Professor Heather Widdows BD(Hons), PhD

Professor Heather Widdows

Department of Philosophy
John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics
Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor Research (Impact)

Contact details

ERI Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

Professor Heather Widdows is the John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics and the Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research Impact. In this role she seeks to support and extend the impact of Birmingham's research across policy, cultural and industrial sectors. Her track-record shows her commitment to public engagement and work with policy makers. As such she has served as a member of the UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Council (2007-2013), the Philosophy REF-panel (2013-2014) and she is currently a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. 

She is currently working on the increasing demands of beauty, which she examines in her latest book Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton University Press) and her ongoing research into A duty to beautiful. She also co-runs the Beauty Demands blog, a research network addressing the changing requirements of beauty, and founded the #everydaylookism campaign. Prior to this project, she has run multidisciplinary grants on Property Regulation in European Science, Ethics and Law, the ethics and governance of human tissue, and collaborated on grants on terrorism and trust.


Heather Widdows is a leading international researcher across applied ethics. In 2005 she was awarded a visiting fellowship at Harvard University, where she worked on issues of moral neo-colonialism. She has led a number of funded projects on issues of property in the body; reproductive rights; human tissue; war on terror and ownership and governance of the genome. Heather's current research explores the moral philosophy of beauty, funded by a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship (2014-2016) and an AHRC Network on 'The Changing Requirements of Beauty' (2015-2016). Her latest book, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal, was published Princeton University Press in May 2018.

Currently Heather serves as a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and is also on the REF Philosophy Sub-Panel. Previously she was a member of UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Council (2007 to 2013) and co-lead Saving Humans, one of the two inagural themes of the University's Institute of Advanced Studies.


Heather is currently not teaching UG or MA students, but she is still accepting doctoral candidates.

Postgraduate supervision

  • All aspects of feminist philosophy; particularly connected to body image and gender norms
  • Moral theory, particularly virtue ethics
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Bioethics and public health; especially issues of global bioethics and health policy and including issues of genetics, reproduction, commodification and international research and governance
  • Global ethics, global justice and duties beyond borders
  • Communication across value-frameworks and belief systems; including issues about the possibility and desirability of global ethics and issues of moral neo-colonialism and multiculturalism
  • Women's rights and reproductive rights
  • Ethics and war, terrorism and torture
  • The application of moral theory to policy and practice

Find out more - our PhD Philosophy  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


Do we have a duty to be beautiful? Heather's current research explores the moral and ethical nature of beauty, particularly the increasing demands of beauty. Heather research was funded by two main grants, a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship and an AHRC Network on 'The Changing Requirements of Beauty'.

Perfect Me, Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (Oct 2014 to Sept 2016) 

This fellowship supports the completion of a monograph Perfect Me!. ‘Perfect me!’ can be read in a number of ways: as an individual’s aspiration to perfect themselves (‘I want to be perfect’), as assertion of what being perfect is (‘this is what I would be if I were perfect’), and as a command which a woman feels she should obey (‘you should be perfect’).

Perfect Me! explores all of these meanings, with particular focus on the moral element that each reading implies: the first, that being perfect is worth having; the second, a judgement that this is what perfection is; and the third, a moral imperative to attain it.

In addition to analysing the ideal of perfection as it is manifested in the dominant beauty ideal as a moral ideal, Professor Widdows will critique the current reliance on individual choice and consent in determining the ethics of beauty practices. She will also focus on the picture of the moral self which underlies this ideal and suggest that there is a shift from identification of the self with the physical/observed body to the imagined body.

The Changing Requirements of Beauty, AHRC Network (January 2015 – June 2016)

PI Heather Widdows, Co-I Jean McHale

This project considers changing attitudes to body image and the consequent changing uses of procedures which have traditionally been regarded as 'medical'; for instance, according to BAAPS, 43,172 surgical procedures were carried out in 2012, and the most popular are concerned overtly with appearance and beauty (the most popular procedures in the UK are breast augmentation, eyelid surgery and face/neck lifts). Moreover, surveys suggest that if money was not an issue far more women would undergo such procedures, which are seen as increasingly 'normal', 'routine' and part of the 'beauty regimes' of 'ordinary women'.

This project considers the beauty norms which underlie this trend from cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral perspectives. The assumption of the network is that beauty image is becoming ever more demanding and defining of women, and increasingly men, irrespective of their professions. The project will ask whether this is the case, and how this norm is constituted and how it impacts upon women. It will also ask whether the dominant beauty norm is increasingly a global beauty norm, and thus open to less cultural and sub-cultural resistance. The project is especially concerned with role of technology in this. In particular, that procedures which were once regarded as 'exceptional' such as the use of surgery, are now regarded as 'normal' or even 'required' in certain contexts. Other increasingly demanding beauty requirements include hair removal and 'non-invasive' procedures to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. All of these procedures, whether 'routine' or 'exceptional', require time and effort to maintain, and arguably the 'minimum' required is increasing; fewer women go 'bare faced' or bare their flesh without hair removal.

This project will explore the extent to which beauty norms are changing and how as well as what this means for individuals, for regulation and for clinical practice. It explores the 'perfectionist trend' that extends the use of medical and scientific procedures to 'cosmetic procedures'. In light of this it will explore how the use and development of such procedures in the service of such norms changes the concepts of 'health', 'normality' and 'perfection' and in turn how these feed into self-understandings and identity, social expectations, medical practice and regulation.

ESRC Nuclear Ethics and Global Security: Reforming the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime (Oct 2014-2016) 

PI is Professor  Nicholas J Wheeler, Co-Is Dr Dr Anthony Burke and Professor Heather Widdows.

At a moment of profound crisis, uncertainty, and yet potential opportunity in the nuclear non-proliferation regime, this project will investigate possible paths for the reform and strengthening of the regime through an engagement with ethical and normative thinking in the fields of Philosophy and International Relations. The project straddles the related sub-fields of global ethics, political theory, normative international relations theory, and security studies.

The project questions how far the bargain at the heart of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is ethically defensible and whether the relationship between hierarchy and sovereignty within the treaty can endure. It will also explore how far a new ethical dispensation in the nuclear field would require new legal, institutional and normative arrangements to successfully protect future human, national and global security.

The key member of staff from Philosophy and Global Ethics working on this project is Dr Scott Wisor (

Other activities



Peer reviewed journal articles

  •  ‘The Neglected Harms of Beauty: Beyond Engaging Individuals’, in Journal of Practical Ethics (2017), 5:2, pp.1-29.
  • Altered images: Understanding the influence of unrealistic images and beauty aspirations’, with Fiona MacCallum, in Health Care Analysis (2016), 26:3, pp.235-245.
  • Global Ethics: A short reflection on then and now’ with Darrel Moellendorf. In Journal of Global Ethics (2014) p319-325 10.1080/17449626.2014.971191
  • ‘Revising Global Theories of Justice to Include Public Goods’ with Peter West Oram in Special Issue of Journal of Global Ethics, edited by Monique Deveaux, 2013, Vol 9, No. 2, pp 227-243. [DOI 10.1080/17449626.2013.838457].
  • The Ethics of Biobanking: Key Issues and Controversies’ with Sean Cordell in Health Care Analysis., Vol. 19, No. 3, September 2011.pp 207-219. 
  • ‘Lost property? Legal compensation for destroyed sperm: A reflection and comparison drawing on UK and French perspectives’, with Sean Cordell, Florence Bellivier and Christine Noiville Journal of Medical Ethics, June 2011.
  • ‘The right not to know: The case of psychiatric disorders’, with Lisa Bortolotti Journal of Medical Ethics, 2011, 37, pp 673-676. 
  • Why communities and their goods matter: Illustrated with the example of biobanks’, with Sean Cordell, Public Health Ethics, 2011, 4 (1), pp 14-25. 
  • ‘Western and Eastern Principles and Globalised Bioethics’ Asian Bioethics Review, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2011, pp 14-22
  • ‘Localised past, globalised future: Towards an effective bioethical framework using examples from population genetics and medical tourism’ Bioethics (January 2011)
  • ‘Constructing Effective Ethical Frameworks for Biobanking’, in Dilemata: International Journal of Applied Ethics, 2010, 4, pp. 15-31
  • ‘The Janus-Face of New Reproductive ‘The Janus-Face of New Reproductive Technologies: Escaping the Polarised Debate’ International Journal of Public Theology, 2010, 4, pp. 76-99
  • ‘Persons and their parts: New reproductive technologies and risks of commodification’ Health Care Analysis, 2009, 17, pp. 36-46
  • ‘Between the individual and the community: The impact of genetics on ethical models’  for SI of New Genetics and Society, 2009, 28, 2, pp.173-188
  • ‘Border disputes across bodies: Exploitation in Trafficking for Prostitution and Egg Sale for Stem Cell Research’, International Journal of the Feminist Association of Bioethics, 2009, 2, 1, pp. 5-24
  • ‘Globalization, Ethics and the War on Terror’, with Gillian Youngs, Globalizations, 2009, 6, 1, pp. 1-6
  • Conceptualising Health: Insights from the Capability Approach, with Iain Law, Health Care Analysis (2008)
  • The Self in the Genetic Era, Health Care Analysis, 2007, 15, pp. 5-12
  • Moral Neocolonialism and Global Ethics, Bioethics, Volume 21, Number 6, 2007 pp. 305-315
  • Interview with Noam Chomsky: Global ethics, American foreign policy and the academic as activist, Journal of Global Ethics Volume 1, Issue 2, 2005, pp. 197-205
  • Religion as a Source of Moral Authority, Heythrop Journal, 2004, April, XLV, pp. 197-208
  • Global Bioethics (with Donna Dickenson and Sirkku Hellsten) in New Review in Bioethics, Vol. 1, No.1, November 2003, pp. 101-116
  • Disparities in Parenting Criteria: An Exploration of the Issues, focusing on Adoption and Embryo Donation (with Fiona McCallum) Journal of Medical Ethics, 2002, Vol. 28, pp. 139-142.
  • Iris Murdoch's Good, New Blackfriars , Vol. 82, Issue 960, 2001, pp. 56-75

Chapters in books

  • ‘Commodification of Human Tissue’ with Marway H and  Johnson S, (2013). In: Gordijn B, ten Have HAMJ (eds). Compendium and Atlas of Global Bioethics. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 581-598.
  • ‘Global Population and Global Justice: Equitable Distribution of Resources Among Countries’. With Peter West-Oram in eLS 2011, John Wiley & Sons Ltd: Chichester, 2012 [DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024140]
  • ‘Why bioethics must be global’ with Peter West-Oram in Global Health and International Community: Ethical, Political and Regulatory Challenges, edited by John Coggon and Swati Gola, Bloomsbury academic, 2013 pp. 43-62.
  • ‘Rejecting the Choice Paradigm: Rethinking the ethical framework in prostitution and egg sale debates’ in Gender, Agency and Coercion eds Anne Phillips, Sumi Madhok and Kalpana Wilson London: Palgrave, 2013 pp.157-180
  • ‘Iris Murdoch: A visionary?’ in Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts eds. Anne Rowe and Avril Horner (Palgrave, forthcoming 2011)
    ‘Ethics of Embryo Donation’ with Fiona MacCallum in Ethics of Reproductive Donation eds Martin Richards and Giddo Pennings (CUP, forthcoming 2011)
  • ‘Reconsidering Consent and Biobanking’, with Emma Bullock, in Biobanks and Tissue Research. The Public, the Patient and the Regulation eds. Christain Lenk and Nils Hoppe (Springer, forthcoming 2011)
  • ‘Global Ethics: An Overview’ in The Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics edited by Ruth Chadwick (forthcoming 2011)
  • ‘Rediscovering the Individual in the War on Terror: A virtue and liberal approach’ in Interrogating Terror edited by Bob Brecher, Mark Devenney and Aaron Winter, London: Routledge, 2010, p. 5-20
  • ‘A Murdochian Evil’ in The Positive Function of Evil edited by Pedro Tabensky, London: Plagrave, pp. 81-97
  • ‘Persons and their parts: New reproductive technologies and risks of commodification’ in  Transformation and Transgression: The Legal, Medical and Cultural Regulation of the Body edited by Ronan Deazely and Stephen Smith, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009, pp.77-87
  • ‘Introduction’ with Caroline Mullen in The Governance of Genetic Information: Who Decides? edited by Heather Widdows and Caroline Mullen, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp1-12
  • ‘Constructing communal models of governance’ in The Governance of Genetic Information: Who Decides? edited by Heather Widdows and Caroline Mullen, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp75-98
  • ‘An Investigation of the Conception, Management and Regulation of Tangible and Intangible Property in Human Tissue: the PropEur Project’ with Caroline Mullen in Altruism reconsidered: Exploring new approaches to property in human tissue edited by and Michael Stienmann, Peter Sykora, Urban Wiesing Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009, pp169-179
  • Why and what global ethics? in Ethics in an Era of Globalisation Continuum Books edited Wim M.S. Ronald Commers, Wim Vandekerckhove & An Verlinden (2008)
  • Reconceptualising Ethics: Challenges to Traditional Medical Ethics in Ethics and Law of Intellectual Property: Current Problems in Politics, Science and Technology, edited by Christian Lenk, Nils Hoppe and Roberto Andorno (2008)
  • Christian approaches to Bioethics in Principles of Health Care Ethics (2nd  edition), edited by Richard Ashcroft, Angus Dawson, Heather Draper, John McMillan (Wiley Press, 2007, pp. 99-107)
  • Introduction to Women's Reproductive Rights, edited by Heather Widdows, Itziar Alkorta Idiakez and Aitziber Emaldi Cirión Palgrave: London, 2006. pp. 1-13.
  • The impact of New Reproductive Technologies on Concepts of Genetic Relatedness and Non-relatedness in Women's Reproductive Rights, edited by Heather Widdows, Itziar Alkorta Idiakez and Aitziber Emaldi Cirión London: Palgrave 2006. pp. 151-164
  • Why Global Ethics? in Global Ethics and Civil Society, edited by John Eade and Darren O'Byrne Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. pp. 74-88
  • The right to life; Abortion in Essential Guide to Human Rights, edited by R. Smith, and C. L. van den Anker, New York: Hodder Arnold, 2005. pp. 233-236
  • The Ethics Of Secrecy in Donor Insemination in Ethical Issues in Maternal-Fetal Medicine, edited by Donna Dickenson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp. 167-180
  • Secrecy in Donor Insemination in The Ethics of New Reproductive Technologies, edited by Dolores Dooley, Joan McCarthy, Tina Garanis-Papadatos and Panagiota Dalla Vorgia, Oxford: Berghman Books, 2002. pp. 36-50

Special Issues

  • Special Issue on ‘The ethics of biobanking’. with Sean Cordell in Health Care Analysis
  • ‘Ethics and the War on Terror’ in Globalizations. With Gillian Youngs from the ESRC-funded series ‘Ethics and the War on Terror’. 2009, 6, 1.


  • Cases in Medical Ethics and Law: An Interactive Tutorial (with David Lloyd and Donna Dickenson) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (August, 2005) (with David Lloyd and Donna Dickenson) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (August, 2005)
  • Property Regulation in European Science, Ethics and Law: Conference DVD and Survey (with Caroline Mullen and Dita Wickins-Drazilova) EU Project Publication (December 2006). Available on request and free of charge, please email

View all publications in research portal


Ethics, Policy and governance issues in particular:

  • Beauty, Everyday Lookism, Public health Crises
  • Global Ethics, Moral Theory
  • Feminist Theory, Women’s rights
  • Bioethics, Reproductive Technologies, Medical Tourism, Genetic Ethics and Governance
  • War on Terror, Global Justice


Beauty from the perspective of moral philosophy and justice, including cosmetic surgery

Issues of body image and global demands of beauty

The ethical issues which arise in the context of globalization, including those of technological development, poverty and development, and gender justice

Bioethics and global health, particularly genetic ethics, reproductive ethics and research ethics