The Neglected Harms of Beauty: Beyond Engaging Individuals

Journal of Practical Ethics 5 (2):1-29 (2017)
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This paper explores the neglected ‘harms-to-others’ which result from increased attention to beauty, increased engagement in beauty practices and rising minimal beauty standards. In the first half of the paper I consider the dominant discourse of beauty harms – that of ethics and policy – and argue that this discourse has over-focused on the agency of, and possible harms to, recipients of beauty practices. I introduce the feminist discourse which recognises a general harm to all women and points towards an alternative understanding; although it too focuses on engaging individuals. I argue over-focusing on harms to engaging individuals is somewhat surprising especially in liberal contexts, as this harm can broadly be regarded as ‘self-harm’ (done by individuals to themselves, or by others employed by individuals to do so). The focus on engaging individuals has resulted in the neglect of significant and pressing harms-to-others in theory, policy and practice. In the second half of the paper I turn to actual and emerging harms-to-others. I focus on three particular harms-to-others as examples of the breadth and depth of beauty harms: first, direct harm to providers; second, indirect but specific harm to those who are ‘abnormal’; and third, indirect and general harm to all. I conclude that, contrary to current discourses, harms-to-others need to be taken into account to avoid biased and partial theorising and counter-productive policy-making. I advocate recasting beauty, in a parallel way to smoking, as a matter of public health rather than individual choice.

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Heather Widdows
University of Birmingham


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