This week and next, Professor Heather Widdows writes about the philosophy behind notions of ideal beauty and perfection.
One of the books I'm currently working on is about beauty. Called Perfect Me! From October I will be full time working on this – thanks to the award of a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust.
Perfect me! explores the ideal of perfection as exhibited in contemporary, and increasingly global, ideals of beauty. It considers whether being perfect is something that individuals really choose, or whether it is an increasingly constraining and dominating ideal. Perfect me! can be read in a number of ways: as an individual’s aspiration to perfect themselves (‘I want to be perfect’), as assertion of what being perfect is (‘this is what I would be if I were perfect’), and as a command which a woman (or man) feels she should obey (‘you should be perfect’). In the book I explore all of these meanings, with particular focus on the moral element that each reading implies: the first, that being perfect is worth having; the second, a judgement that this is what perfection is; and the third, a moral imperative to attain it.
Too often beauty – appearance and body image – is treated by philosophers as something trivial. This is borne out by the lack of research on this area in mainstream philosophy. Philosophers, especially moral philosophers, have tended to look at beauty as an abstract concept or in the context of the sublime, rather than as attached to real bodies and as influencing how real people actually feel. But beauty is not trivial. It is a dominating ideal and one which pervades nearly every aspect of contemporary life. It is an ideal by which we judge other people – and women particularly. Think about the coverage of sports women or politicians or almost any woman in the public eye. Media coverage invariably comments on how they look irrespective of the story. Whatever women are trying to do and say they will also be judged on how they look. This is not something which is only true of those in the public eye – but more and more for all of us. Through social media women – and girls – are judged and ‘liked’ according to how they look and we create ourselves by the pictures we use to represent ourselves. Whether or not you think that this should be the case it is hard to pretend that it isn't. Try telling a school girl that it’s ‘what’s inside that counts’ when she’s being ‘virtually’ bullied about pictures her ‘friends’ posted of her (there is nothing virtual about this type of bulling, it is real and devastating). Or think about the recent debate about women posting barefaced (no-make-up) selfies in order to raise money for cancer. For some this is brave, for others it is, and should be, ‘normal’. Whatever your view is it is certainly the case that how we, individually and collectively, present our physical form to ourselves and to others (and in turn how we judge others) is currently primary in our society. It matters.
My view is that if philosophy wants to continue to address core questions – questions about ‘what are human beings?’, ‘what is the self?’, ‘what gives meaning to life?’ and ‘what makes life fulfilling and flourishing? – then thinking philosophically about how the beauty ideal functions, and how it should function, is anything but trivial.