Beauty as a topic has been neglected in political philosophy and justice theorizing, but in this post I will try to convince you that it should be our concern. Beauty is not something trivial, but a major public issue which requires serious attention from all kinds of disciplines and stakeholders.
I’m not developing a new argument here, this post is rather a tribute to my friend and colleague Heather Widdows’s fascinating work on this. She is the author of Perfect Me. Beauty as an ethical ideal (Princeton University Press, 2018).
I’ll summarise – as the bird flies – my take on some of her main arguments and promote the new campaign #everydaylookism, which provides an excellent opportunity to engage with this topic in a personal as well as philosophical way.
Beauty as an ethical ideal
According to Heather, the features central to the beauty ideal are thin and slim (albeit preferably with curves), firm and buff, smooth and luminous, and young and youthful.
There can be some variation on these dimensions, but in each case, divergent beauty ideals are converging towards a global beauty norm. The beauty ideal is becoming narrower, more homogenous, and more dominant – and this makes it harder to challenge it by appeal to alternative and comparator ideals.
The beauty ideal is also becoming (and for many already is) a value framework – a moral ideal. People increasingly judge themselves and others according to their success and failure in beauty terms. We view ourselves as successful when we have reached our goal weight; we are proud of ourselves when we made it to the gym; and we feel good when we have said “no” to that beckoning piece of chocolate cake.
We must “make the most of ourselves” and will be chastised if we fail to “make an effort.”
– Heather Widdows, Perfect Me, p. 27
Beauty activity becomes less and less a personal preference and more and more an ethical duty. Beauty failure, on the other hand, results in explicit moral judgments of culpability and responsibility, which means that this is (at least for some) effectively equivalent to moral vice – a failure of character, a failure of the self.
For very many of us, when we say we are “good” for engaging in beauty work we do mean that we are “morally good”; that these actions are good in themselves. The implication is that we have not merely done something good instrumentally […], but something good in general, something we value for, and believe is good, in itself, a moral good.
– Heather Widdows, Perfect Me, p. 28
In our visual and virtual culture, we are being judged more and more on how we look, rather than on what we say or do. Our bodies have become ourselves.
The dual nature of the beauty ideal
Clearly then, the beauty ideal has negative, harmful aspects (including social pressures and the epidemic of body anxiety). However, Heather argues that it is not all evil.
Beauty also offers pleasurable individual and communal practices; (many forms of) body work are good for us; beauty objectification can be empowering, protective, promising, and transforming; and beauty can serve some egalitarian purposes in that it shortcuts some existing power hierarchies, and erodes some harmful social features (such as class and wealth) which have traditionally structured society.
Beauty without the beast?
We should recognize this dual nature of the beauty ideal and the dual nature of the self under this ideal. We should try to prevent a bleak future scenario in which the beauty ideal becomes increasingly narrow, demanding, punishing, divisive, and thus increasingly harmful.
And rather nurture and facilitate the positive aspects of beauty – those that enhance, respect, connect, and cherish people.
In short, can we have beauty without the beast?
– Heather Widdows, Perfect Me, p. 257
Change can happen only collectively. In addition to top-down approaches (including regulation), we can all work together to change the way we treat others, collectively see the body and appearance as always to be celebrated, and reject the harmful practices. We also need to focus on creating a less toxic environment, by collective discussion about the importance of beauty and how extensive its demands are becoming, as well as sharing experiences.
If, in our visual and virtual culture, our bodies have become our selves, then it should be clear that we shame people when we shame bodies. Negative comments about other people’s bodies cut deeply and are unacceptable prejudice. This is lookism, and it has to stop.
Heather and her team therefore launch the #everydaylookism campaign, which asks you to share your lookism experience (what it was, how it made you feel and to say it should not happen). The ultimate goals are to call out body shaming, show lookism as the prejudice it is, and end it.
Sharing these lookism experiences can also have a more immediate and intrinsic effect as well because it can be helpful in processing such negative experiences. It can be immensely important for people who have been (or are being) subjected to lookism to know that they’re not alone, and that other people (victims and non-victims alike) reject it as the prejudice it is. And it is exactly this that can empower us to end everyday lookism.
The campaign will be launched on 10 June 2019. In the meantime, please visit the central website of the campaign for more information and updates.
Wanted: everybody (including philosophers!)
This campaign will only succeed if we all work together. One of the tasks of philosophers would be to analyse the instances of everyday lookism in order to identify possible structures and trends behind them. In addition, the data consisting of real and highly specific instances gives us a firm ground to methodically examine the prejudices involved, to report these harms in the public domain, and to influence policy. Finally, I believe that our theoretical work on collective action, structural injustice, and responsibility can inform the campaign and the steps to be undertaken to end everyday lookism.