When was the last time you felt like a failure based on your appearance? Or placed a value on a stranger in the street because they had really good hair? Maybe you’ve promised yourself already, a few times this year, that you’ll lose weight/tone up/get glowing skin/attempt a blow-dry. Our relationship with beauty has long been complex but, argues Professor Heather Widdows in her new book, the beauty ideal and our quest for the perfect self is becoming something far more problematic.
Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham and author of Perfect Me, published by Princeton University Press, explores the idea that beauty has become, for many of us, an ethical idea. "Moral language is all over beauty," she explains, giving examples such as how we deem ourselves 'good' if we stick to a diet or 'naughty' if we go for that slice of cake. In our quest for the perfect self, we judge ourselves and others harshly and place a high value on it that affects the way we view success at work, at home and in our relationships. We attach blame, shame or praise in our search for beauty and perfection, feeling like a failure as a person if we’ve not come up to scratch. "Beauty success has become success everywhere. So when we talk about 'letting yourself go', that’s not just about failing in beauty. As it becomes an ethical ideal, it becomes a failing of a self."
And there is a global beauty ideal too, claims the book. One where thinness (the primary feature), firmness, smoothness and youthfulness are valued above others, and one that is demanding of all racial groups. This ideal is so dominant, claims Widdows, that it changes what we think of as normal or even natural. As beauty behaviours and practices such as hair removal, Botox and surgery become more accessible and everyday, the line blurs, making them appear more routine. Basically because we can do things, we eventually feel we should.
She cites the "dramatic shift" in attitudes towards body hair removal from her mother’s generation to now as an example of this normalisation. "If you look at some of the studies, people increasingly see removing body hair not as a beauty practice but as something routine for health or hygiene. They use words like 'dirty' or 'disgusting' and even 'abnormal'."
Suddenly you find yourself in a position where you have to do all these things not to be perfect but just to be normal
"It shifts perceptions and then suddenly you find yourself in a position where you have to do all these things not to be perfect but just to be normal." Her observations were recently included in a New York Times piece on Amy Schumer’s film I Feel Pretty and the rise of beauty-standard denialism, where the journalist Amanda Hess wrote that Widdows "convincingly argues that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer are stronger than ever" and that "keeping up appearances is no longer simply a superficial pursuit; it’s an ethical one, too. A woman who fails to conform to the ideal is regarded as a failure as a person."
An increasingly 'visual and virtual culture' is another of the key drivers highlighted in her book. "We now have to be camera ready all the time," explains Widdows. "This has transformed lots of our behaviours, and the younger you are and the more you engage in selfie culture, then the more of your behaviour is transformed." She draws on the Girls' Attitudes survey by Girlguiding in her research; the 2016 edition of the annual report found some troubling statistics. Forty-seven percent of girls aged 11-21 said the way they look holds them back, while 80% of girls aged 17-21 thought they should lose weight sometimes or most of the time (84% of this same age group reported thinking they need to be perfect sometimes or most of the time).
One of the things social media has done, says Widdows, is to create a bigger peer group with which we can compare ourselves. "In a way, social media has made our peer group almost anybody. It’s no longer just the girls in your class or village, it’s potentially everybody and that makes the extent to which you think you’re not doing so well grow."
Seen as 'fluffy' and 'trivial' in the past, beauty is a topic which Widdows believes has not had the gravity it deserves, especially in academia, but it is one that she thinks needs serious attention. Given how much time, energy and money we spend on beauty, it is "wholly un-trivial", says Widdows, to fully examine the subject.
We almost think there is something slightly odd about a woman who is not distressed with some aspect of her body
Another trend that worries her is the normalisation of body image anxiety. "We worry when it gets very severe but we kind of think this low-level sense of dissatisfaction, all the time, is normal. To the extent where we almost think there is something slightly odd about a woman who is not distressed with some aspect of her body." And although she believes there is also a rising pressure on men, it is not at the same extent, currently, as it is for women.
Widdows, who states in her book that she has used "powder, paint, leather and heels" to assert herself, especially in the male-dominated world of philosophy and academia, admits that beauty is a mixed bag. "We need to recognise how complex it is," she says. "There are real harms if we continue in the way we’re going in an ever more toxic environment where we’re supposed to do more and more to be normal, but there are also benefits that we really don’t want to just ignore and pretend are not there."
So what is the solution, if there is one? "I think most of the solutions have to be collective," says Widdows, stressing she is strongly against shaming individuals for what they do or don’t do regarding beauty. "I think that’s just really the wrong place to start. All that feeds is a vicious circle where everyone is feeling vulnerable, everybody feels like they’re doing it wrong and we don’t actually do anything to address what I think of as a communal, toxic environment." She says we could all work on shutting down body shaming: "I think we could be very critical when people engage in appearance shaming. I think we could just regard that as not okay and call that out. There’s never any positive in that."
She says true diversity, rather than "slightly diverse" images, would also be hugely beneficial, as would looking seriously at body image anxiety as a public health issue. "Often people believe what is normal is what they see." Although body positivity campaigns can be "potentially positive", Widdows warns that these often address one aspect of the beauty ideal – say thinness – while conforming to other key features such as smoothness or firmness.
She admits, though, that feelings of dissatisfaction with our bodies are understandable given the strong beauty messages we receive. "I think we need to collectively encourage a more positive environment but I don’t think we should feel guilty for how we feel."