It’s not surprising that how we look matters in an increasingly visual and virtual world. Whether you get ‘likes’ or make a good first impression matters and the pressure to be perfect is something which young men and women increasingly feel.

The pressure to measure up to the beauty ideal – to be thin, firm, smooth and young – is greater than ever before. There are many reasons for why beauty matters more. First, our culture is increasing visual rather than text based. This is not only true for the young and those embedded in selfie culture, but for all of us. In our private and virtual lives we increasingly feel the pressure to be ‘camera ready’ all the time, so we can present our best self or selfie. Second, we are pulled by the ‘technological imperative’, because more can be done, we feel more should be done. In the past there was only so much diet, powder and paint could do to make us beautiful. The array of possible products and procedures which promise to rejuvenate, resurface, erase, plump, firm, smooth, minimise, lighten and brighten is dizzying. This is compounded by normalisation. As more people engage in beautifying those who don’t feel left behind. What were once normal marks of age – crow’s feet and laughter lines – are now less normal. It is the ageing unmodified face and body which beings to look abnormal and unnatural. Third, the rise of individual consumerism globally feeds into increased attention to appearance. Buying the right products and working on – and showing we’ve worked on – our bodies becomes an important way to create identity and to signal status. Fourth, beauty matters more as the beauty ideal becomes a global ideal.

That the emerging beauty ideal is global is significant. We have never before had a global ideal. If there are no competitor ideals it is much harder to critique the beauty ideal. As the beauty ideal becomes more dominant it becomes a more accepted, unquestioned and unquestionable. The more it is unquestioned the more it is established, normalised and naturalised. While some historical beauty ideals could be exceptionally demanding for a small group of women (think corset-wearing and foot-binding) they were necessarily limited: limited geographically and by class. So, while it might not have been an option for an aristocratic Chinese woman to not to have her feet bound or for an aristocratic Victorian women not to wear a corset, they knew other women did not do these things. Difference shows that other beauty norms are possible and reduces their power. As beauty ideals converge into a global ideal the ideal becomes stronger and more constraining.

Not only is the beauty ideal becoming global so are the harms which attach to it. Body dissatisfaction and anxiety are so prevalent that we regard them as normal. It is a rare and unusual women who is wholly happy with, and in, her body and who does not express dissatisfaction with some part of her body. Body dissatisfaction is widespread and myriad devastating consequences attach to it; including lower self-esteem, diminished well-being, disordered eating, lower activity, risky behaviour, mental and physical health issues. Further, we also know that the over-focus on appearance is not likely to lead to flourishing. This is an epidemic of anxiety, worry and feelings of failure, in addition to other harmful consequences. Indeed so chronic and extensive is body dissatisfaction that some have called for it to be recognised as a public health issue. The unprecedented rise in body dissatisfaction and body image anxiety, with its attendant harms, speaks to the increasing pressure across the board to comply to the beauty ideal and to the increasing dominance of the ideal.

Why do we do this? Why do we continue to engage? I argue that we can only understand the power of the ideal if we understand that it is moral. When we fail at beauty – when we let ourselves go – we believe that we have not just failed in one aspect of our lives but that we are failures. This can only be explained by recognising that we have turned beauty into an ethical ideal, and that we regard beauty success as success in general. How well we succeed in the beauty stakes – or how badly we fail – shapes our sense of selves and colours our whole lives.

This talk is taken from Heather’s new book Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal.

Heather Widdows is John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics and Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research Impact)

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