Beauty Demands

There are two projects ongoing at Birmingham University funded by AHRC and Leverhulme Trust.

Perfect Me!

Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (Oct 2014 to Oct 2016)

Heather Widdows

This fellowship supports the completion of a monograph Perfect Me! (under contract with Princeton University Press). ‘Perfect me!’ can be read in a number of ways: as an individual’s aspiration to perfect themselves (‘I want to be perfect’), as assertion of what being perfect is (‘this is what I would be if I were perfect’), and as a command which a woman feels she should obey (‘you should be perfect’).

Perfect Me! explores all of these meanings, with particular focus on the moral element that each reading implies: the first, that being perfect is worth having; the second, a judgement that this is what perfection is; and the third, a moral imperative to attain it.

In addition to analysing the ideal of perfection as it is manifested in the dominant beauty ideal as a moral ideal, Professor Widdows will critique the current reliance on individual choice and consent in determining the ethics of beauty practices. She will also focus on the picture of the moral self which underlies this ideal and suggest that there is a shift from identification of the self with the physical/observed body to the imagined body.


The Changing Requirements of Beauty

AHRC Network (January 2015 – June 2016)

PI Heather Widdows, Co-I Jean McHale

This project considers changing attitudes to body image and the consequent changing uses of procedures which have traditionally been regarded as ‘medical’; for instance, according to BAAPS, 43,172 surgical procedures were carried out in 2012, and the most popular are concerned overtly with appearance and beauty (the most popular procedures in the UK are breast augmentation, eyelid surgery and face/neck lifts). Moreover, surveys suggest that if money was not an issue far more women would undergo such procedures, which are seen as increasingly ‘normal’, ‘routine’ and part of the ‘beauty regimes’ of ‘ordinary women’.

beauty-idealThis project considers the beauty norms which underlie this trend from cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral perspectives. The assumption of the network is that beauty image is becoming ever more demanding and defining of women, and increasingly men, irrespective of their professions.

The project will ask whether this is the case, and how this norm is constituted and how it impacts upon women. It will also ask whether the dominant beauty norm is increasingly a global beauty norm, and thus open to less cultural and sub-cultural resistance.

The project is especially concerned with role of technology in this. In particular, that procedures which were once regarded as ‘exceptional’ such as the use of surgery, are now regarded as ‘normal’ or even ‘required’ in certain contexts. Other increasingly demanding beauty requirements include hair removal and ‘non-invasive’ procedures to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. All of these procedures, whether ‘routine’ or ‘exceptional’, require time and effort to maintain, and arguably the ‘minimum’ required is increasing; fewer women go ‘bare faced’ or bare their flesh without hair removal.

This project will explore the extent to which beauty norms are changing and how as well as what this means for individuals, for regulation and for clinical practice. It explores the ‘perfectionist trend’ that extends the use of medical and scientific procedures to ‘cosmetic procedures’. In light of this it will explore how the use and development of such procedures in the service of such norms changes the concepts of ‘health’, ‘normality’ and ‘perfection’ and in turn how these feed into self-understandings and identity, social expectations, medical practice and regulation.

Get involved: we want to hear what YOU think. Join the network, write a post for us, and have your say. Get in touch with us here.

Please note: the network exists to share views on beauty norms and practices. Beauty Demands is encouraging debate between the network members and beyond. Content should not be read as endorsement by project staff of views expressed here.


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