Written by Michael Pascoe

What does it mean to be human? Do new year’s resolutions have a sinister side? Is there such a thing as a perfect body? These were the questions posed to audiences of the British Science Festival, 2019, by a panel of four experts from the University of Birmingham.

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The discussion was chaired and joined by Alice Roberts, Professor of Physiology and incoming President of the British Science Association. After introducing each of the speakers, the discussion was kicked off by Heather Widdows, Professor of Global Ethics. Widdows described a global trend toward the homogenisation of beauty standards in mainstream culture. Almost wherever you go, female beauty is presented as looking young, hairless and slim whilst also maintaining curves. In the case of men, height appears to be the universal beauty standard. As some subcultures try to resist homogenisation, individuals can find themselves on the sharp end of the law when performing body modification procedures such as tongue splitting.

Cosmetic marketing campaigns which claim to promote diversity may in fact be exploiting these issues superficially in order to sell more products, suggested Widdows. Whilst using ethnically diverse models, consumers are often still confronted by idealised archetypes which prey on their insecurities to drive sales.

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Each year, millions pledge new year’s resolutions to make changes in their lives. As many as three quarters of resolutions revolve around diet and exercise and nearly half aim to lose weight in order to look better, explained Widdows. “So what?” you might ask. “Surely losing weight and looking better is a good thing?”. The core of the problem, the panel surmised, is that beauty has become considered an ethical ideal. To be blemish free with pearly white teeth and silky hair is to be virtuous. The pressure to conform to these beauty standards is enormous and can lead to intense feelings of guilt in those who fall short of their goals. Others shame those unwilling or unable to achieve their standard of physical perfection.

In many cases, individuals make unhealthy choices to reach their aesthetic goals. Up to a million people in the UK use Image or Performance Enhancing Drugs (IPEDs) to change their appearance, including some as young as 13. Anabolic steroids promote muscle growth whilst tanning hormones can provide a year-long glow. Despite their popularity, long-term use of these drugs can have serious impacts on health and affect those seeking external perfection.

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Teenagers and young adults face enormous pressure from social media to conform to shifting beauty standards, Victoria Goodyear explained. Goodyear is a Senior Lecturer of Pedagogy in Sport, Physical Activity and Health and researches the impact of digital technologies and social media on the health and wellbeing of young people. It takes only a quick scroll on Instragram to discover a swathe of “influencers”, whose feeds are populated with pictures of flawlessly toned bodies and picture-perfect meals.

Men are by no means free from the growing pressures to conform. For years, social media, reality TV shows and men’s health magazines have been filled with muscle-clad torsos and bulging biceps. Constant exposure to idealised bodies is contributing to the growing issue of muscle dysmorphia, sometimes referred to as “bigorexia”. Goodyear explained that teenagers and young men often complain that they feel unsupported when it comes to the pressures they face to conform to idealised bodies. Whilst some hit the gym against the advice of doctors, others use humour to critique a gym-obsessed culture.

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Our obsession with bodily perfection even pervades the medical education of future doctors, Prof. Roberts exclaims. For instance, anatomy learning universally presents students with idealised male archetypes which do no justice to the diversity of humankind. We are as different beneath the skin as we are above it. Like our fingerprints, the way in which nerves and blood vessels meander through each person’s body is unique.

As the use of cadavers in medical education decreases and the use of idealised models increases, this can lead to confusion. “I’ve heard doctors suggest that nerve fibres are in the wrong place” explained Prof. Roberts. Idealised models fool doctors into believing there is a perfect example of how a human should be, but we are all perfect examples of humanity. Explaining the individuality of each body, Prof. Roberts states, “The human body is intrinsically flawed. Evolution is a blind process. If you survive long enough to pass your genes on, you’ve done it.”

Changing standards of what constitutes a human body are also shifting, according to Muireann Quigley, Professor of Law, Medicine, and Technology.


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Would you consider a pacemaker another body part? What if it was produced from biological cells and directly integrated into your heart tissue? At what point does an artificial limb become part of us? Unlike the Ship of Theseus, these questions aren’t just theoretical in nature. Determining whether we consider these things person or object has real and important repercussions in the court of law. “If someone purposely damages a prosthetic limb, should this be considered assault or merely property damage?”, Prof. Quigley posed to the audience. As our bodies become ever more integrated with emerging technologies and more people become “everyday cyborgs”, lawmakers face critical decisions which can impact many lives.

With shifting beauty standards having an ever-greater impact on our internal sense of belonging, we must question whether the societal pressures driving individuals to change their appearance are just. Is the perfect body ever attainable to those who seek it, or is it an unending fool’s errand? Must we be assimilated into the Insta-collective to thrive in the modern world or is there space for us to pursue individual ideas of perfection. Is resistance truly futile?