April 07, 2016
by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director, Bioethics Program of Clarkson University & Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
A couple of weeks ago, I sparked a small firestorm on my social media feed. While ‘checking into’ my local gym on Facebook, I made the self-deprecating comment that I was “not yet beach worthy.” Several of my friends and colleagues quickly took me to task for that statement, accusing me of buying into socially constructed stereotypes of health and beauty.
Anyone who knows me well likely knows that my Facebook comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. For a middle-aged professor who spends most of his time in mental endeavors rather than physical pursuits, I am in pretty decent shape (my lack of functioning hair follicles notwithstanding). That is in part because of genetics: I am naturally rather slim although I can put on weight if I do not eat right or exercise regularly. This is also in part because I have the luxury of time and the financial means to purchase healthier foods, to go to the gym, and to hire a personal trainer.
That said my colleagues do have point. As Americans, we constantly judge ourselves and we constantly judge others according to largely unrealistic and entirely artificial expectations of physical perfection. But these expectations are not universally shared. They vary from culture to culture, from generation to generation, and from era to era. In one cross-societal study of “beauty,” for example, researchers found that a slim body was the feminine ideal in six societies while a plumper body was the ideal in thirteen societies.
Similarly, in 17th century American society women were expected to have full hips and bust, a tiny and corseted waist, and a pale white complexion.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.