You should ‘make the best of yourself’, you’re worth it, you deserve it and, whatever else you do, you should not ‘let yourself go’. So familiar is beauty talk that the harshness of the moral judgement might pass you by. But the moral pressure to ‘do’ beauty is growing. Increasingly being perfect – or trying to be –is what we value most. It is what we think about, talk about and what we spend our time and hard-earned cash on. If we are good at beauty we feel we are good, virtuous, and if we are bad at beauty we feel we are no good almost no matter what else we do. In a very real sense our bodies are now ourselves. We might tell our daughters that “it's what's on the inside that counts”, but a look at the evidence tells us that they would not believe us.
In Perfect Me Professor Heather Widdows explores this radical transformation of the status of beauty, of the beauty ideal and of what this means for how we understand human beings. She makes four key arguments:
- First, that for very many of us beauty has become an ethical ideal. In this brave new world to fail to attain a ‘perfect’, ‘good enough’ or ‘normal’ body is to fail across the board. It is to be a failure.
- Second, that beauty ideal is more dominant than previous ideals and for the first time a global ideal is emerging. It is not simply a Western ideal and it is more dominant than ever before. Applying to more women, more of the time and increasingly to men.
- Third, under the beauty ideal we identify ourselves with our bodies. We locate ourselves in our current, flawed bodies, in our transforming bodies, which feel powerful and full of potential, and in our imagined perfect self.
- Fourth, the old arguments no longer work. We are not coerced to engage, but nor is this all about choice, as non-engagement is ‘not an option’. Nor is this gender exploitation – men too are engaging in body work and striving to conform to unrealistic appearance norms.
To understand what is going on, and to address the harms of a dominant beauty ideal, we need a new theory. We need to recognise the complex and ethical nature of the beauty ideal and the changing concept of the self under the ideal. This is what Perfect Me seeks to do.
John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics, Department of Philosophy
“Beauty matters, it is not trivial, fluffy fun, but deeply serious. In our increasingly visual and virtual society it defines our very selves. There is a global epidemic of body image anxiety with devastating consequences. So extensive is it that it is ‘normal’ to be dissatisfied with your body and ashamed of yourself. If we carry on regardless in our isolated quest for the perfect me we will engage in more punishing beauty regimes, aspire to less attainable and more inhuman ideals, and despite trying harder we will inevitably fail. This future is bleak indeed. But it is only one possible future. Together we need to find life enhancing ways to live under the beauty ideal. To do that we must understand it for what it currently is – an ethical ideal.”
See Heather at the Hay Festival
Listen to Heather on The Philosopher's Zone podcast
Beauty Demands blog
Heather's HuffPost Blog
A duty to be beautiful?
New Year, New You? (4 January 2018)
The demands of the beauty ideal: what is required of us? (6 January 2015)
If you want to lose weight, ask yourself: is this really self-improvement? (9 January 2018)
How the duty to be beautiful is making young girls feel like failures (23 June 2017)