What Beauty Demands: An Interview with Heather Widdows

Today I have the pleasure to post an interview with my colleague Heather Widdows, John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham, who talks to us about her research interest in beauty and her very successful monograph, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal.



LB: Your project examines beauty from a new angle. How did you first become interested in beauty as an ethical ideal?

HW: That’s a difficult question to answer as my passion for researching beauty crept up on me. Before working on beauty I was a fairly typical moral philosopher working in global ethics and justice. My main topic was defining global ethics as an multidisciplinary approach to philosophy, taking the real world and empirical evidence seriously. More broadly, I have worked on areas such as women’s rights, reproductive rights, genetic ethics and bioethics.

I guess my interest in beauty emerged from this long standing interest in gender justice. I recognised that something was happening in visual and virtual culture which was different, profoundly moral and no less connected to justice than other issues of health and wealth I had been working on. 

The challenges of body image anxiety as a global epidemic is an issue of global concern. Likewise, the extent to which the modified body is becoming regarded as normal, and even natural, challenges our understandings of what human beings are, and of the self, at least as much as advances in genetic technology or the emerging possibilities of Artificial Intelligence do. 

Such profound changes about our understanding of human beings, brought on by the emerging dominant beauty ideal, are not well recognised or researched. Perhaps it’s because beauty is seen as trivial, a matter of taste, or a ‘woman’s issue’ that we don’t take it seriously. But in a visual and virtual culture beauty matters, and it matters fundamentally. It provides our values and we judge ourselves, and others, according to it.

LB: In your recent monograph, Perfect Me, you argue that pressure on women to be perfect has increased and is now ‘more global’. What do you think is the reason for this increased pressure, and what makes you say that the preoccupation with beauty is more than a ‘first-world problem’?

HW: In Perfect Me I set out why the current beauty ideal – characterised by thinness, smoothness, firmness and youth – is now an emerging global ideal. This does not mean we all have to look the same, or even similar, but we do have to fall within a certain range. And while diversity might be locally true, globally it is not. Globally, the range of acceptable appearance norms for the face and the body narrows and becomes more demanding.

So while it might seem there is more diversity – more shades and colours of skin, and more shapes and sizes of models are visible – this is diversity within a very small range. To be beautiful – or just good enough – you must conform to most of the features of the beauty ideal. You can be big, and very big, only if you are also firm and smooth.

Yet firm curves are more demanding than thinness alone. And you can be hairy – look at Januhairy – but can you be both? Can you be fat and hairy and saggy and old? You cannot! As I say in Perfect Me ‘muffin tops’ and ‘love handles’ are not features of any version of thinness.

Evidencing the global nature of the ideal is the main focus of Chapter 3, ‘A New (Miss) World Order?’. In this chapter I document the narrowing of the normal range everywhere and the emergence of a global mean. The global beauty ideal is one of thinness in some form (catwalk thin, thin with curves), firm (buff, shapely, athletic), smooth (hairless, with golden, bronze or coffee-coloured skin) and young-looking. 

This is not a mere expansion of Western ideals, but a global ideal, which is demanding of all racial groups. No racial group is good enough without ‘help’ – all need to be changed or added to. Everybody needs body work – diet and exercise, surgical and non-surgical technical fixes – to be ‘perfect’, or just ‘good enough’. While not all can, or afford to engage – all can aspire to. Poverty is no barrier to aspiration and I use the evidence of engagement in affordable trends (such as seeking thinness or using skin-lightening cream) as indicating engagement and aspiration, and supporting the global trend.

Never before have we had a global beauty ideal. This matters because only if an ideal is truly global can its demands be normalised and naturalised. Think about the Aristocratic Chinese woman who had no option but to have her foot bound in a previous era. Or an Aristocratic Victorian woman who had to wear a corset and squeeze her waist and internal organs to the point of abnormality to achieve her tiny waist. These were demanding practices indeed.

But while these women might have regarded the bound foot or the tiny, clinched in waist as desirable, beautiful and even perfect, she could not have thought they were normal or natural. Not ever. She knew they were artifice, for beauty and not for health. This is very different to today as – to take just one example – the hairless body becomes regarded as a normal or natural body, and body hair removal shifts from a beauty practice to a hygiene practice. (The normalisation of the hairless body is something I have addressed in more detail here.)


Heather Widdows


LB: As you know, we are especially interested in mental health at Imperfect Cognitions. Do you think that the moral imperative to be beautiful contributes to mental distress? If so, is there any example that you could give us?

HW: Absolutely. The rising demands of beauty pose a real challenge to mental health. We are facing what can only be termed a ‘global epidemic of body image anxiety’. This is increasingly recognised by policy makers, and activist groups. For instance, in 2016, the YMCA highlighted body image as one of the most pressing issues facing young people in the UK. You only have to pick up a paper or magazine to see worries about social media, body distress and pressures to be perfect. 

LB: In your Beauty Demands project you have brought together scholars from different disciplines, practitioners, and policy-makers with the common aim to examine the changing requirements of beauty. What were the benefits and challenges of involving non-academics in the project?

HW: The Beauty Demands project was crucial in helping me map my own work as a moral philosopher. The Beauty Demands project helped me identify what was missing in the multidisciplinary debate and what I could add as a moral philosopher. I have a long standing commitment to truly interdisciplinary work. 

In my view the complex and global challenges which beset the contemporary world cannot be addressed in disciplinary silos. And beauty, no less than other serious health and wellbeing issues, poses an ethical challenge of our times.

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