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Perfect Me by Heather Widdows

A ‘feminish’ book, reviewed by Stuart Hannabuss, reflects on beauty and otherness.

We want to make the best of ourselves. We have an imagined self to which we aspire. We’re told that we have to be beautiful or handsome if we want to be loved. And there are plenty of people out there keen to sell us products and services that will make us perfect, or nearly so.

It is easy to categorize this as mere taste or fashion. After all, how we look and how we dress have always been shaped by cultural and aesthetic norms and expectations. We know about power dressing, looking sexy, feeling pressures to conform with current styles, and the importance of looking good for the good life, well-being and happy relationships. We believe, or want to believe, that we have free choice about such things. We get angry that looking good applies unequally to women rather than men. Advertising assures us that we can look good (‘fifty is the new thirty’) and the media warn us about breast implants and liposuction surgery that went wrong.

So complex, mixed, and volatile are all these claims and messages that in Perfect Me, Heather Widdows, a professor of ethics at the University of Birmingham, has built an interesting case for arguing that the beauty ideal is an ethical ideal. She brings a philosopher’s eye to the topic, taking the reader through a wealth of contemporary debate: cultural, feminist, liberal capitalist, international. She provides evidence that the beauty ideal is now not only global, but worryingly, it also narrows what we understand by being a man or a woman into forms of homogenized stereotypes. This tendency is fed by the celebrity and selfie cultures, by hyper-sexualisation (above all of young women), and by the cosmetics industry.

Essa Samateh
Portrait by Essa Samateh 2020. Essa’s Instagram page is crise60

The book could have turned into a rant rather than a reasoned critique, but fortunately it doesn’t. It also could have become another feminist analysis of how the male gaze and male domination create patriarchal exploitation in the West and elsewhere, but it includes so much more.

Widdows does draw wisely on feminist sources such as Bartsky, Wolf, and Grogan, to tease out a convincing ethical position. She holds that, for all the ambivalence of choice and the blandishments of advertising and reassurances about surgery, women (and men too) can, should, and do make up their own minds about their ‘perfection journey’ towards the so-called ‘transformed and transforming self’. Inevitably this self is centred in the body because we’re physical beings; but we’re also subjects as well as objects. Being both provides a defence against crude generic objectification – a charge often laid at the door of the beauty business.

Nested in this analysis is the enigma of what is ‘normal’ – which idea Widdows rightly regards as highly value-laden and culturally contextual. Similarly, the ideal of perfection is a ‘constructed narrative’ which encourages “a competitive search for beauty and self-esteem”, and we feel excluded or even stigmatized if we don’t purchase for it or engage with it. Beauty becomes “a proxy for character and value.” All this reinforces Widdows’ case that the beauty ideal is an ethical affair.

An important part of the argument for seeing beauty in an ethical framework involves detaching beauty from sexuality. As with the nude in art, such detaching is often artificial. Even so, it is useful to try to do it. The age-old social and cultural equivocation over beauty and sexuality highlights challenges like defining what ‘dressing provocatively’ actually means, or whether cat-calling is a form of sexual threat. By arguing that the locus of choice and power rest with the individual subject, and that the reconstruction of subjectivity entails imagining the self as body but not merely body, Widdows gets to a place where she can plausibly argue that conforming to the beauty ideal does not need to be a form of gendered exploitation. Widdows poses the idea that, by taking sex out of objectification (in the sense, say, of women satisfying the male gaze), men and women alike can try to be ‘better or even perfect’ without this ideal necessarily being sexualized or leading to objectification.

Perhaps, Widdows concludes, by looking at the beauty ideal from a philosophical and ethical perspective, we can see the limitations and deceptions of arguments made by both feminism and liberal capitalism.

This is a neat, if utopian, ideal in its own right, and a nice way to end a very readable book. Widdows writes in an attractive style, wryly aware of her own status as an academic, and of the challenges of taking a philosophical and ethical approach to a topic usually allocated in publishing or research to healthcare, sexual politics, commercial commentary, or even pornography. She keeps her boundaries clear, however, not straying too far into any of these beguiling areas of debate, yet using them to illuminate her central theme. She admits omitting LGBTQ and body-building issues, and her cross-cultural evidence is inevitably piecemeal, although the anecdotes are telling. One strand prominent here is healthcare, understandably so since Widdows is involved with a committee on the ethics of cosmetic procedures.

Perfect Me is well-organised, with summaries as the reader travels through the book, and the notes are as valuable and interesting as the text itself. Some disappointment for me comes when, after assuring the reader that the beauty ideal applies as much to men as to women, men receive attention only in the final chapter. Of course the dominant target both of the beauty business and of the debate about it is women and ‘the female space’ (in which one might consider, for example, social concerns about young women, body image, and diet), so the book is inevitably tilted. Nevertheless, Widdows succeeds in remaining cool in a field where commentators and journalists look for sensation.

Critically speaking, I might have reorganised the men and women parts of the discussion, and explored how perfection can be understood in terms of moral beauty and personal authenticity (as in forms of counselling and spiritual care); and also considered a wider range of older people who yearn for a perfect six-pack or perfect eyebrows as much as a twenty-year-old does. Perhaps that will be a future book from the professor.

© Stuart Hannabuss 2020

Dr Stuart Hannabuss is an honorary chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and a volunteer counsellor for NHS Scotland.

Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal, Heather Widdows, Princeton University Press, 2018, 341 pages, ISBN 978-0-691-16007-8

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