Beauty without the beast – Heather Widdows

21 May

Back in my early thirties, a male friend poo-pooed the idea of plastic surgery. I might do it, I replied, when I age, if it looked real (and like me) and I could afford it. He was aghast. I wear make up, after all. What’s the difference?

Now I’m in my late forties, I look in the mirror and wonder. Could I get back to how I used to look? But, back then, was I so happy?

The point is moot. I don’t have the money and, even if I did, couldn’t justify the expense. But does the fact that it’s possible – and that some women do (and look good on it) – does this make me unhappy? Or dissatisfied?

Beauty is an incredibly complicated thing. At Swindon Spring Festival, Professor Heather Widdows shared the findings in her latest book, Perfect Me.

Heather Widdows, photo © Fernando Bagué

She’s been working on the idea of the Beauty Ideal for some time. On BeautyDemands, well-educated beauty bloggers don’t offer make-up tips but, instead, talk about the problems with today’s nasty trends in body image. 

And today’s problem is that the ‘unmodified body is the unnatural body’. Double thinking, she said, and the Orwellian overtones are spot on. Cameras are everywhere in ‘forensic HD’ and how we look can be globally compared and commented on twenty-four hours a day.

‘Looking good is being good,’ Heather told us, ‘perfection’ in our outward appearance has become a virtue, a moral imperative.

A modern day ‘perfect storm’ had brought this about, she explains, of consumerism, social media, technology, and an ethical ideal. In other words, we are pushed products which fix our problems – from gym membership to age-defying cream; a ‘visual and virtual social media’ to compare ourselves; technology which allows us to surgically change ourselves (‘we can and so we should’); and an ethical ideal creating a global standard, or norm, against which we are judged.

But isn’t this an extension of what’s always happened? Historical documents tell us that the youth of ancient Greece, said festival director Matt Holland, sat around the well discussing who had the best body and was the most beautiful.

Yes, agreed Heather. But the modern problem is one of extremes – physical ‘perfection’ has become a ‘moral’ obligation, for example: female body hair is seen as unhygenic, dirty and if on a celebrity – worthy of national media attention. Globalisation has homogenised appearance to something that very few can attain without intervention. And this has an effect on our mental health – statistics suggest that eating disorders are affecting a broader spectrum of age and are spreading to men too.

Heather Widdows, photo © Fernando Bagué

It’s easy, isn’t it, to judge a book by its cover, and we are, I suggest, hardwired to do so. A perfect body suggests strong genes and that’s an evolutionary imperative. But here’s the rub: today, facials and scalpels can hide sleep deprivation and addiction, and eating disorders can create the perfect type of skinny. Culture can train our lizard brains to believe a certain type of unrealistic beauty is the one that needs to be genologically replicated.

Back in my twenties I worked with a body building enthusiast. He told me that on the eve of competitions he was ‘as weak as a baby’ and often caught colds. The price of those ultra-big muscles was dehydration and an unhealthy lack of fat.

I’ve found an indicator of our society’s unhealthy fascination with outward appearance in an unlikely source. My son’s school principles talk of the need for success. (Success, I’d argue is another unhealthy outward sign of ‘perfection’. It values not who we are but what we can achieve. What is success – achieving life goals or being kind to each other?) The school’s uniform requirements are telling. Having a smart school uniform is seen as a sign that a school is successful. The uniform list details the clothes expected of students down to the cut of trousers (not skinny) and skirts (‘should a girl choose to wear them’), and socks (black). No where does it say students should arrive clean and nourished, teeth brushed, a kiss lingering on their cheek and a cheery ‘have a good day’ resonating in their ears. It does not expect students to be slim-waisted and big-busted but it does expect them to be ‘traditional’.

So what is the answer? Heather seemed short on this (perhaps there’s more in her book). But the problem with issues with no solutions is that people become unhappy and need comfort. So, to feel good again, they’ll stick with what they know; they’ll go straight back online and ask if they look good in their underwear, or slap on some make-up, or head for the botox treatment.

I agree with Heather that the answer is not to reject the appearance of our bodies. We are not simply I think therefore I am, the ghost in the machine. We are minds and bodies. But perhaps the answer is to marry our actions and modifications with health considerations. (Look at all the ultra-fit dancers and performers during the festival – all shapes and sizes. Strong muscles, in particular, do not often go with skinny bodies and a thigh gap). I exercise and eat to feel healthy, to live longer. I wear sunblock to prevent skin cancer. I improve my posture to be without pain. I associate style with individuality, not conformity – wear colour, wear dresses (men), wear jeans (women); I can let my hair go grey or dye it pink.

At the root is what makes us happy. Is the global beauty ideal a standard for which we can, on the surface, judge our success? Or is it mastery? If we achieve the beauty ideal we have control not only of our diets and exercise (and how we fit it all in) but also how we reshape our bodies – we don’t have to be stuck with what (mother) nature has given us – and we can control others through their involuntary attraction to us? Or is it expectation? If we are not the beauty ideal we will disappoint our parents, our spouses, our children?

Is it tribalism? A warped desire to fit in? If I look like you then you will like me? If I look like the ‘ideal’ then, as a deserving and hard-working member of the tribe, I will have that lover, job, house?

Whatever it is, there is no easy answer. But, like Heather, we have to keep on looking.

Heather Widdows, author of Perfect Me, appeared at Swindon Arts Centre, 14 May 2019, as part of Swindon Spring Festival.

Words by Louisa Davison. Photos © Fernando Bagué

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