Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

Generation Botox: How beauty ideals have turned into moral ideals

When a woman opts to get plastic surgery, she enters complex and fraught territory. Some claim it's self-exploitation but an increasing number of younger women view plastic surgery as empowering. Contributor Maggie Reid examines the fault lines that define what she calls Botox Nation.

'We're now living in a culture where the image has become so much more dominant than the word,' says expert

Some claim plastic surgery is self-exploitation. But an increasing number of younger women view plastic surgery as empowering. IDEAS contributor Maggie Reid examines the fault lines that define what she calls Botox Nation. (Shutterstock)

*Originally published on November 20, 2020.

The beauty ideal is not something you ever really achieve. It's a moving target, a never-ending ladder. 

Heather Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the elusive nature of the beauty ideal may actually strengthen its power. Its unattainability doesn't stop women from trying to grasp it. Nor does it stop women from embracing beauty work as pleasurable, empowering, or even feminist.

Mainstream feminism, which emphasizes personal choice, breeds cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, women have hurdled unprecedented barriers institutionally, in business, politics and the arts, towards equality. 

A woman waves a feminist flag as protesters shout slogans during a demonstration marking International Women's Day, March 8, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images))

And yet our bodies remain purposed as the most important things about us. 

Dana Berkowitz, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University, nails this tension when she says, "We can do anything men can do, as long as we look good while we're doing it." 

To achieve current beauty standards the ask is that you have big pouty lips, a small nose, no wrinkles, smooth skin, a big butt, and large breasts. You must be thin, young, toned, and tanned. 

Does this sound like you, or anyone you know? Probably not. According to Dana Berkowitz, "very few women can meet these norms, and no women can meet these norms across her life span."

Yet the ladder, we are told, is worth climbing. 

The rise of women's beauty requirements

Naomi Wolf argued in her 1990 book, The Beauty Myth, that women's beauty requirements have also gone up significantly as they have achieved better parity in other facets of life.

She called this the "third shift" — the second being unpaid domestic duties that are predominantly women's work; the first, their paid jobs. 

The near doubling of the $500 billion global beauty industry since 2005 confirms Wolf's argument. As does the 47 per cent increase in cosmetic procedures since 2013, particularly among millennials. 

If all we value is appearance, we will end in this ever more obsessed world where we spend all our time and energy improving our bodies in ways that don't actually make us healthier.- Heather Widdows

The lines between routine and extreme beauty practices are blurring, where people are increasingly "talking about Botox like teeth cleaning and hairbrushing," according to Heather Widdows. 

She connects this blurring to the emergence of a new, global beauty ideal, where no one makes the grade without "work" — surgery. This ideal has taken on a growing ethical aspect. Rather than being simply one thing we value, beauty has become a dominant value, a stand-in for moral character. 

"Increasingly, we have to be good at beauty or we consider ourselves to have failed. So if only we were thinner, firmer, smoother, younger, then we'd be better. We'd have a better relationship. We'd have a better career. We'd be happier," says Widdows.

The language involved in beauty culture reveals the morality involved. "It is self care." "You deserve it." Or if you fail: "you've let yourself go."  

L'Oreal's "Because You're Worth It" ad (1973)

The visual and virtual culture

We are living in an unprecedented visual and virtual culture. 

The beauty industries have long marketed doctored images of models and celebrities that showcase unrealistic beauty standards as they situate themselves as both the cause of, and solution to, women's insecurities. 

But constant surveillance and social media's selfie culture have only intensified discomfort with our appearance.
IDEAS contributor Maggie Reid tries out an Instagram filter called LiL Clown by user paigepiskin. (Maggie Reid )

Now we can doctor our own images. Apps like FaceTune and Snapchat make it easy for us to filter and alter our faces and bodies to better approximate the beauty ideal. We can shrink waists, enlarge eyes and lips, and erase wrinkles and pores.

Heather Widdows says that "we are now living in a culture where the image has become so much more dominant than the word."

But more and more, people want to look like their filtered selfies and are seeking cosmetic procedures like Botox and lip filler to try to bridge the gap between their appearance and this ideal. The phenomenon has been called "Snapchat dysmorphia." It is often not possible, even through cosmetic surgery, to achieve these looks. 

This iteration of the beauty ideal is being shaped by cosmetic interventions themselves and by technology. 

During the pandemic, almost all of our contact has been online. Instead of loosening the grip of beauty standards, the hold that visual and virtual culture has on us has only intensified. We constantly stare at our faces on video calls. And the demand for cosmetic procedures during lockdown has boomed.

Beauty and the beast

Heather Widdows believes there may be some benefits to beauty culture, but overall she does not believe it will lead to human flourishing. She also argues that the harms are real and rising. 

"If all we value is appearance, we will end in this ever more obsessed world where we spend all our time and energy improving our bodies in ways that don't actually make us healthier. They don't actually make us more just. They probably don't make us happier."
 

Guests in this Episode: 

Alvarro Jarrin is a professor of Sociology and Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil (University of California Press, 2017). 

Dana Berkowitz is a professor of Sociology and Women and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She is also the author of Botox Nation: The Changing Face of America (NYU Press, 2017).

Heather Widdows is a professor of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham, UK. She is the author of Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton University Press, 2018). 

Sander Gilman is a medical historian and professor of Psychiatry at Emory College, Atlanta. He is the author of many books, including Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton University Press, 2000). 

Cassie Day is the founder of All Day Fit. She is an influencer and a fitness coach. 

Dr. Asif Pirani is a board certified plastic surgeon at the Toronto Plastic Surgery Centre.
 



*This episode was produced by Maggie Reid
 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now