Heather Widdows on Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal

WiddowsThe demand to be beautiful is increasingly important in today’s visual and virtual culture. Rightly or wrongly, being perfect has become an ethical ideal to live by, and according to which we judge ourselves good or bad, a success or a failure. Perfect Me explores the changing nature of the beauty ideal, showing how it is more dominant, more demanding, and more global than ever before. If you have ever felt the urge to “make the best of yourself” or worried that you were “letting yourself go,” this book explains why. Perfect Me demonstrates that we must first recognize the ethical nature of the beauty ideal if we are ever to address its harms.

How is the idea of beauty as an ethical ideal expressed in the media?

That beauty is connected to morality is ubiquitous in the media. Look at the amount of moral terminology there is in beauty talk; ‘You’re worth it!’ being a very obvious one. But it is everywhere. We are ‘good’ 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 everyday maintenance. We are ‘naughty,’ ‘bad,’ failing, and even ashamed if we don’t ‘make an effort’ or ‘make the most of ourselves.’ We must not ‘let ourselves go,’ and if we do then we have invited bad things to happen to us.

In some ways this is nothing new, especially for young women. and as the song says, “It’s your duty to be young and beautiful, if you want to be loved.” But, as beauty becomes an ethical ideal, the ideal changes. It is more dominant, even global, and what we all have to do to be ‘normal’ or ‘just good enough,’ is increasing. In a visual and virtual culture where we have to be ‘camera ready’ in public and private—all moments are selfie moments—the pressure to make the appearance grade grows. As the second chapter title and the advert says, “Life is one long catwalk.”

Your book talks about the changing perception of self. How is it changing?  

I argue in Perfect Me that we now locate ourselves in our bodies—something women especially have long done—but not just in our actual body (which we often regard as flawed and failing), but in our transforming bodies (which are full of potential and promise), and our imagined perfect self (the end point of the body project). We are all these selves and part of the reason we are so committed to attaining the body beautiful is that we have invested in the imagined self. In a very real sense this is our self and we imagine our perfect me as an active me, where the beautiful me will have attained all kind of goods along with an improved appearance. The imagined self is a doing self: we picture ourselves looking a certain way, in our ideal job, loved, and happy. Increasingly, how we look is a direct proxy for who and what we are. We used to think self-improvement was character work (being more honest or helpful) now we think its body work (being thinner or fitter). We can clearly see this change in New Year’s resolutions. At the turn of the 20th century a resolution might be ‘to think before speaking,’ whereas now they are standardly ‘to go to the gym and stick to my diet.’

Given how invested we are in the self as our body—actual, transforming, and imagined—traditional suggestions that we simply stop engaging and reject beauty practices and the body are outdated, naive, divide women from each other, and simply don’t work. If we want to address the harms of beauty practices—and there are some exceptional risky practices around; body image anxiety is a global epidemic—we have to understand just how much they matter to us and why. In a very real sense we are our bodies, but there is nothing ‘mere’ or trivial about being a body.

Is viewing the beauty ideal as an ethical imperative a new phenomenon? If so, how did it get started?

In one sense conforming to a beauty ideal is nothing new. Human beings have always cared about appearance in some form or another. We have always painted and adorned ourselves, and cultures which hide and deny the body are arguably even more obsessed with it than those which flaunt it. But we have never before had a global ideal which is so dominant. Because there are fewer competitor ideals it is far harder to challenge the ideal. As a result it is normalized and naturalized, and gradually, almost stealthily, the demands rise. So too does the extent to which we invest in it and regard ourselves as failed and failing when we don’t live up to it.

In our ever more visual and virtual culture where we have to be ‘camera ready’ at all times and places, and where we believe beauty success will make us successful in other areas, the ethical nature of the ideal will only increase. Beauty and goodness have often gone together, but now they have become almost identical in our collective imagination.

What do you think of the strides that plus-sized models are making in the fashion industry and how is that related to the beauty ideal?

In the last chapter—“Beauty without the Beast”—I consider possible ways to counter the bleak future to which we are moving in which appearance matters most, extensive body modification is required, and all are anxious and failing. Celebrating diverse bodies—bodies of all shapes and sizes—is to be welcomed. However, I am not sure how much the move to embracing plus-sized models is really different or if it’s just a variant on a theme. Plus-sized models may be fatter than other models but they still conform in other ways. They have curves in the right places—not the wrong ones—and are firm, smooth and young. So while big, they are also beautiful; they are not big and hairy and have cellulite and jowls. So yes plus-sized models are a step in the right direction, but they are still—obviously—all about appearance. We need to find a way to embrace our bodies—our embodied selves—but also to recognize that what we think and do matters, as well as how we look.

In your book, you talk about the fact that as more demanding practices become the norm, more will be required of us. Have we already seen this begin to happen?

Yes we have. All kinds of beauty practices are increasingly and ‘routinely’ demanded which were not a generation ago. In the book I focus on ‘routine’ practices, particularly body hair removal, ‘de-fluffing,’ which is now regarded by very many as required to be ‘normal.’ Indeed so far has this gone that body hair, including pubic hair, if often regarded as ‘dirty,’ ‘disgusting,’ and even ‘unnatural.’ This kind of double think about what is natural is particularly revealing. Only in a dominant (and I argue globally dominant) ideal can what is in fact ‘unnatural’ be regarded as ‘natural.’ This is very different from previous beauty ideals.

The normalization of ‘routine’ beauty practices extends to many beauty practices and across cultures. Hairlessness and smoothness are global demands and met by a mixture of practices; including waxing, shaving, threading, skin-lightening, tanning, and the daily application of lotions and potions. In some areas more extreme practices are already required, for instance, Botox and lip fillers are increasingly normalized. Even the most extreme practices of cosmetic surgery are regarded as normal and required, for example, in Brazil and South Korea. I see no reason to think that this trend will not continue to spread—only limited by what women can afford—to a future where dramatic body modification is expected and aspired to.

What do you hope that readers will take away from reading your book?

I expect readers will take very many things from Perfect Me. I hope the four key claims—that beauty is functioning as an ethical ideal, that the beauty ideal is more dominant, demanding, and global, that the self is located in the actual, transforming, and imagined body and that old explanations don’t work, beauty choices are not ‘freely chosen,’ but nor are they coerced or gendered exploitation—will resonate within and beyond academia. We need to think differently about the future we want. We are embodied beings and we need to own and celebrate our bodies, but reject embracing damaging and unrealistic beauty ideals. It is not true to say ‘it’s the inside that counts’—and our daughters know this—but nor do we want to end up with only the outside counting. I hope Perfect Me shows just how serious beauty ideals and engagement are. It is defining of who and what human beings are—it is not trivial or unimportant. If we are to address the harmful trends—such as the epidemic of body anxiety—we need to recognize the moral features of the beauty ideal.

Heather Widdows is the John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Her books include Global Ethics: An Introduction, The Connected Self: The Ethics and Governance of the Genetic Individual, and The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch.