So if we recognise that language can be extremely important when it comes to wellbeing, do we need to change the way we talk about beauty?
Beauty has a history of being a largely superficial topic. It is gendered, it is trivial, and it’s subjective. But we also know that the beauty industry occupies a space in our culture that few other things do.
In times of recession the ‘lipstick index’, a term coined by Leonard Lauder, the chairman of Estée Lauder in the 2001 recession, reminds us that little luxuries that make us feel good can make a real difference in maintaining morale in hard times.
However, we also know that to the individual, judgements around beauty and the way it’s talked about, can be extremely damaging. In short, beauty is anything but trivial and it is a topic that University of Birmingham professor Heather Widdows discusses in her new book Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal.
Her hypothesis is that the way we talk about health, wellbeing and indeed beauty, has moved into a space of moral judgement on both ourselves and other people that is the result of being subjected to unrealistic beauty standards.
She says: “When we talk about ‘letting ourselves go’, we don’t just mean we’ve failed in one aspect of success. It’s regarded as a failure of the self… So, you’d hear people say, ‘I’ve been good today, I’ve gone to the gym’ or ‘I’ve been a bit naughty today’ … this is increasingly not just moral language, but it is a real sense of, ‘I have actually done something that is a real vice’.”
It is not a phenomenon that’s limited to women, far from that it is also affecting men and whether directly or indirectly, the pressures are resulting in more young men suffering from eating disorders. Of course we know that suicide in men is also a huge problem.
Widdows sees the issue as also having a problematic connection with second wave feminism, prompting her to take a deliberate stride away from a philosophy which she believes places beautifying rituals, and ensuing objectification, in a gendered “oppressor vs victim” paradigm.
“I’m not saying there’s no gendered power relations going on, but the simple claim that ‘This is something men do to women’, and women are oppressed in that patriarchal way, is to misunderstand the complexity of what’s going on,” she explains. “If men, like women, are increasingly responding to demanding and unrealistic beauty ideals, we can no longer claim this is something that falls on one gender and not another.”
As part of her research, Professor Widdows has identified the four key features that women feel under pressure to adhere to – namely: thinness, firmness, smoothness and youth, although how those ideals are emphasised varies from one culture to the next. What is universally unacceptable it seems is to be hairy, fat or ageing.
Of course, unnatural ideals are not a new phenomenon – they have happened throughout history – take corsets or foot binding for example. What she deems dangerous about today’s phenomenon is the normalisation of the ‘unnatural’ – in particular she cites the normalisation of hairlessness in women.
It is something Caitlin Moran has commented on in the past, saying: “Anything that involves pain and costs a lot of money that boys aren’t doing is something that I would really urgently want to have some kind of massive fucking inquest into.”
Widdows also talks about the benefits of beauty however. She maintains that appearance-based rituals can empower the individual and heighten one’s sense of embodiment, saying: “The ‘beauty body’ is never a mere body; it is something that is in transformation; it is both subject and object; it’s to be looked at, but it’s also about living the life — so it is an empowering body, and full of promise.”
She also credits the “communal” nature of beauty practices as a valuable contribution to social cohesion – or, put more simply, it’s a great way to combat against loneliness, and we at Spabreaks.com have certainly been big supporters of the power of touch when it comes to spa treatments.
So what’s the answer? Widdows says that the big thing is that we need to stop seeing beauty as trivial and realise how serious it is to individuals and culture. As a result, we will see how it can be used in positive ways instead of negative ones… and that’s a logic that’s hard to argue with.
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