictions and to recognise the interaction of practices, policies and norms.

The task of policy-makers is to put in place governance frameworks which give individuals space to live the lives they choose as long as they do not harm or unduly proscribe the freedom of others. So why neglect the harm-to-others and the restriction of others’ freedom which comes from rising beauty demands?woman-looking-in-mirror-min

Should we be worried about beauty?

Beauty practices can be beneficial, life enhancing and positive. In fact in Perfect Me I argue that it is just as false to claim there are no benefits of beauty as to claim there are no harms. We know there are benefits. There are individual benefits which we recognise and experience and social benefits as beauty practices are often shared with others. I also argue that the beauty touch is a valuable form of care and connection as one of the few forms of socially acceptable adult to adult touch which is not sexual or for health reasons. But there are significant harms and not just, as policy makers seem to assume, to engaging individuals. If we continue in current trajectories, where the modified body is increasingly the normal body, and body work is increasingly regarded as required not to be perfect but just to be normal, the future will be bleak indeed. To address the beauty ideal we need to recognise it for what it is, an ethical ideal, which is dominant and influential. It is not an exaggeration to say that the beauty ideal is reshaping our selves and our society and dramatically. We can only see the extent of its influence – particularly the communal harms – if beauty is reframed as an issue of public health rather than individual choice.

Changing the lens from individual choice to public health has been decisive in a number of debates. The classic example is attitudes to smoking. In an era in which stop-smoking campaigns are routinely promoted by states, health professionals and NGOs, the notion that this is an individual choice which should not be intervened in is long gone. Sometimes intervention is justified on the grounds of harm-to-others. Yet intervention is also to protect from self-harm. Putting gruesome pictures on cigarette packets is not to protect from others, but to protect from the self. What would be the equivalent for beauty practices? I don’t have all the answers, but do begin the process of rethinking.

Professor Heather Widdow’s book is Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton University Press) and she co-runs the Beauty Demands blog. Read the full paper on the harms of beauty.

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