Generation Botox: How beauty ideals have turned into moral ideals
'We're now living in a culture where the image has become so much more dominant than the word,' says expert
*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.
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.
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.
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).
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