Photo by Matthew Hilton

Recently, when Mary Beard—the renowned Cambridge classicist—learned that much of her footage was being cut from the PBS version of the British series “Civilizations,” she wrote on Twitter that she couldn’t “help think that a slightly creaky old lady with long grey hair isn’t ideal for US TV.” It wasn’t the first time that the quality of Beard’s looks was considered to be more important than the quality of her intellect. She’d once been called “too ugly for TV,” for a series she presented on the Romans.

Beard is not ugly, but at 64, she isn’t as lithe and poreless as the majority of women seen on the small screen. It’s a depressing thought that, as a culture, we choose to forgo knowledge simply to avoid staring at an aged woman’s face. This was the sort of superficial dismissiveness I’d grown to expect from the Cineplex, but not from public television, which had seemed—historically at least—to tolerate creaky and craggy bodies, especially when they were attached to a brilliant mind. But the whole Beard affair got me wondering whether our culture has reached a new level of appearance intolerance.

Heather Widdows, a professor of philosophy at the University of Birmingham in England, argues that we have. In her latest book, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal—a sharp and accessible read—Widdows claims that the range of bodies our culture considers to be beautiful has narrowed, and what’s more, that we’re increasingly judging individuals’ moral worth on the basis of appearance. It’s a shocking point, but Widdows draws on social research and philosophy to build the case that beauty today operates like a moral ideal. The beautiful body, she says, is a work of artifice, shaped by practices that require investing countless hours and a lot of money, as well as sometimes undergoing invasive and painful processes. But we do it because we tell ourselves that “we’re worth it,” and there is also real pleasure to be had. Not all trips to the spa have us clenching our jaws, and who doesn’t like the validation of a compliment on our appearance?

Widdows argues that these joys mask a darker truth. If the beauty ideal has become our measure for success and goodness, then it’s not surprising that smart and accomplished people like Beard, who also aren’t spending hours in front of the mirror, are disappearing from our TVs. We’ve decided they’re simply not worth our time. For some viewers, “it makes no difference at all what Beard does as a profession,” says Widdows, “and that’s telling you just how extensive the beauty ideal has become.” It’s a chilling thought.

I spoke with Widdows over the phone, while she was winding down her day in the UK. We talked about why the beauty ideal has such power over us; how a beauty revolution is trickier than a class revolution; and about what to make of the new trend of the objectification of men—is it evidence of a new level of superficiality, or a strange new form of gender equality? “This is the first time I’ve written a book where I think it really matters that the public read it, and that young girls hear the ideas,” she says.

-Regan Penaluna for Guernica  

Guernica: After writing books about global justice and the ethics of genetics, what motivated you to write a book about beauty standards?

Heather Widdows: I sensed this topic is something that was really important to very many women, but that philosophers weren’t writing about. I began recognizing how pervasive it is that people are feeling like beauty failures, that it’s so important that they measure up, so that beauty success has become success everywhere. Appearance has been tipping over into this ethical ideal, but we haven’t called it out quite like that. It’s hidden underneath this language of choice and fun. But when you start looking, you can see what the underlying language around beauty tells us: “You’re worth it,” “ You let yourself go,” or “You deserve it.” The moral language is absolutely everywhere in it.

There was a personal element in it, too. My daughter is now 10, and there is a strong sense that she is growing up in a world that is very different from the one that I had grown up in. I have this really distinctive memory of her coming back from her preschool in massive distress, because she was told that she wasn’t allowed in the playhouse by the other three-year-olds because she was a boy for wearing trousers. It’s a very pink world that girls are growing up in, compared to my 1970s world where trousers were common and came in primary colors and brown. The world is very gendered at a very early age.

Also, the pervasiveness of visual culture has crept up on us. When I was growing up, photo opportunities would be at weddings and birthdays. Now, every moment you are camera-ready. Girls no longer have to be good enough to fit in with the girls in their class, but they also have to measure up to almost anybody on Instagram. The selfie culture that teenagers negotiate in peer groups is happening on a global scale. There’s something about the dominance of a shared ideal that encourages normalization. I don’t think we’ve addressed what that means, or really understood just how much that has transformed the sense of self.

Guernica: For the book, you read numerous empirical studies of beauty based on cultures throughout the world, which convinced you that there is a global beauty ideal. What are its features?

Widdows: I fall on these four features: Thinness, in some form. All kinds of versions of thin, model-thin, thin with curves being particularly dominant. Firmness, which I think is quite new, and in a way connected to a more naked image of the body that comes from our increasingly image-based culture. It’s not good enough to hide it under clothes. In some ways, firmness is more demanding than just thinness on its own, because you have to do the right exercise or have the right implants on an otherwise thin frame.

Then, Smoothness, which is partly things like hairlessness, skin tone, skin texture, and bronzed or coffee-colored skin. I think smoothness is also connected to a very technical gaze, to a forensic scientific gaze we get from HD television. Your skin’s not just got to be spot free, it’s got to be wrinkle free, and you’ve got to have small pores. I think the large pore thing is really quite interesting, because I’m pretty certain my mother didn’t know that large pores were a flaw in her skin.

And of course, Youth. To look young, Queen Elizabeth I could put white lead on her face and wear high necklines to hide her aging neck, but she couldn’t do much else. Whereas today, we can do so much more that youth has become a more demanding feature of the beauty ideal. Also, my claim is not that there’s a single blueprint for the beauty ideal, but there’s a range that we have to fall in, and that while the blueprint is becoming global, the range [of acceptable bodies] is narrowing.

Guernica: You talk about how men are also increasingly coming under the beauty ideal. In what way?

Widdows: I don’t think men are under a global beauty ideal yet. There are lots of more acceptable ways to be a man. But I do think appearance is mattering to men more, and there’s so many ideals for men that have a lot in common with women’s ideals. Men might not be thin, but they are to be kind of fatless, firm, and smooth.

Guernica: You also challenge feminists who welcome the objectification of men on gender equality grounds. Why is this?

Widdows: The problem with a more demanding beauty ideal is not just inequality. It seems to me that were we all equally obsessed with our bodies, this would not be a good world to live in at all. It would not be a world of human flourishing. I would like a more equal world, but I would also like one where it wasn’t our bodies that were valued most about us.

Guernica: There’s a sense of urgency in your book that the global ideal is becoming more dominant, and that’s a problem. Why?

Widdows: Today, more bodywork [cosmetic surgery and intervention] is required just to be good enough. As more people are having Botox, then everybody has to have Botox. In some circles, the aged face now looks abnormal. Lots of people who aren’t in those groups where Botox or surgeries are normal are thinking, “I’d never do that.” But then you start looking at practices that they would never have done before and you think, well, did you ever think that you would be waxing your bikini line? And then suddenly, most people are. I think cosmetic dentistry’s another interesting case. It’s something that we regularly do for children, it’s quite painful, and we do it without significant amounts of attention paid to their consent. We’re doing it just to look “normal.”

I just think that that rise in bodywork will continue across the board, so that we’ll end up in a position in the near future where the significantly modified body is normal. And it will become harder and harder to recognize what is not required to be “normal.” It’s one thing to know it in your head. It’s another thing to feel like it’s an option for you. And if it wasn’t an ethical ideal, it would be easy to resist. Some of it we do enjoy; otherwise, it would be quite easy to address. But once you feel ashamed of yourself [for not complying], then it’s harder as an individual to resist on your own.

Guernica: In the book, you discuss the many risks of physical harm that result from conforming to the beauty ideal, including pain, physical disfigurement, and botched surgeries. What are some other kinds of harms?

Widdows: I think that the harms to the individual include body-image anxiety. I think we haven’t taken seriously what that means, and how harmful that is. I think that the fact that it’s normal to be unhappy with your body, when your body has become symbolic of yourself, is devastating. Imagine that all our kids were taking some recreational drug that just swept the market, and [it made them] all feel so unhappy. We’d be acting pretty fast to stop it, because it would be an unacceptably bad thing.

There’s also the harm of normalization and time. The more we do this, the more everybody has to do it to be normal, then it really is the amount of other things that we are not doing both individually and collectively. Do we really want to live in a world where we all routinely, every year, have surgery and routinely spend our time measuring ourselves against our bodies? The trajectory’s not great.

Also, some of the most horrible internet trolling seems to be about bodies. The ability to silence and exclude people because they don’t fall into the beauty norm has increased dramatically.

Guernica: If trying to achieve the beauty ideal carries with it so many risks, why do we continue to do it?

Widdows: There’s a sense that our bodywork has become virtuous work. Even stuff that’s really horrible can feel like we are working on ourselves. Once we’ve bought in that this is ourselves, and that attaining this is being a better self, then it can hide lots of horrible practices.

Another reason I think the beauty ideal is so hard to reject is because it’s just not the case that it’s all bad—there are some really great practices in beauty. There’s something very human about commenting on, “Oh, I love your clothes,” or, “You look great today.” It’s a way we express our care for other people. Nor is it the case that we don’t benefit in some ways. We would certainly be much better in a world where we weren’t caring about it so much, and we were more empowered by other things. But in the world where we currently are, it makes some sense.

Guernica: You write that people aren’t conforming to the beauty ideal because they’re being coerced, or because they suffer from false consciousness. How is that?

Widdows: To say that we don’t choose anything isn’t the case. There is choice, but it exists in a very limited sphere. So we don’t choose the beauty ideal itself that we fall under, but we do choose to be within that range where there’s a certain limited expressiveness—but it is very limited. For example, we might focus on smooth skin or dyed hair. Also, people talk a lot about makeup being hugely creative and expressive. Well, I think makeup is minimally creative and expressive. Makeup’s not about painting your skin bright blue or doing fascinating artwork. It’s very prescribed.

These things are not coerced, in the sense that we feel that not doing them is an option—though there are very many costs to not conforming. We often do them because we take pleasure in that self that we create from them.

As for the claim of false consciousness, I think it just turns out not to be true. That these beauty practices exist just to keep us in our place, or that that we’re deluded about their benefits, is false, and young girls and women know that that’s not true. They know there are real benefits to beauty. It’s the benefits of feeling like you are improving yourself and you’re well -presented, and the confidence that comes from those kind of things is real. We also know that the opposite’s true. If you don’t conform, you feel terrible.

Guernica: You do such a good job making visible all the ways that we put so much time, energy and money into personal bodywork, which also deprives our community of these valuable resources. I have to admit that I felt a bit morally repulsed by this fact, which made me wonder: if the beauty ideal is morally repugnant, in what sense is it really an ethical ideal?

Widdows: There is a difference between whether one thinks it’s a good ethical ideal, and whether one thinks that’s how it’s working. I think it is absolutely working as an ethical ideal. The beauty ideal is what people are valuing. They’ll say that it’s about health, and not about looking a certain way. But much bodywork isn’t really about health. We do lots of things that are unhealthy in order to get that perfect body. I think it gets hard for people to disentangle these things. If we think a good ethical ideal is something that should actually deliver us the goods of the good life, then it’s clear that this beauty ideal won’t do that for us.

Guernica: You say that beauty isn’t a topic that moral philosophers today take seriously. Did you meet resistance in the academy when working on this project?

Widdows: I’m in a privileged position, because I’ve been a full professor for a long time, and so it hasn’t been hard for me to get beauty taken seriously. A few people have raised eyebrows, and it’s not studied very much by moral philosophers. Philosophy is a very male discipline, and maybe it’s also seen as a women’s issue.

Guernica: You argue that social media is a cause for why the beauty ideal has come to dominate so many lives. Might it also have to do with the fact that, as society has become more secular, there is less stigma of focusing on the body as a source of value? 

Widdows: I have found that even very religious people are not immune to the beauty ideal. I got interviewed by a woman who was writing for The Church Times, who told me that she’d written a book about religious women’s relationship to body image. She was just saying that she found, contrary to what you might expect, that they were very concerned about living up to beauty ideals. It isn’t like anybody is immune to this culture.

Guernica: The suffering that people accept to look “good” made me wonder whether we will reach a critical point in the future when they decide it’s all just too much, sort of in a similar way that Marx theorized the working class would come to see their exploitation and revolt.

Widdows: Marx’s critique relies on the fact that, once we throw off our false consciousness, we will see that there are exploiters exploiting us. We can see that there’s a power relationship going on there. But [with the beauty ideal]—without that power dynamic, without that clear exploiter—it makes it harder for us to see bodywork as suffering. It seems possible that there’ll come a point when we think, “This is crazy, it’s so inhuman and it’s so hard to do. Let’s stop.” But we have to do that collectively, and that’s what I hope.

Guernica: What relationship to beauty would you like to see in the ideal world?

Widdows: I would love to see a world where we still cared about our bodies, but valued many different body types. A world where we’ve pushed back on this narrowing of normal, and where not wearing makeup is completely an option. It’s a world with a more forgiving aesthetic, that has a broader sense of what is beautiful. I have tried to do that myself. What if, instead of looking at somebody to see whether they measure up, I looked for the beauty in everybody?

Regan Penaluna

Regan Penaluna is a senior editor at Guernica. She is writing a book for Grove Atlantic about long-forgotten women philosophers that opens up an alternative history of philosophy.

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