Online course in Health & Psychology

Perfect Me: Understanding the Beauty Ideal

Explore the changing nature of the beauty ideal and the need to address body image anxiety as a global epidemic.

  • Duration 2 weeks
  • Weekly study 3 hours
  • Learn Free
  • Extra benefits From $44 Find out more

Learn how and why a global beauty ideal has been created

The quest to look beautiful, or just ‘good enough’, is something that drives and dominates people all over the world. The rise of body image anxiety has become a global epidemic and the need to be perfect or be better is becoming an ethical requirement.

On this course, you will discover the features and differences of the emerging global beauty ideal. You will explore the role of ‘normal’ and how beauty as an ethical ideal defines the way you view yourself and others. You will also look to the future and learn how the rising demands of beauty can be addressed in a more positive way.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsHEATHER WIDDOWS: I've been working on global ethics and gender justice for the best part of 20 years. And gradually, I was wondering about beauty. Beauty has morality all over it. You deserve it. You're worth it. But why is it that people hadn't been working on what is, for many people, one of the most important and defining features of their lives? Beauty, as a globally dominant ethical ideal, is something new. In the past, beauty might have mattered to some people, but it could not have been a shared ethical ideal. By shared ethical ideal, I mean a number of things. I mean it's a value framework. It's literally how people grade themselves and others.

Skip to 0 minutes and 45 secondsBeauty success becomes moral success and without succeeding at beauty, you become unable to succeed in general. Increasingly, it is the unmodified body which is the abnormal body. And gradually, more is required just to be good enough, just to be normal. Beauty practises change into hygiene practises. So you have to remove body hair. You have to erase your wrinkles. I argue there are four features of the global beauty ideal, thinness firmness, smoothness, and youth. And you can be different in all kinds of ways, but not in these. There are many drivers. First is an increased individual consumerism.

Skip to 1 minute and 25 secondsThe second is a visual and virtual social media culture so you can compare yourself not just against those in your village, but almost everybody. The technological imperative-- because we can do things we think we should. And importantly, it's an ethical ideal. In a visual and virtual culture, you are judged on how you look rather than what you say or what you do. There is a single emerging global beauty ideal. This does not mean there are no cultural differences. There are all kinds of cultural differences in the way that the ideal embeds, in how we manifest it, and importantly, in the stories we tell about why we engage.

Skip to 2 minutes and 2 secondsAs researchers, we need to take seriously beauty, not to treat it as something trivial or individual. There is a global epidemic of body image anxiety. This is a public issue, not fluffy, not trivial. And it needs attention and serious academic research.

What topics will you cover?

  • What is an ethical ideal and how is beauty an ethical ideal
  • What are the features of the beauty ideal
  • The role of ‘normal’
  • Why does the beauty ideal give rise to a duty to be beautiful
  • Are beauty ideals converging globally?
  • What are the drivers of the global beauty ideal
  • Is there a global epidemic of body image anxiety?
  • How can the future be better?

When would you like to start?

Most FutureLearn courses run multiple times. Every run of a course has a set start date but you can join it and work through it after it starts. Find out more

Who is the course for?

This course is for anyone interested in or studying beauty ideals and practices or global ethics.

Who will you learn with?

Heather Widdows

John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Author of Perfect Me, and passionate about the addressing the epidemic of body image anxiety.

Who developed the course?

The University of Birmingham is a public research university, consistently listed as a leading UK university and ranked among the top 100 in the world.

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