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Heather Widdows: The Ugly Side of Beauty

The philosopher on how our appearance intolerance hinders ideas and human flourishing The post Heather Widdows: The Ugly Side of Beauty appeared first on Guernica.
Photo by Matthew Hilton

Recently, when Mary Beard—the renowned Cambridge classicist—learned that much of her footage was being cut from the PBS version of the British series “Civilizations,” she wrote on Twitter that she couldn’t “help think that a slightly creaky old lady with long grey hair isn’t ideal for US TV.” It wasn’t the first time that the quality of Beard’s looks was considered to be more important than the quality of her intellect. She’d once been called “too ugly for TV,” for a series she presented on the Romans.

Beard is not ugly, but at 64, she isn’t as lithe and poreless as the majority of women seen on the small screen. It’s a depressing thought that, as a culture, we choose to forgo knowledge simply to avoid staring at an aged woman’s face. This was the sort of superficial dismissiveness I’d grown to expect from the Cineplex, but not from public television, which had seemed—historically at least—to tolerate creaky and craggy bodies, especially when they were attached to a brilliant mind. But the whole Beard affair got me wondering whether our culture has reached a new level of appearance intolerance.

Heather Widdows, a professor of philosophy at the University of Birmingham in England, argues that we have. In her latest book, a sharp and accessible read—Widdows claims that the range of bodies our culture considers to be beautiful has narrowed, and what’s more, that we’re increasingly judging individuals’ moral worth on the basis of appearance. It’s a shocking point, but Widdows draws on social research and philosophy to build the case that beauty today operates like a moral ideal. The beautiful body, she says, is a work of artifice, shaped by practices that require investing countless hours and a lot of money, as well

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