High heels, leather jackets and painted nails tend not to feature in the dress code of academic philosophers – whether they are male or female.
But Heather Widdows, John Ferguson professor of global ethics at the University of Birmingham, is adamant that she will “marry the way I appear, without conforming, and myself as a serious philosopher”.
This is more than a personal preference: given Professor Widdows’ view that “women with strong northern accents” are neither common nor particularly welcome in philosophy, using “powder, paint, leather and heels” has also been a way that she has been able to “assert” herself at academic conferences.
“I unsettle and undermine the status quo,” writes Professor Widdows, who is also a deputy pro vice-chancellor at Birmingham, in the acknowledgements of her new book, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal.
The book, published by Princeton University Press, argues that philosophers can do far more to engage in vital debates on beauty and body image.
Professor Widdows argues that beauty has now become “a dominant and, in some instances, predominant ethical ideal”, according to which most women and increasing numbers of men judge themselves and others, and feel guilty if they fall short.
The book describes, for example, Professor Widdows’ “horror at the rising minimal demands (body hair removal and Botox being very obvious examples)” as well as “the lengths we are willing to go to (rising requests for labiaplasty from girls as young as 10)”. It also catalogues the “hard, time-consuming, constant, intensive, and often painful…body work” undertaken by many women; the new norm of “quickly slender, even bikini-ready, postpartum bodies”; the essentially impossible ideal of “thinness with curves”; and a study indicating that “11 per cent of couples would abort a fetus prone to obesity”.
Yet, despite widespread public concern, Professor Widdows told Times Higher Education, moral philosophy has had virtually nothing to say about the issue, “because it simply has not engaged with real bodies, with embodiment, with what it means to be in a living body or connected through the body…The one thing worse than thinking we might be only our bodies is thinking we might not be our bodies at all.”
There are also questions around social class.
Professor Widdows was unsympathetic to academics and others who feel “superior that they don’t engage” in beauty practices, since they failed to “understand the constraints other women suffer, particularly women lower down race and class hierarchies…Ninety per cent of young girls are involved in some kind of social media. With that extent of visual and virtual culture, to just say you shouldn’t care about beauty is to fail to theorise properly the lived experience of most young women in our society.”
More generally, Professor Widdows thought that it was “completely divisive and unhelpful to judge individuals for what they do and do not do [in terms of beauty regime]. All that does is pits women against women and stops us thinking communally about what it means for people to be putting ever more of their sense of self into the beauty ideal”.