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The eye of the beholder: the rise of the global beauty ideal

20 July 2018

Chine McDonald speaks to Heather Widdows, a moral philosopher, about the insidious rise of the global beauty ideal

Heather Widdows

Heather Widdows

“EVERY woman knows that, regardless of all her achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.” These words from Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman have haunted me ever since I read them, some years ago.

We have come a long way in the 20 years since its publication. Another wave of feminism, the Everyday Sexism Project, and body-positivity campaigns have all sought to address a pervasive lack of self-esteem among women. But, in some ways, young women growing up today face greater demands: an increasingly visual culture in which selfies and social-media filters rule.

Dr Heather Widdows, the John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham, believes that beauty — rightly or wrongly — has become a moral duty and an ethical ideal. “It comes across in the very obvious moral imperative language,” she tells me. “In phrases such as ‘You’re worth it’, or the shaming language that is attached to one’s failure to live up to the beauty standard: ‘You let yourself go’; ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’”

In her new book, Perfect Me: Beauty as an ethical ideal, she argues that ideas about beauty have both narrowed and expanded — across continents.

“The range of what is considered beautiful is starting to converge globally,” she says. She describes the range as being defined by four main features: thinness (including thin with curves, model-thin with thigh gaps, or athletic-thin with muscle definition), firmness, smoothness, and youth. The globally desirable skin tone is golden or bronze, she says, while “hair removal is increasingly a must.”

This has moral implications, she argues: “As beauty becomes more dominant, the ethical edge increases. More shame attaches, and we begin to see failure in beauty terms affecting the whole of one’s sense of self. That’s when the tipping point comes. It tips from one value into one that becomes quite dominant, and colours people’s sense of self across other areas of their life.”

It is women who are more likely to find themselves under the spotlight when it comes to an imperative to conform to a beauty standard, and that standard is becoming increasingly uniform, regardless of the country or society in which one lives.

While youth has been a longstanding feature of the archetypal beautiful woman, the other features are the consequences of an increasingly visual culture, social-media filters, and high-definition TV.

In 2012, the TV critic A. A. Gill wrote that the classicist Mary Beard, who was presenting BBC2’s Meet the Romans at the time, was “too ugly for television”.

“There is no area where this is now not required,” Professor Widdows says.

DOES she ever get embarrassed in academic circles when identifying beauty as the focus of her current research? She wonders whether that might have been so had she been starting out with that topic; but she has arrived here long after establishing herself in academia.

Besides holding her chair in global ethics, she is also the deputy pro-vice-chancellor for research impact for the University of Birmingham. She has served on the UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Council, and on the Philosophy REF-panel. As an established moral philosopher, she is able to draw attention to this concept of beauty as an ethical ideal, and alert others to its importance.

Beauty is seen as frivolity, and yet there are, perhaps, few people who are impervious to judgements about their appearance, and there is plenty of evidence of the grave consequences to which this can give rise. Research from the Children’s Society suggests that concern about appearance is one of the factors underpinning the unhappiness of girls in the UK (News, 2 September 2015). Professor Widdows’s research matters.

“It’s that paradox that has disguised it,” she says. “The extreme seriousness of it gets hidden underneath the long-standing claims that beauty is just some silly thing that we do for fun. But it’s absolutely not trivial.”

She describes an “epidemic of body-image anxiety that is so devastating. Young people are suffering from such self-esteem issues that it stops them from doing all kinds of things, from speaking up in class to exercising in public. If there was a recreational drug or a video game that had the same effect, we would be banning it.”

Men, of course, are not immune to this. Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth, published in 1990, wrote: “To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.” This no longer applies.

“Gradually, the inequality is eroding on one axis: men are increasingly required to do body work. The younger they are, the more likely they are to do body work,” Professor Widdows says. “Boys are increasingly having body-image anxiety and eating disorders. Although it is more than we might have expected, the pressure on them is not yet the way it is among young girls.

“This is partly down to the global nature of the women’s beauty ideal. There is only one feature that’s a global ideal for men, and that’s tallness. But, in a visual culture, where we now see naked male bodies — the naked torso and abs — men will not remain immune, and I can only see that trajectory continuing.”

Part of what she finds most troubling about the rise of beauty as an ethical ideal is the distortion of what is natural and what is not. People can no longer tell the difference. While it might be argued that the demands on women today to conform to a beauty standard — or do “body work”, as she describes it — are not as brutal as they have been at times and in cultures past, the demands are global and therefore pervasive.

“Some of the things people have done in the name of beauty have been incredibly demanding, such as Chinese foot-binding and Victorian women wearing corsets,” she says. “But the key difference there is that these were always done by a relatively small proportion of people, and, while they might have thought a tiny foot or an 18-inch waist were perfect and beautiful, they could never have believed that these things were natural.

“As we move to a global ideal, then it starts to normalise and naturalise. Look at people thinking that body hair is disgusting, unnatural, and abnormal when in fact the opposite is true. That kind of shift, and then the sanction for not doing what you need to do to be good enough, is troubling. The naturalisation is part of the globalisation, and that seems to be rising. In some places, it’s now unusual not to have Botox; so it is the wrinkled face that stands out.”

THE fact that Christian women are just as caught up in anxiety about their appearance as society at large suggests that the Church has failed to tell a better story about beauty.

Christians have grown up hearing that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, that we should pursue inner beauty rather than fleeting outer beauty, that we were made in the image of the God, in whom the essence of beauty is found. But has this truly shaped thinking and behaviour?

While researching Am I Beautiful?, which explored body image among Christian women, I discovered that Christian women were suffering alongside everyone else.

“I don’t see those signs of resistance,” Professor Widdows says. “There are lots of things we can do to resist. But those things need to be communal.” There are glimmers of hope in body-positivity campaigns such as Beauty Redefined, the Body Image Movement, and Adios Barbie, which are trying to change the narrative around how women should feel about their bodies. The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, has sought to highlight the issue through her #liedentity campaign, launched two years ago (News, 28 October).

“We can work on ways to make others more resilient, and there are many programmes under way that focus on schools and include body positivity in the curriculum,” she says. “For all the criticisms of body-positive campaigns, such campaigns may be the beginning of a more celebratory and women-loving culture. [They] focus on resilience, on encouraging young women to be proud of their non-beauty attributes as well as their appearance, and, when it comes to the body, to focus on what the body can do, as well as how it looks.”

What the Church offers is a narrative that goes beyond ourselves, and a powerful combination of counter-cultural theology and community. Young women are articulating an alternative ethos. In More Than Just Pretty (SPCK), Jessie Faerber calls on young women to discover their true value, beauty, and purpose. In Why I Hate Green Beans (Baker Publishing), Lincee Ray — whose mother made her eat green beans when she was younger to lose weight — bares all so that others might be freed. “If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s this: the majority of women on the planet struggle with a variety of insecurities,” she writes.

For there to be meaningful change, women need to tell their stories without shame. By expressing how we feel about our bodies, together, we can enable each other to silence the voices that tell us that we are not good enough. But it will also take deliberate, practical changes in how we view our own bodies, and each other’s, to enact change.

I have experienced this change most vividly during the Barefaced Breakfasts that I have held at churchwomen’s events. I ask the women to come without make-up on. For some, this is no big deal, but not for others — me included. Many of us are used to wearing make-up as a mask. Leaving our make-up off facilitates vulnerability, and allows us to open up about our insecurities. Time and again, I have seen women enter these breakfasts trying to hide themselves away, and leave with their heads held high. It is because they have been part of a community of women ready to fight the beauty myth together.

“Can we have beauty without the beast?” Professor Widdows asks in the conclusion to Perfect Me. “Whether or not we can, we have to try. . . Collectively, we need to focus on creating a less toxic environment. Collective action has to begin with collective discussion, and the first step in such action must be to recognise how important beauty is, and is becoming, and how extensive the demands of beauty are under an increasingly dominant and potentially global ethical ideal.”

I ask Profesor Widdows whether she believes — as Christians do — that each human being possesses an innate quality of beauty. She finds it hard to answer, but says that, while writing the book, she started to look for something beautiful in everybody she met. “Not only did it make me less critical of myself, but it made me pay attention to other people. We can find beauty in everybody. It’s impossible not to find it if you look for it.”

Chine McDonald is a writer and broadcaster and the author of Am I Beautiful? Finding freedom in the answer, published by Authentic at £7.99. Perfect Me: Beauty as an ethical ideal by Heather Widdows is published by Princeton University Press at £27.

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