This post discusses beauty as an ethical ideal as defined by Heather Widdows in her book Perfect Me: Beauty As An Ethical Ideal, particularly focusing on the actions required to meet that ideal, and what happens when you are prevented from doing them. Before going into my argument, I want to clarify that this post does not wish to criticise people with disabilities or chronic illnesses who engage in beautifying behaviours; none of us are really free from beauty as an ethical ideal, including the author, so it would be wrong to condemn anyone who takes part in it. Part of the complexity of beauty is that these practices can genuinely be tools for bonding, self-expression and empowerment; to totally denounce them would be nonsensical. The aim instead is to consider how some of these behaviours support the concept of beauty as an ethical ideal.
Beauty as an ethical ideal involves actions – meaningful pursuits towards a goal. These can include: ‘maintenance’ or routine behaviours to ensure the individual looks groomed and polished, eating ‘healthily,’ (or as Widdows puts it eating “the right amount to become or stay thin,”) and exercise (Widdows, 2018, p. 27). We are ‘good’ when we do these things, and ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ when we don’t. Actions are essential because, according to the ethical ideal, when we succeed in terms of beauty, then we succeed in terms of morality (Ibid.). Therefore we are to be respected and admired when we make attempts to ‘better ourselves’ through make up, hair removal, exercise, etc., but are deemed to have no ‘self-respect’ or to have ‘let ourselves go’ when we do not engage in these behaviours. In short, not taking part in “beauty activity” is a reflection of deficient or even deviant character. 1
But what happens when you cannot engage in the actions required to meet the beauty ideal? When it is not in your bodies’ capacity, or bodily events such as chronic illness make engaging in these behaviours low priority?
|Wheelchair model from Atipic Beauty (by Orgamea)|
It seems then, that mainstream ‘inclusive’ campaigns are anything but, and potentially contribute to strengthening beauty as an ethical ideal. However, it would not feel right to close this article without acknowledging the internet-based undercurrent that continues to fight for true inclusivity. Non-profit sites such as The Mighty.Com, and independent bloggers such as The Lingerie Addict have made a concerted effort to showcase and promote bloggers who fall outside of the ethical ideal of beauty, but who proclaim it nonetheless2.These sites and others like them strike a chord with the thousands beginning to be disillusioned by the demands of beauty and their pages provide spaces for communities to grow, making them intensely popular influencers. Companies such as Aerie have begun to acknowledge that diversity sells, but they need to do better in order to be truly inclusive.
Maisie Gibson is currently a masters student studying the Philosophy of Health and Happiness MA at the University of Birmingham. She has a keen interest in healthcare ethics and bioethics, with a special focus on the philosophy of mental health. Her main areas of research have so far included factors of male suicide risk and issues of identity in the treatment of eating disorders.
1 Due to space constraints, this is a simplistic summary of Widdows’ argument, and does not encompass the interactions between privilege and choice when it comes to taking part in ‘maintenance’ behaviours.. ↩
2 Please see: https://themighty.com/2017/06/beauty-disability-instagram/; https://www.thelingerieaddict.com/2018/02/20-plus-size-bloggers-and-influencers-to-follow-for-lingerie-inspiration.html↩