Business Categories Reports Podcasts Events Awards Webinars
Contact My Account About

Beauty Disruptor: Heather Widdows on Our Progression Towards a Global Beauty Ideal

Published May 7, 2024
Published May 7, 2024
Heather Widdows

In the Beauty Disruptors series, BeautyMatter speaks to those breaking the mold of the traditional beauty industry―from shining a light on controversial issues to paving an alternative discourse of its themes.

No discussion around beauty evades beauty standards. In popular culture, it’s an ongoing debate, but Heather Widdows, Professor of Philosophy at University of Warwick, has been an early proponent of this subject matter in academic circles.

Her 2018 work, Perfect Me: Beauty As An Ethical Ideal, is an extensive exploration on what traits define the beauty ideal and how we are moving towards a unified global ideal. In 2019, she launched the Everyday Lookism campaign and blog to highlight and help counteract body shaming. Beauty Demands, a research network running from 2016 to 2022, explored the changing requirements of beauty. Her writing has been published across platforms such as Psychology Today and The Conversation, covering topics such as body pressures portrayed on the popular reality TV show Love Island and the shortcomings of body positivity.

In the following discussion, Widdows explains the nuanced evolution of beauty ideals, why certain social media campaigns against airbrushing may be doing additional harm rather than being a solution, and the importance of acknowledging the positive sides of beauty, not just the negatives.

What is your own relationship to beauty, how would you define it?

One of my key things is that we should spend less time paying attention to what individuals do and don't do with their bodies. I try not to talk very much about what I do because I try to get other people not to worry about what they use. If you do loads of stuff—use lotions and potions, have cosmetic surgery and Botox all the time—I don't want you to worry about that. If you never wear makeup, I don't want you to worry about that.

In your book, you discuss a global beauty ideal and the four pillars of that ideal [thinness, firmness, smoothness, youthfulness]. You can deviate from some of those pillars slightly but you still have to conform to a certain ideal. Of those four pillars, is one more important than the other or are they equally weighted?

They all count in different ways at different times. In some ways, youth sums up the other three, so it's hard to make the beauty ideal without youth, but we're seeing more of that happening. We're seeing this stretch to middle age, particularly thinking of Hollywood figures in their 50s and 60s who are still conforming to thinness, firmness, smoothness, and having many of the appearances of youth. It's much more about having enough of them in the right combination. You don't need to have all four of them all the time. One of my criticisms about the body positivity movement is often they have three of the four pillars, but they're still really conforming to the ideal. So you know, things like Januhairy [a movement questioning hairless body ideals] that everybody is talking about at the moment, they're still thin and they're not smooth because they've got these little perfect bits of hair, but they are firm and they are youthful. If you're in the right range, that's okay, rather than one of them mattering more than the other.

How much of these beauty ideals come from a place of deep human instinct versus manmade structures of modern society? A curvaceous, hourglass figure, for example—a certain hip size might bear more children or a certain breast size might feed your children better—versus the BBL [Brazilian Butt Lift, whereby body fat is transferred to the buttocks] being a recent trend.

You can account for how we got here in different ways. Some people would endorse a strong evolutionary view. But even if it's not evolutionary, but culturally constructed, the fact that we ended up with a global view means it doesn't matter what the origins are; it's really hard to step out of the pressure to do it. One of the things that's interesting about the evolutionary view is that it's breaking down under the extent of what we're doing now. The beautiful body is no longer that healthy body in very many ways. You look at women dieting themselves to where they're not having periods, so they might still have the right curves because they have implants on an otherwise plain, thin frame, but they're not menstruating. We've got men increasingly using steroids and other chemicals that are reducing their sperm counts. The equation of the healthy body with the beautiful body is coming apart. Even if some of the reasons that we might think these things are beautiful come from our evolutionary history, it's not obvious that those arguments are going to help us with how we manage going forward from this space.

One of the big criticisms I've heard about the beauty ideal is the patriarchal, racist undertones of it. You speak to a global ideal; how does it impact people differently depending on their race?

The work I do falls differently depending on where you sit in power hierarchies. One is race, one is class. Interestingly, with gender, the claim that it's just patriarchal norms is getting hard to sustain because that relies on the fact that women are doing beauty for men. It assumes that men aren't doing beauty, but more and more men are doing huge and extensive amounts of body work. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not shaped by patriarchal norms, but it's also less easy to explain. The more women have had money, income, and autonomy of their own, the more they've done beauty, not less. If you go back to the women's liberation in the 1970s, everybody thought women would stop doing beauty once we were educated and had our own money. The patriarchal shape is part of why we're here but it can't explain it all the way.

The colorism aspect is really interesting because in the global ideal skin tone, the average or mean, is bronze and golden. It's lightened Black skin and tanned white skin. Everybody is having to do more to make the global ideal; it doesn't matter what you start with. You can also see it in the Instagram face; skin tone is part of it, but you also see different surgeries going in different ways. For some races and ethnicities, it's easier to have the right lips. One of the most common global surgeries is a double eye surgery. Every race is required to do some work to meet the global mean. It's fascinating. If you happen to be in a particular culture that only values lighter skin, you're still lightening, and if you're in a culture that desires bronze golden skin, you're still tanning. Everybody worries about the newest tech, but actually skin lightening is not good for you at all, and skin tanning is a quick route to cancer. Some of the most dangerous things are those we've been doing for quite a long time.

It also feels ironic how in the medieval days having a tan was seen as a sign of lower social class because it meant you had to work outside and then it completely shifted with the idea of travel being this lifestyle luxury. As you were talking about the different surgeries, it's almost like the grass is always greener, with one ethnicity emulating the other. Double eyelid surgery is about trying to have more Western eyes if you're Asian; if you’re a non-curvaceous white person having a BBL, the beauty ideal around that procedure originated from Black communities. 

It’s more about convergence. The trends are coming together into this global mean—this global average person that has big eyes but also big lips and the right curves in the right places. Things like the double eye surgery, it's much less about being Western now than getting that Instagram face. I recently did something for a radio program about how blonde has become much less of a global thing. We're looking at Vogue covers in 1968 and 2002. The diversity of skin tone, hair color, and eye color is extraordinary. But the diversity of thinness, firmness, smoothness, and youth is nonexistent. We’ve done one form of diversity, but we've made others much stronger, much narrower. When companies are making claims to diversity, they look like they're diversifying but what they're requiring of women is for all of them to be doing much more body work just to be normal, irrespective of where they are.

In terms of how we're coming to this ideal, who are the main proponents? Is it the industry, the individuals acting out beauty in their everyday life, or the societal pressures? It can't be pinned down to one particular force, but which is the biggest driver?

It's really hard to try and find some causal point. What I talked about is a perfect storm of different key drivers. Some of them you've pointed out; another is the technological imperative, that we can do things, so we do. We might have always worried about appearance, but there wasn't that much we could do about it. The example of aristocracy in the old days, they could put white lead on their faces, but not do very much to change how they looked. So some of it's just that we can do stuff; some of it is the industry, but there's a strange change to the way we're doing consumption. It used to be the “it bag” or the “it car,” and now we're moving to, not even the clothed body, but the selfie face and the contours of the body. The industry obviously is benefiting, so I’m not letting them off the hook, but some of our sense of what we want has changed. The industry can only sell us what we want, and what we want is a perfect body, not a perfect brain, or we'd all be walking around with drips of intelligence drugs.

Then some of it is the globalization of the image world, our magazines and our social media; we no longer have separate image worlds. It’s quite hard to think that's not dominant in the way of shaping things; we've never before had a global ideal and that's absolutely fundamental. That leads to the moral bit that only a global ideal can be normalizing and naturalizing and only then can you feel like you're failing if you're not living up to it. That's where the shame and the blame starts to kick in of the moral ideal. It becomes things like if you don't do it, you're not healthy, you're not hygienic.

The example I often use is body hair removal. Now people no longer think about it as beauty in a dominant way; they think about it as a health and hygiene practice. That can only happen with a global ideal, and you're beginning to get that with things like teeth whitening or lip size. That sense that you need it to be normal instead of it being beautifying; then you've got lots of different competing ideals that can't happen. The Chinese woman with bound tiny feet or the Victorian aristocrat with her corset and a 20-inch waist, nobody thought that was natural or normal. They might have thought it was beautiful and desirable, but most women didn't have that because they were still doing domestic labor and working in the field.

There's an interesting double standard in the idea of beauty practices as vanity or surgery-shaming people, but then if they don't conform to the beauty ideal, they're also punished. How can we even operate in that space where pretty, privilege, and consumerism are well and alive? You can’t win, right?

Absolutely, you can't. I run this Everyday Lookism project where people share their stories of lookism and what's so interesting is one story will be “I got told if you wear makeup, you're fake and wrong,” and the next story will be “I was told I didn't make an effort because I hadn't put on my makeup,” and the same thing for being too fat or too thin or having too big lips or not doing something at all. You can be body shamed for doing anything too much or too little. But we are having narratives change in different places. The global ideal stays the same everywhere, but the language we use, what we're okay to say around it, and the stories they tell to justify it, are  slightly different. Britain and America have a really good contrast. In Britain, maybe partly because we've got a national health service, but also some other values that are still hanging around about vanity, people keep things a lot more secret. There's a real sense in very many places in America that people are much more honest about it. We'll also talk about doing it for economic reasons, needing to look like this to succeed in our job.

Is autonomy even possible within the system? I think about the concept of “your body, your choice,” and if you want to get plastic surgery because it makes you feel better then go for it. At the same time, someone rejecting the idea of ever going under the knife and saying I'm just going to age gracefully, they're still operating within that system. Or with makeup, the idea of it as creative expression, but then you're also ultimately buying products and covering up your face.

This is why I think so little is about choice. There is no right or wrong here. If we focus on what we do, then people who don't and reject it somehow feel superior; people who do it think well why on earth would you not do it? Instead of actually doing anything to address the fact that it's getting more demanding and more normalizing, it becomes a way for one group of women to criticize another group of women, and it's completely unhelpful. It's a really negative debate and one where we haven't got anywhere. We have been doing that since the 1970s, and we've done more and more of it and been more and more critical of each other.

I really try and focus on changing the debate, removing the criticism, not worrying at all, and recognizing that most of things that people do are very much not about them as individuals but about people living in their particular social groups. In one of the chapters in Perfect Me, I look at what constitutes what might be normal, what might be beauty, and what might be extreme, across many categories. Some of them are physical, like how invasive is it? Some of them are about the risk attached. Some of them are about the time it takes. It turns out that people think what's normal and what they have to do is what is okay in their group. I always tell my students it's much easier for a student in a philosophy department not to wear makeup than it is for somebody behind a counter in a department store. If you think you have that choice, and they don't, and that you're somehow superior because you've made that choice, you just fail to recognize these are social norms and we're part of groups. If we want to change the global norms, we need to think about how we change those actors. Beauty has such an important value, we feel judged about what we do, what we don't do. The amount of vulnerability for body shaming and nasty comments means actually any of that focus on “your body, your choice” or saying “no, don't do that, it's not for you,” it doesn't matter where you fall. You're vulnerable to being attacked. Trying to shift the debate is really crucial.

“Everybody knows that image is adopted and filtered, but they still compare their real bodies to the ideal images.”
By Heather Widdows, Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick, author, Perfect Me

I'm also curious as to how, on an individual level, we can protect ourselves but also on a broader level be able to counteract all those damaging effects of this beauty ideal.

Taking it seriously is a really important first thing. That's beginning to happen. When I started working on this 10 years ago, honestly, people just thought it was crazy and that your looks aren't important. I'm trying to take seriously what's already happening and look at how particularly young people—but actually very, very many of us—feel and how beauty functions in how we judge ourselves and others. To ignore it and pretend that it doesn't matter because we don't want it to matter, that's the worst thing we can do. We’re a long way from that now. We've got politicians, social media companies, and other dominant players in the field recognizing that we've got really high levels of body image anxiety and what’s happening that's not trivial; it's impacting on how life goes especially for our young people. But one thing philosophy is just recognizing is it's really important and thinking about what is it that we can do differently? There's so little research on this. We've been failing to teach kids things that are important. Appearance bullying is why I got involved in the lookism project. Here's the most dominant form of bullying in schools; much more so than racist or sexist bullying, year on year, study after study, but we don't do anything about it because we haven't taken it seriously or it's not a protected characteristic. But once you do, you can start changing the culture quite fast.

I did some work with the Anti-Bullying Alliance last year, and we've got a pilot training for teachers in schools. That's working really well. They're suddenly finding that the school becomes a much safer place, and people are talking about the things that have been said to them, and people are starting to not say them. It’s a very little thing, but there are ways in which we can start to address the culture, not by telling people what to do, what not to do, but telling people about how not to speak to each other. Not to say there might be things that social media companies can do about actual diversity around those four features of the ideal in the same way they've done with diversity among some things. They could do proper diversity of body shapes and sizes instead of pretend diversity. Then we just need to evaluate it, because some of the things we've done have not worked at all.

There was a campaign, before social media took off, to make magazines label their images to say things like “this model’s legs have been lengthened and the cellulite removed.” We thought that would help because then people would feel, “Oh, well, you know, it's not real.” But it's a really strange boomerang effect. The opposite happens, because it’s presented as though they're not real, but we had to change them to this ideal, people over-focus on them. Part of what we need to do in this space is make sure we constantly evaluate.

I read a recent article of yours around Ozempic and how it exposed the work that still needs to be done on body positivity if so many of us are running to get this weight loss drug. The hardest bit from my perspective is we've been so programmed to accept and embrace this certain ideal, then rewiring people to become accustomed to something which isn't that is much, much harder. It feels especially challenging in the sense of the brands that want to encourage diversity, but then, to your point, that diversity still falls within this framework. If you use an image that is so vastly outside of that framework, will people accept it or are they more likely to reject it?

That's why thinking about which of the four axes are challenged [is important]. If only one is challenged, it's just reinforcing the idea. The question is, could we start to challenge two of them, find a way in which we were overtly doing beauty in one way that fits with the ideal but in more than one way that doesn't. Could you have somebody who is both large and old, and still have them as beautiful in the campaign? That doesn't seem to be impossible, even from where we are now, to challenge more than one feature of the ideal at the time, and to have that conscious sense.

What happens if you don't, there’s recent news about AI looking at what it thinks is beautiful and trawling through the images in the visual online world. AI is coming back with these images of people that are absolutely inhuman; necks where your head would drop off because it’s skinny; women with six packs of the type that only a bodybuilder would have but then with buttocks and breasts in these impossible figures. AI can only learn from what's there, so that suggests that our images out there are not challenging any of this; they are just reinforcing it. Properly challenging it in conscious ways that might make a difference fairly fast. Some things have changed on social media. Part of the point of Everyday Lookism is that instead of sharing images of bodies, people are sharing stories of their experiences. It's personal, but it's not more images.

One of the hardest things about trying to step away from the norm is when the general experience or consensus is that this ideal is praised and rewarded. Why would someone want to give up those benefits? I wonder if ultimately the quest for perfection is linked to the quest of acceptance and love from others.

It brings benefits, but it also brings an extreme amount of pressure. People have this love hate relationship with it. Some of it is about that balance. That's another reason why sharing the stories helps because even the most beautiful people in the world often feel not good enough and feel that pressure. Emily Ratajkowski did a book called My Body; what's so interesting is how inadequate she felt so many times and feeling under pressure to have a perfect picture on Instagram. Even if for the outside observer you are one of the most beautiful women in the world, it can still have damaging effects. What psychologists talk about is if you think about your identity or self esteem as a cake, appearance is one piece. It's fine to have one piece of your identity as the appearance piece, but if it becomes too much, then even if you are perfect, it’s never going to work. Part of the problem is that the ideals that we're aspiring to now, they're not human ideals. The faces that we see on Instagram or HD television are this mad chasing of plastic perfection, where you don't have any pores or marks, your lips don't move—no human being looks that perfect. Not even the most perfect human beings look like their Instagram. We know that with our heads, but it doesn't change the fact that we measure our actual imperfect selves with these most perfect Instagram selves, even with our own Instagram selves. Cosmetic surgeons are reporting that, instead of pictures of celebrities, people are bringing in their own altered selfies. However, it doesn't matter how perfect you become, you'll still be a flesh and blood version. It’s a very strange position we're in. What we want to do here is not say none of this matters. We don't want to stop being embodied beings that are caring about beauty, and lots of beauty is really positive as well. Lots of beauty is how you relate to people and it also can feel nice. It's never the case that waxing is a pleasant experience, but some of it is a pleasant experience. It’s finding that balance in between.

I'd love to talk about the work that you do with Everyday Lookism and Beauty Demands.

The Beauty Demands blog was a big network; the grant finished six years ago, so we've kept it up a bit, but not that much. Partly because there are so many other places that are talking about beauty. Back then, it was really unusual to get academics talking about beauty, but since then we've had Psychology Today and various other big platforms that use it; it's sort of an archive now. The Everyday Lookism campaign is going from strength to strength. We had a feature in Vogue Japan a couple of years ago, and it's getting quite a lot of take up. The Anti-Bullying Alliance used quite a lot of the stories in their training for teachers. What's sad about it is that we still haven't gotten thousands of stories; we certainly have hundreds of stories, but I think the difference between writing a lookism story and writing a sexist story is  the emotion that attaches to it. Lookism is still something we're ashamed of. When people make nasty comments about how we look, we don't immediately respond with anger like “How dare you say that?” Whereas when people say sexist stuff or racist things, we respond with anger. But with lookism, we're still at the shame stage. Part of the point of that campaign is to raise people's awareness to change some of that shame, some of the anger. That’s the analogy with the sexism, when they started calling out sexual harassment in the 1970s—Mad Men does this really well—women were like, “Oh, it's my fault. I'm not telling anybody. I'm deeply ashamed.” That’s where we are now with lookism. We've got a long way to go, but it is starting to get some attention.

We’re becoming so much more visual as culture, but then if we're trying to also shift away from this idea of we are just our appearance, or the idea that beauty is something inherently physical rather than emotional, spiritual, whatever you want to call it—how can we work with that? I think especially for younger generations that don't have the critical distance to social media, if you grow up with those filters and those mediums, you don't even realize how problematic it can be. 

It’s really strange. There are no easy answers, and we're doing a global experiment with a whole generation and without a control group. When I was growing up, photographs were rare things because you knew photographs would be taken because it was a wedding or a party. You got ready for them, but you weren't living in this world where you could be snapped at any point. The change is extraordinary. We're moving fundamentally into a visual culture from a text-based culture. The knowledge is different. Everybody knows that image is adopted and filtered, but they still compare their real bodies to the ideal images. Lots of the things we do in school to teach people digital literacy, it doesn't work at all. It has the absolute opposite impact. The more you know about how much images are altered, the more you worry about it. There's something about just being in that world, and I don't really have any easy answers there.

The Everyday Lookism campaign is one way to think about it, to share the stories so that you have a recognition that you are not alone in feeling like this. That's where I think some of the celebrities kicking back against body shaming and how much it hurt them is great. That recognition that this isn't trivial, that these things are serious points of discrimination. We might be able to do some more stuff around the seriousness of lookism as a form of discrimination that we haven't addressed. Policymakers have been increasingly interested in the extent to which people are being judged in this way and the extent of body image anxiety. Social media companies are starting to worry about that in the way that they have worried about pro-anorexia sites and about sites that encourage suicide. The point is that until we put a bit more money and research into it, it's hard to know what works. We've no idea how that's going to change us and the young generation; they're just guinea pigs.

I've been seeing a lot more around teenagers using these extraordinarily priced anti-wrinkle creams.

Using retinol when their skin hasn't even formed yet. You can't preemptively prevent lines. You have to just keep thinking about those things that grandmothers used to say, “Well, the alternative to looking like this will be to be in debt. Aging is not the worst thing that can happen.”

Certain tribes outside of the Western world view aging as a privilege and highlight the wisdom of age. The idea that the oldest person in the tribe is revered as the wise one.

When I started doing this work in public lectures, people would say, “Oh, yes, but in Africa, they prefer fuller figures.” Actually, the most recent research shows that while they might be fuller figures in Africa than they are in Russia, they're still moving towards thinner figures and lighter skinned Black; more of the global mean skin tone. The fact that the global trends are going that way—there are still outliers—but whether it's age, body size, or global dominance, this ideal is now unstoppable. We're going to keep going in those trends. The whole Barbie thing where you get all these supposedly diverse Barbies, but they are thin, firm, youthful—the oldest Barbie was maybe 30.

The biggest thing about youth, a lot of it stems from ultimately us not wanting to confront our own mortality because that is perhaps the most terrifying thing. We are trying to outrun that in a way.

I can get that argument in theory, but I don't think that is in 16year-olds’ heads. It's notoriously late that most people start thinking about their mortality. It's much more about conforming to the ideal norm than it is about any deeper [point]. Appearance has become the dominant value framework; you are literally judging yourself and others on how much you conform to it. Things like “I've been good today, I've been to the gym.” That's not a turn of phrase, that's true. If we really were thinking about our mortality, then we wouldn't be risking our health for very many of these things.

True. It's interesting how we have certain theories and those just circulate in our head. We need a different side of it.

In a way, what you're trying to do is make sense of something that's very odd. It's something that very many of us don't want to admit; something that's so, in a way, unimportant has become so desperately important. I wonder what future anthropologists will think when they start digging us up? If they found all our acrylic extensions, our implants, and our strange faces that had all the bones shaved off. They will wonder what we were doing, what religious values did we have? The truth is that we've come to a place where we are making character and value judgments based on something superficial in the sense that we all sag, wrinkle, age, and die. You can't maintain it in the way other value frameworks can, like becoming more truthful, more loving, having a fulfilling relationship. All of those things grow into something. There's something about this as an ideal that comes back to what we were saying about no matter how perfect you are, it's never quite good enough; whereas that's not true in other ideals.

“So often we focus on all the negative things about beauty, but there are a lot of positive things about it too.”
By Heather Widdows, Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick, author, Perfect Me

What would you say to the beauty industry as a whole in terms of what part it could play in helping? We touched upon it in terms of having more authentic diversity of imagery.

If we did real diverse imagery, that would be great. It’s also that we make the implicit promise that if you look a certain way, the rest of your life is going to become great. Some bits of beauty feel good to do, but they won't give you that perfect life. If you get the lipstick that's called “confidence,” that sense that if you get how you look right, you'll get the better job, you'll have the relationship. It would be much better if we were a bit clearer about what we've promised. I could even see that as an ironic campaign: this makeup won't deliver your perfect life and the richest boyfriend in the world, but it will give you the best stay-on lipstick.

The hard thing is acknowledging beauty ideals aren't going to disappear overnight. On one hand, we're seeing this narrowing global ideal and then at the same time, what is the solution to something that is so inherently tied into our entire beings and our view of the world?

We have to collectively feel our way towards a solution; we're only just recognizing how important it is. I talked about in the book; it’s a stealthy and a greedy ideal. It's crept up on us. Our values have changed utterly dramatically from what our grandparents’ values were, and yet we haven't noticed it. There's something about noticing it that then allows us to do the work around it, because we don't have the research. There's a few little things that we've tried like the labeling; we know they don't work. We know that teaching digital literacy doesn't work, but we don't know what does work until we start to try it. The first step is recognizing collectively that the value framework has shifted, and we've got a collective problem that's really serious. We're a little way towards that now, especially on the recognition of some of the damage and the mental health issues that's happening with young people. I wish I had a solution, but I don't. I have lots of ways that we might move a little way and see if it works.

This is also my conundrum of being a beauty editor and working in the industry is acknowledging that a huge majority of the industry benefits off of this ideal and the costs and lengths people will go to to achieve it. As a business, why would you, from an economic perspective, want to give that up?

In a way that’s the criticism of capitalism in general, right? It's not just beauty; capitalism exploits our vulnerabilities to sell us stuff, and the more money we have and the more we don't need anything, it tries to sell us everything. Maybe a bit like the fashion industry; it's not necessarily helpful for the beauty industry to start to get to that point where people hate it as well as love it. At the moment, lots of the beauty industry feels quite creative and fun, but once it tips to where people feel they have to do it and it's so demanding—and that's already beginning to happen—and it loses that play stuff, then it starts becoming an industry that's causing more harm. There are reasons the industry just won't want to go down that [route]. A bit like the fashion industry's response to eating disorders, which maybe isn't perfect and maybe has taken a long time, but nonetheless, is beginning to recognize that people turn against it quite fast. Social media will go do some of that work too. One of the reasons the fashion industry has changed is because it can't control the narrative anymore.

For as much as social media is themed around over-filtered images, it does also give a voice to those protests. How are you continuing this work?

I'm going to keep doing the Everdayday Lookism project. I'm working with the Anti-Bullying Alliance. Lookism training in schools is going to be crucial. My next book, the working title is Camera Ready. It will be about how the image speaks louder than the word, how knowledge changes in visual culture; some of the stuff we've been talking about.

Amazing, I'm so happy to see this growing conversation in academic circles. Sometimes there’s a dismissal of “vain” subjects not being as worthy of exploration.

So often we focus on all the negative things about beauty, but there are a lot of positive things about it too. The most obvious as a philosopher is that philosophy spends a lot of time presenting very dualistic views of human beings where they are brains in a body that don’t matter, but the body does matter. We are embodied beings that touch, look, and have relationships with other human beings. Philosophically and practically, it's not all bad. The beauty touch is one of the only adult-to-adult human touches that isn't sexual or medical. It's a caressing and loving touch. There are so many positive things about beauty, partly because it's the language that we have, but so much beauty talk is friendship talk. You watch women and increasingly men, when people say, “Oh, I love that top,” really they're saying, “Oh, I really like you.” It's definitely not all awful. My last chapter in Perfect Me is called “Beauty without the Beast”for good reason. There are positive things we want to save and recognize in how we care for and adorn our bodies, and it is not all bad. Some of it is really important.

I'm glad you say that because when I have these conversations around damaging beauty ideals, it can feel really disheartening to realize the size of the beast, so to speak. On another level, the idea of beauty also being the way we communicate with the world, that idea of visual tribes goes back a long time.

It's definitely become more important in how it's shifted from the periphery of our values to the center. But it always mattered. The new thing is the global ideal and this weird two-dimensional interaction instead of face-to-face interaction.

One of the things that I thought was interesting, back when I wrote Perfect Me, and you know, I was tracking that this was happening more to men too, but I thought there's no global ideal for men. But what we've seen post-pandemic is interesting because the demographic of men that I would never have predicted have all had their faces done because they've all been looking at themselves on Zoom through the pandemic for the first time in their lives. They've been watching themselves and they're not immune to it either.

The pressure of beauty ideals, the male side of that equation often gets dismissed. I remember reading a statistic about how eating disorders are especially high, for example, in the gay male community. Another article was talking about bigorexia, a muscle dysmorphia. Acknowledging that it goes back to that very human desire of conformity, and not necessarily, gender is important.

One thing is for certain: beauty ideals are not disappearing anytime soon. Through the work of Widdows and her research network, our own relation to these ideals and unpacking the core beliefs and values that drive them will help create a more inquisitive, independent-minded, and compassionate environment for everyone involved. Whether you're Gen X or Gen Alpha, beauty standards and pressures impact everyone. It is not only our responsibility to our own selves but future generations, that demands a more transparent conversation—one which Widdows is helping to lead.


2 Article(s) Remaining

Subscribe today for full access