Turning from the psychological literature to the philosophical, we can explain the continued power of beauty ideals, however unreal, if we recognise that, at least for some women in some instances, beauty ideals are functioning as ethical ideals. By this, we mean that the extent to which a women conforms to the beauty ideal determines how morally good she judges herself (and others) and how she evaluates actions as right and good, opposed to wrong and bad.Footnote 4 The use of moral language here we regard as accurate and significant and not simply a matter of language. “I should go to the gym” because I should improve, is moral in that it is about what is required to be judged good (or good enough).Footnote 5 If this is the case then it is not surprising that knowing that beauty ideals are unreal and unattainable does nothing to reduce the wish to attain such ideals. That there are moral and ethical elements in beauty ideals, standards and discourses is overtly the case. Many people judge themselves according to their success and failure in beauty terms. This is true both with regard to achieving long-term goals—we judge ourselves successful when we’ve attained some aspect of the ideal (reached our goal weight, filled our wrinkles or firmed our thighs)—and in terms of daily habits and practices—we are successful when we make it to the gym, stick to the diet, get a manicure or undergo some procedure. Success here is not just aesthetic success (although it may be that too), but moral. For instance, when we deem ourselves successful for engaging in many of these practices the success is only moral: sticking to our calorie count for the day or making it to our exercise class has very little impact upon how we look in the short term and the data on diets suggests that very few of us dramatically change our size over the long term. However, meeting the goal is less important than engaging in the practices, even though we may never reach the desired goal (and we know that it is unlikely), on a day-to-day basis we can still succeed.Footnote 6
That beauty is functioning as an ethical ideal—providing values and standards against which we judge ourselves and others—is particularly clear when we consider what it means to “fail”. Beauty failure results in explicit moral judgements of culpability and responsibility, making beauty failures effectively equivalent to vices. That this is the case is hinted at in the language of beauty as employed by both women and the beauty business (advertisers and women’s magazines): be “your best self”, “the best you can be”, “it’s still you, but the best version of you”, “the real you”. Language such as this directly reveals and communicates the ethical nature of the beauty ideal. You should strive for that best, real, you; you ought to invest in yourself, because “you’re worth it”, “you deserve it” and “you owe it to yourself”. The converse is also true. To fail to engage is to admit or accept that “you’re not worth it”: “You let yourself go!” Unpacking the implications of this reveals the moral assumptions underpinning the framework: It implies not only that you should not have let yourself go, but more than this, that it was a bad thing to do and you should work to address your failure. Appearance then becomes a proxy for, and intimation of, character and value: thinness and grooming shows competence and efficiency, and scruffiness and dishevelment reveal inner turmoil or distress, and not dressing appropriately is a failure of respect (for the self or others). Such judgements are routinely and constantly made, read directly from appearance, and are moral. Effectively they are character assessments of virtues and vices. And just as we regard success as virtuous, shame and disgust attach to failure.Footnote 7
Further, like other ethical ideals, the beauty ideal purports to deliver the goods of the good life: material goods, relational goods and lifestyle goods. Essentially the message is that if you conform to the beauty ideal, become better (thinner, firmer, smoother, younger) you will be rewarded with these goods: “That we’re desperate to be seen as fit and energetic and young and attractive makes sense when we are told on so many tacit and overt levels that we will find neither work nor sexual partners without these attributes; moreover, we are fated to lose both if we don’t retain at least the superficial vestiges of the original assets”.[3, p 49] While the evidence is somewhat contested there is significant empirical evidence which suggests that beauty does deliver at least some of the goods of the good life. The beautiful, for the most part, do better than those who are not beautiful; and although the differential is not dramatic nor is it negligible .
To illustrate consider a few statistics. A recent large UK study suggested that tall men and slim women are relatively significantly better paid than those who are not.Footnote 8 This was reported in the popular media, somewhat dramatically, as: men earn £1600 a year for every 2.5 inches; and women genetically predicted to be two stone heavier are “losing out” by £3000 a year . Even if we regard the causal genetic claims with some suspicion (especially when it comes to weight which is strongly linked to socio-economic factors and to possible discrimination and bias, something which the researchers themselves note), being tall as a man and being thin as a woman is likely to lead to some material advantage. Hamermesh draws the evidence from many empirical studies on this together and concludes that there is a “3 or 4 % premium for good looking workers” [13, p 47] and a greater difference between unattractive and attractive.Footnote 9
However, even if approximating the beauty ideal does deliver some of the goods of the good life, striving for the ideal is important, even if it is not attained (and does not deliver any material goods), and even if it is unattainable. Recognising that the beauty ideal drives and influences behaviour—irrespective of the goods delivered—helps us understand why it is such a powerful ethical ideal. The beauty ideal promises the possibility of perfection, or at least improvement: The perfect self remains beyond and in the future, an ideal to approximate, a possibility to be strived for and aspired to, and to be worked at. That it is unattainable does little to reduce the power of the ideal or our commitment to it. Being perfectly good, or humble, are equally unattainable, but yet ideals which have been striven for in many contexts. Understanding the power of ideals goes some way to explaining why, even when we know images are re-touched, we continue to judge ourselves against them and wish to attain the ideal they promise. The perfect image on the page feeds into our imaginings of the perfect ideal we are seeking to embody. Like other ethical ideals, the beauty ideal not only holds out a promise of perfection (whether understood as being perfect, or simply becoming better, normal or improved), but also offers daily habits and practices to help us attain it and by which to structure our lives. Thus, not only does it provide a value framework, but dictates tasks, skills and knowledge: To be good you must engage in daily practices (do a good turn every day); to be beautiful you must also engage in daily practices (those of routine maintenance, from hair removal to exercise). As such, like other ethical ideals it provides both long-term goals and mundane techniques which together structure and give meaning to day-to-day existence.
By both promising goods and sanctioning failure, the beauty ideal engenders commitment from those who fall under it. It is this emotional commitment and investment in the ideal (manifested in the extent to which we judge ourselves and others by it) that helps to explain why images which present us with instances of the perfect ideal do not lose their power simply because we know they are digitally re-touched. Our imaginings of our perfect—or improved or better or good enough—self, the end point of the beauty ideal for which we are striving, has very little to do with what is actually achievable or likely to be achieved. Indeed, as we age the possibility of attaining the beauty ideal becomes ever less likely, but this does not mean that we reject the ideal or stop engaging in beauty practices. As technological interventions become more normalised and more accessible, so it becomes possible to attain some aspects of the beauty ideal, into middle and old age and increasingly pressures to conform to the beauty ideal, which once stopped or lessened at marriage or the menopause, now continue. Consequently as we age and fall further from the ideal we may feel more pressure to engage, rather than less.Footnote 10