Conforming to the beauty ideal to look younger, thinner, firmer and smoother becomes the norm - research finds

Beauty practices and standards are higher than ever with the pressure to achieve the ‘perfect’ body now becoming a moral imperative, suggests research published by the University of Birmingham.

Professor Heather Widdows , University of Birmingham argues in her new book Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal , published by Princeton University Press, that beauty ideals are becoming shared ethical ideals by which we judge ourselves and others as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The research found that previously beauty ideals may have had a moral edge, (such as failure in the appearance stakes may have indicated some vice, such as a lack of respect for the self or others if we ‘let ourselves go’ or failed to dress properly for an event), but now it is becoming dominant.

Professor Widdows, University of Birmingham said:

‘Beauty failure is becoming the most important failure for very many women and girls (and increasingly men and boys).
‘Increasingly we believe that attaining some aspect of the beauty ideal - being thin or firm enough - will deliver the goods of the good life - relationship success, work success and happiness.

‘In this brave new world to fail to attain a ‘perfect’, ‘good enough’ or ‘normal’ body is to fail across the board. It is to be a failure.’

Professor Widdows book, Perfect Me, is a culmination of nearly 10 years of research in the philosophy of the body and beauty, where she argues that beauty standards have in that time become more unobtainable, and are changing our perception of the self.

In her book, Widdows explains that more and more we locate the self in the body. Not just our actual, flawed bodies, but our transforming and imagined ones. As this happens, we further embrace the beauty ideal.

Professor Widdows added: ‘Nobody is firm enough, thin enough, smooth enough, or buff enough—not without significant effort or cosmetic intervention.

‘And as more demanding practices become the norm, more will be required of us, and the beauty ideal will become harder to resist.’

Widdows also argues that the emerging beauty ideal is more dominant, demanding and global than ever before. She explains there is currently a convergence of beauty ideals, results in a narrow range of acceptable appearance norms for the face and body.

Professor Widdows explained: ‘It is not just Western - white women who need intervention in order to have the right curves in the right places and big lips (for example) - but global.

‘It applies to more women, in all aspects of their lives (irrespective of age and profession), and increasingly to men. Moreover it applies more of the time as the pressure to be ‘camera ready’ extends to every moment.’

Professor Heather Widdows new book Perfect Me, published by Princeton University Press, officially launches on Friday 1 June in a reception at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

is the John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Her books include Global Ethics: An Introduction , The Connected Self: The Ethics and Governance of the Genetic Individual , and The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch .

  • Read more about Heather’s new book Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal .
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