This week, Professor Heather Widdows continues her discussion of contemporary conceptions of beauty and considers the shared nature of such ideals.
In my post last week I said a little about Perfect Me! the book I'm currently working on. I said that beauty, appearance, and body image are not trivial issues, but ones that matter. This of course is a different issue from whether it should matter – currently it does and does for most people, much of the time. For some the ideal of ‘being perfect’ has become all encompassing. 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. We are often told once we move towards our ‘perfect self’ we will be able to be our true selves (‘the best you’). The assumption is ubiquitous in the language of value which surrounds talk of beauty: You should live up to the ideal and strive to be more perfect because ‘you’re worth it’, ‘you owe it to yourself’; if you don’t strive for perfection and ‘let yourself go’ then, 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 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. For a start it makes problematic claims that beautifying – in the form of routine beauty regimes or interventions (such as surgery) – is individual. You can’t choose your own beauty ideal, you can only choose to conform to it, to embody it or to reject it. If you reject it – as some do – then you are standing outside the norm and will be judged accordingly. (Remember the politicians, even though beauty isn't necessary for a politician as you might think it is for an actor or a singer, they are judged on appearance.) Standing outside the ideal isn't easy for most people – as the barefaced selfies show – most women wear make-up 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 – and very current if we think of the column inches written only a few weeks ago when Madonna showed underarm hair. 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)?
These are the types of issues I will spend the next two years teasing out and writing about – as well as discussing at the Hay Festival.