Posts tagged ‘Perfect Me!’

January, 2014

Gender justice 5: Being beautiful, thin and perfect

Professor Heather Widdows


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.

January, 2014

Gender justice 4: Women and Violence

Professor Heather Widdows


One project which Herj (Tuesday’s blogger) and I are working on together is a book project on ‘Women and Violence’. The idea of the book came from a conference we ran in 2011 which brought together speakers from students to Professors working on the agency of women, particularly violent women. Our concern was – and on similar lines to those with Herj discussed yesterday with regard to female suicide bombers – that when women step outside the norms of what is expected of women then they are marginalised and their voices ignored. Too often their voices, choices, and actions are denied, and women become ‘victims’ – wholly lacking agency, or we present women as ‘fully agents’ and presume that anything is justified as long as the women says ‘I chose to do it’. Our starting point for the conference and what we develop in the book is a rejection of this type of categorising of women.  We think frameworks which have a view of women in advance (victims or full agents) as unhelpful and simply another way of failing to respect women as persons, human beings equal to men.

In the book we explore how to escape this dichotomy – to ‘see’ real women.  As was indicated in the blog on day 1 women are often exploited and oppressed and in positions of ‘desperate choice’ which leaves them with few options, none which you might think of as ‘good choices’. In such constrained circumstances women do have agency, but this is limited by circumstances. Women – like men – make choices which are always constrained by their background, character and opportunities. Our work explores this in the extreme context of women who are violent and who have violence done to them. This includes ‘victims’ of domestic violence and rape, as well as the suicide bombers discussed in Tuesday’s blog.

There is not space here to detail each of the chapters or the authors – you will have to look out for the book, which is coming out later this year – but here are a few tasters:

  • One chapter focuses on rape culture and women’s fear of rape (a real fear). Controversially it argues that rape can’t be addressed by asking women to ‘resist’, but only by changing the attitudes and behaviour of men. In terms of Saving Humans, one can see that this argument is particularly relevant globally thinking of recent high profile gang rape cases in India and the widespread use of rape as a war crime. As discussed in the first blog of the week such use of women as ‘objects’ suggests women may well not be ‘human’ yet!
  • Other chapters make pleas for recognising the expressions of that women have in roles where they are too often dismissed as ‘victims’ – for instance, in situations of domestic violence or when violence is inflicted on sex workers. These chapters argue for ways of recognising the agency that these women do have, without claiming that these choices are wholly agential and equivalent to any other choices.
  • Another chapter argues that the rhetoric surrounding women and pregnancy is hostile to women. On the one hand it often relies on an implicit assumption that pregnant women have reduced agency, despite there being no evidence of this, and uses this claim to control pregnant women. On the other hand, when women who may actually have reduced agency (through severe post-natal depression or puerperal psychosis) harm their babies, they are treated as having full agency and prosecuted as competent agents

Tomorrow will be the last blog of this gender justice week and will focus on my current project – a book on beauty – Perfect Me!

Useful links:

Violent women- a Texas inmates study- Pollock, Mullings & Crouch

Images of violent women in the criminal justice system- Keitner

Violent women: questions for feminist theory- Fitzroy

Reduced to Bad Sex: Narratives of Violent Women from the Bible to the War on Terror- Sjorberg & Gentry

Dramatic portrayals of violence women- Cecil

Young women and gang violence- Miller & Decker

Women are more violent, says study, Independent

‘When she was bad’ Violent women and the myth of innocence: Pearson

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