Perfect Me! is my current book project, a project funded by 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. 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 (‘I 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, as a moral demand.
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 and the topic is almost wholly missing from mainstream moral and political philosophy core readers, handbooks and textbooks. 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 (moral) ideal. For some this ideal is a standard against which individuals judge their own and other’s progress, success and failure. People feel ‘happy’ or that they are ‘successful’ if they have attained some aspect of their ideal (reached their goal weight, erased their wrinkles or firmed their thighs).
This view, which connects being physically perfect (having the best body) with ‘the self’, is a common one. The assumption is ubiquitous in the language of value which surrounds talk of beauty: be ‘your best self’, ‘the best you can be’, ‘it’s still you, but the best version of you’, ‘the real you’. Such terms invoke the ideal, the imagined perfect you, waiting to be revealed or attained if only you learn the proper skills, engage in the proper practices and buy the right products. These are comparative terms about how you can be better, and likewise moral words like should, ought and worth proliferate: ‘you’re worth it’, ‘you owe it to yourself’; and conversely ‘you let yourself go’ and presumably ‘you’re not worth it’. In this dominant ideal of ‘perfect me’ beauty, happiness and success begin to merge. The more perfect you are the more you will succeed: you’ll get a better job (‘look the part’, ‘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’); and better life in general (‘if I was ten pounds lighter, I’d be happier’). In these ways the beauty ideal is thought to provide rewards to the successful devotee – rewards of jobs, relationships, respect, love and happiness. It gives shared standards – to aspire to, and to judge ourselves and others by.
The shared nature of the ideal is crucial. The fact that it is shared matters – and this takes us from moral and into political philosophy. The shared feature makes it problematic to claim that beautifying practices – in the form of routine beauty regimes or interventions (such as surgery) – are merely individual, trivial, fashions. You can’t choose your own beauty ideal, you can only choose to conform to it, to embody it or to reject it. It you reject it – as some do – then you are standing outside the norm and will be judged accordingly. Standing outside the ideal isn’t easy for most people – as the barefaced selfies show (raising £8 million in just six days!) – most women wear makeup at least some of the time in most walks of life, and employers and others expect it. Gradually what is ‘normal’ – what is required to attain minimum standards of acceptable appearance – has extended. Not very long ago make-up and hair dye was unacceptable for most women (for respectable women). I’m not defending this division of types of women or these norms – but rather just pointing out that what is required by the beauty ideal to be ‘normal’ is changing and expanding. Body hair is a particularly good example of this – think of the column inches which follow revelations of underarm hair, and growing underarm hair is also now fundraising! It is now the ‘norm’ to be increasingly hairless. In public – at the beach/pool/on a night out – most women think ‘de-fluffing’ is ‘routine’, like washing or teeth-cleaning. But it’s not so long ago (days I remember from when I was at University) when underarm hair was normal, even attractive. And the changes in norms with regard to pubic hair are striking in the last 20 years. In the future what will be required? The de-fuzzing of all body hair (except on the head where the trend is the opposite and in some groups hair extensions are almost a requirement)?
In the book I am making three main arguments: First, about the ubiquity and dominance of the contemporary ideal – which I claim is different to past ideals in a number of significant ways; it applies to more types of women (and increasingly men); it applies for longer and that increasingly it is a global ideal. In addition, and importantly, it increasingly requires technological involvement to attain it. My second argument addresses what this beauty ideal implies for understandings of the self – what human beings are – and key to my position is an argument about the power of the imagined self – a self which has power to shape, constrain and limit our supposed choices. From the first two arguments I make a third claim about why choice and consent arguments don’t – and can’t – provide ethical safeguards in this context. I am right in the middle of this project and some are more developed than others, but I am greatly enjoying the process. Some of these arguments are developed in a recent paper given at the Global Gender Justice conference and can be viewed here.
As well as Perfect me! I am also (with Professor Jean McHale, Law) leading an AHRC-funded Network on the ‘Changing Requirements of Beauty’: key partners are Dr Fiona MacCallum, Psychology, Warwick University; Professor Melanie Latham, Law, MMU, and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
The Beauty Demands project brings together scholars, practitioners, policy-makers together to consider the changing requirements of beauty. The assumption of the network is that beauty image is becoming ever more demanding and defining of women, and increasingly men, irrespective of their professions. The project asks whether this is the case, and how this norm is constituted and how it impacts upon real ‘choices’. It also asks whether the dominant beauty norm is increasingly a global beauty norm, and thus open to less cultural and sub-cultural resistance. The project is especially concerned with role of technology in this. In particular, that procedures which were once regarded as ‘exceptional’ such as the use of surgery, are now regarded as ‘normal’ or even ‘required’ in certain contexts. Our last workshop was in June in London and included, surgeons, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and even art historians. The next is in Birmingham in October on the ‘Globalisation of Beauty ’ and the call for papers for doctoral students and early career lecturers closes on 16 July.