Gender justice 5: Being beautiful, thin and perfect

Professor Heather Widdows

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Just in case you are reading these blogs and thinking that all gender injustices happen ‘over there’, in conflict zones or to ‘other women’ (though the statistics in the first blog about British women who have had non-volitional sex should have already made you think again) today entry should change your mind. This blog – I hope – will make you think about the gendered things you do every day – and whether these are ‘for fun’, ‘for yourself’ and ‘because your worth it’, or whether they are things you ‘have to do’, to be presented, taken seriously or just not to feel ashamed.

The current book I’m working on for Princeton University is called Perfect Me! which is an exploration of beauty from the perspective of moral philosophy. I picked the title because ‘Perfect me!’ can be read in, at least three ways:

  1.  as an individual’s aspiration to perfect themselves (‘I want to be perfect’),
  2. as assertion of what being perfect is (‘this is what I would be if I were perfect’)
  3. as a command which the women feels she should obey (‘you should be perfect’).

In the book I explore all these as a moral philosopher, as each of these has a ‘moral claim’ underlying it: the first, that being perfect is something worth having/being; the second, a judgement that this is what perfection is; and the third, a moral imperative to attain it.

I argue that beauty and appearance has become increasingly important and are now inescapable considerations for most (maybe all) women (and increasingly men too!). Remember from day one the worry that women are ‘women first’ and ‘persons second’. You can see this clearly in beauty where women – whatever their career are judged on appearance. (Think about female politicians, judges – not to mention sports women – where media stories invariably make a comment on how they looked irrespective of the story.)  Behind such stories is the assumption that for life to go well – to flourish in philosophical terms – then you must ‘take care’ of your appearance. Think about the rhetoric which connects beauty to success:

  • Better employment (‘dress for the job you want not the one you have’);
  • Better relationship (‘if I’m thinner, prettier, sexier s/he’ll love me more’);
  • Just better (‘if I was ten pounds lighter, I’d be happier’).

In this way physical perfection – cast in current norms of thinness, youth and hairlessness, to name but a few characteristics of contemporary beauty – becomes associated with all kinds of perfection. The book explores the pressure to be beautiful and the moral claims which underlie it, in the context of the increasing ways, practices and procedures one can use to ‘be better’, ‘more perfect’ – technical, surgical and chemical.

A final, slightly random thought: Over the last 15 years I have asked my female students whether they would go to the gym/beach/out dancing without de-fluffing their underarms/legs/bikini line. Increasingly the answer is ‘No way!’. I now – to my shame – find myself feeling similarly, a long way from my own undergraduate experience where lots of the women I admired as being the most beautiful of my peers and women I aspired to be overtly displayed their underarm hair, and it was deemed attractive. I also ask my male students, friends and colleagues (I am an odd dinner guest), and it is a rare man under 35 who has seen underarm hair on a woman, let alone had an opportunity to find it sexy. Clearly this is nothing like systematic research, but it does seem to me that requirements are higher, take more time and are also more painful (waxing – ouch!).

If you enjoyed this I hope you will enjoy Perfect Me! when it comes out.

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