Sugar Cookies, Dialogue, and the Ethics Behind Beauty

April 28th, 2015

April 28, 2015

Author: Sophia Warren, member of Ethics Center Leadership Council


With chairs structured in a circle, sugar cookies by the door, and a panel of three Brandeis students, Morgan Brill from The Photo Department of The Justice newspaper, Cassidy Tatun from Active Minds at Brandeis University, and Lauren Nadeau from Women, Inc., our discussion began. The goal was to connect an Ethical Inquiry, both an active opportunity and resource of the Ethics Center, to the Brandeis community. To some, we hoped to introduce the Ethics Center itself, the various resources, communities, classes, and opportunities it offers to Brandeis students and the outside community. To others, we aimed to introduce to the concept of an ethical inquiry, those who knew the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, but had not interacted with the Ethics Center through this opportunity.

For those who don’t know, an Ethical Inquiry is a written piece of research, analysis and exploration. An inquiry addresses an ethical challenge of our time, be it local, political, or global. It is designed to be nuanced, complex, and the result of critical thought, and genuine attention. Anyone within the Brandeis community can apply (undergrad and grad); alumni from any school and field may apply, as well. Individuals of completed and approved Inquires are provided with a paid honorarium.

As the Ethics Center Leadership Council, we had spent serious time combing through Ethical Inquiries, selecting topics, cultivating questions, and establishing a date, time, and advertising strategy, so much so that I honestly hadn’t processed how I might benefit from this event I had helped to design. I hadn’t realized the power of dialogue, present even in a space where I was to act as more of a facilitator than participant.


With this event, we found ourselves interested in engaging with elements of social justice in relationship to media and standards of beauty. We wanted to create a space for discussion of ethics in relationship to the standards and world stage media presents on. We were led to this by the Ethical Inquiry: ‘The Ethics of Digital Photo Manipulation: Alterations in Pursuit of ‘Beauty’, by recent Brandeis graduate Hailey Magee ’15. The piece balances juxtaposing the unrealistic pressures of womanhood, personhood, and the artistic and social norms of digital manipulation. We are left with the closing set of thoughts here: “Photoshop and similar software and applications for altering images have become cheaper, easier to use and more widely available. Techniques discussed in this inquiry were once limited largely to industry, government, and professionals. As the opportunities for digital photo manipulation grow, what do the practices of industry, in the pursuit of “beauty” have to teach us about our responsibility as individuals? Should mathematical formulas be used to determine “[h]ow much is too much” retouching of a photo?”

From the moment the event was called to order, where we began with an introduction of the Ethics Center, its various resources, and an overview of the Ethical Inquiry we had selected, we knew as an ECLC the complexity of the topic we were dealing with.

Throughout the discussion, various perspectives and patterns in thought emerged, contradicting importantly to gain some new perspective of this ethical dilemma. Some thought any photograph technically had the ability to manipulate and deceive, even unintentionally. The angle of a photograph can make a poorly attended basketball game appear full. Others applied the theory that we understand, and can even often spot today, alterations of individuals in our commercials. We don’t need laws or Dove beauty campaigns to tell us this. To that, others pointed out that the Ethical Inquiry itself stated: “A study conducted by University of Alabama professor Kimberly Bissell ‘compared college women’s visual literacy – defined in terms of their knowledge of digital manipulation in fashion and entertainment images – to their desire to be thin.’ Even if participants were aware that the subject of the photograph had been altered, their desires to look like the model did not diminish. Bissell used this data to further establish the relationship between the ‘thin ideal’ within the media and ‘disordered eating patterns in women.’”


The talk branched out into a couple valid, differing points. One was the influence of media standards of beauty on eating disorders and disordered eating, these two concepts maintaining important distinctions. Says the Inquiry: “Carrie Arnold, writing for Psychology Today, was generally pleased with the AMA press release, but disputed the AMA’s statement that media images contribute to eating disorders, contending instead that media images contribute to disordered eating. ‘It’s a common mistake, confusing disordered eating and eating disorders,’ she explains. Arnold cites Dr. Sarah Ravin, who explains, “disordered eating ‘comes from the outside,’ whereas eating disorders ‘come from the inside’…. Environment plays a huge role in the onset of disordered eating… In contrast, the development of an eating disorder is influenced very heavily by genetics, neurobiology, individual personality traits, and co-morbid disorders.”

Another key point was in asking which narrative of beauty is being projected, and ultimately commodified as the universality in definition of beauty. This was understood by some to be defined more broadly, the discussion of a European standard of beauty was importantly discussed. This standard is one found horribly destructive to many individuals worldwide, with notions of colonialism and patriarchy oppressing and marginalizing races and ethnicities across national lines. I believe these two branches of conversation are vital to the narrative of digital alteration. When we are altering, we are altering in the pursuit of certain ideals and normalities of thought and action. What we are creating is a unified story marginalizing nuance and perpetrating the idea of one “normal”. While photo editing has the potential to be technically impressive and certainly a work-of-art to create (I am an editing photographer myself), we must be honest about what these alterations, angles, lighting, and shadow are creating and attempting to create. To create change, we must understand the ethics of letting industry and markets and media tell us what is beautiful.

This talk opened my eyes as to how time, space, and evolving perspective enhances and transforms Ethical Inquiries to a strong reference, a helpful guide, a passionate plea in an evolving world. I thank the Ethics Center for creating this space and opportunity to write these Ethical Inquiries and to have this dialogue. I thank the author of this piece, Hailey Magee. I thank my fellow ECLC members. I thank finally those who came, who interacted with one another in this space so respectfully and so openly.


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