Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Changing Understandings of Body Image

This post is by Heather Widdows, who reports on the first workshop of the BeautyDemands network. 

The workshop took place earlier this month at Warwick University. It considered changing body image and looked at how ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ and ‘perfect’ function as concepts in the beauty debate. For instance, how they function as people perceive themselves and others in terms of what is normal and beautiful, and in terms of what women and girls (and to a lesser extent men) feel is expected of them. 

The papers given covered a wide range of topics, including, on choice, on revenge porn, on ‘tanorexia’, on skin-lightening, on feminism and beauty, on cosmetic surgery scandals, and from very different perfectives including, law, psychology, sociology, philosophy and critical theory. 

These were the types of issues which were discussed were:
  • Whether and how choice or consent is relevant in the debate, for instance, can one ‘freely’ consent to cosmetic procedures or does social construction reduce the very possibility of choice. 
  • The extent to which such ‘requirements’ are more demanding than in previous generations and over time. 
  • The connection between these debates and previous feminist debates and the need to return to older discussions. 
  • The relationship between the philosophical debate and the law and policy debates and how to create not only dialogue between but to use the different debates in ways which might be useful to inform policy and practice intervention. 
  • Possible pathways to regulation in areas which are little regulated. 
  • The relationship between health, beauty, sexual attractiveness and identity. 
It is worth noting that while workshop participants held a broad range of very different views at all times discussion was inclusive and respectful and at no point aggressive or dismissive. The inclusive atmosphere made possible an intensive two hour art-session. In this session Annabel Mednick did first a self-portrait and then a portrait of a workshop participant. This was done in an unusual way, not just by looking, but by touch and hearing (in response to instructions from the group) as well as by sight. 

This allowed a very different form of discussion and enabled the group to reflect upon different gazes and the different judgments which come from different perspectives (of ourselves and others). Discussion focused the meanings of beauty over time and in different roles. While an unusual event for an academic conference this session was the highlight of the workshop. It encouraged reflection and questioning in a way which was gentler than usual philosophical debate, but also more honest and ultimately more challenging and useful to rethinking beauty. Some of the comments from the post-graduate participants in the workshop were:

“The breadth of the issue truly came out through these discussions, as did the topic’s importance to philosophical, legal and cultural dialogue.”

“I felt all of the academics, professionals, and graduate students in attendance came together in an incredibly dynamic way to foster very intellectually stimulating conversations and seriously challenge our understandings of beauty and self-image over the course of the two days.”

“I left the workshop with the feeling that I had not only broadened my understanding of the importance of my own work, but also of the work of others, and the Beauty Demands Project as such.”

Get involved in the debate – follow us on Twitter (@beautydemands), like our Facebook page, and check out our blog where you also find a full report of the event!

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