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.


What to know more about Ethical Inquiries?

Check out Ethical Inquires here:

Email, or call 781-736-2115

Want to know more about the services the Ethics Center provides?

Check us out here:

Social Justice & Social Networking

February 7th, 2014

Students, alum and faculty braved the snow Wednesday evening and gathered with anticipation to hear ‘DEIS Impact keynote address, “Africa Rising: The Mandela Legacy & the Next Generation of African Leadership.” Continuing the legacy of their grandfather, Kweku Mandela-Amuah and Ndaba Mandela spoke of Africa Rising, which seeks to publicize the positive image of Africa. Kweku and Ndaba spoke of youth empowerment, the contagious potential of ideas, and inherent risk in truly striving for social justice.


Prof. Chad Williams, Chair of the Afro and African American Studies Department, moderates a Q&A with 'DEIS Impact keynote speakers Ndaba Mandela and Kweku Mandela-Amuah.

Prof. Chad Williams, Chair of the Afro and African American Studies Department, moderates a Q&A with ‘DEIS Impact keynote speakers Ndaba Mandela and Kweku Mandela-Amuah.


Praising Brandeis student body’s unique commitment to social justice, Kweku stressed that it is our inevitable failure in the struggle for social justice that makes it such a unique and meaningful burden to undertake. He emphasized that despite the inherently elusive goal of a just society ‘DEIS Impact is the essential embodiment of intent that drives our ideas forward. In this way, ‘DEIS Impact is, “the best of who we are and are inspired to be.” Kweku concluded by reiterating that true change requires risk, fearlessness, and action.

Ndaba Mandela balanced the crushing challenges Africa faces with the enormous natural strengths it possesses as a continent. In Ndaba’s view, the diversity of Africa’s fifty-four nations does not detract from its ability and necessity to unite. The African Dream must rise above and over power the global perspective of an Africa teeming with war, dictators, and poverty. Ndaba called for Brandeis to mobilize against injustice locally by holding our own Mandela Day to celebrate public service. Ndaba left us with the words of his grandfather, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Following the Mandela’s words of inspiration I went home and logged on to for a taste of social justice networking. I was intrigued by the unexpected combination of Brandeisians’ two favorite pastimes – Facebook and social activism. The Mandela Project seeks to be a sounding board of inspiration where global citizens share their hopes for Africa and the world. The site immediately offered to transfer my Facebook information into their platform where I then received an automated welcome message from Ndaba Mandela himself. A Facebook-meets-Tumblr coated in Nelson Mandela’s face it’s certainly a unique take on honoring Mandela’s legacy. However, this marriage of the Internet and political activism seems a natural following the integral role of social media in the Arab Spring. While I don’t anticipate transferring my communications to Mandela Project I do believe it represents an inevitable shift towards online political organizing. As Ndaba and Kweku continue to experiment at the vanguard of youth organizing I can only hope they find a way to transfer the time and mental energy poured into social media towards collective action for a better world.

‘DEIS Impact continues at Brandeis through Monday February 10. The full schedule is here, the Facebook page is here, and videos are here.

– Mia Katan ‘15

Getting To Know The Ethics Center

January 24th, 2014

What is the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life? Can you give a clear, comprehensive explanation about what the Ethics Center is? Prior to accepting a position on the Ethics Center Leadership Council last June, I sure couldn’t.


It’s easy to become involved with the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.  The Center is incredibly multifaceted in its programming and offers plentiful leadership opportunities for both students and professionals alike. On the other hand, however, it’s also really easy to involve one’s self with a specific program and forget to take advantage of the other areas the Center has to offer.


The Ethics Center is such a multifaceted organization that coming up with one, comprehensive explanation about the inner workings of the Center is really difficult.  The official mission of the Ethics Center is “to develop effective responses to conflict and injustice by offering innovative approaches to coexistence, strengthening the work of international courts, and encouraging ethical practice in civic and professional life.”


You can read all about the six guiding principles of the center, “an international focus,” “the public square,” “across the disciplines,” “a bridge between scholarship and practice,” “the perspective of the arts,” and “connections to communities” right here.


As a Politics major, the international justice programming acted as a catalyst that inspired me to become involved with the Ethics Center.  When I came to Brandeis as a midyear freshman last winter, I was immediately drawn to ‘DEIS Impact.  Judy and Eliza Dushku, who founded THRIVE Gulu—an nonprofit organization based in Gulu, Uganda that aids Ugandans in healing from various traumas by enhancing their self-sufficiency and self-esteem—gave the Keynote Address. Hearing their inspirational stories ignited a fire that ultimately led me to apply for the ECLC.


After learning more about the Ethics Center as an ECLC member, I became intrigued by Peacebuilding and the Arts and Campus Programming. As a Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies minor, promoting peace by means of creating art was really inspirational to learn about. And regarding campus programs, who doesn’t want a $4000 grant to carry out humanitarian work anywhere in the world?!


For me, the most rewarding part about being involved in the Ethics Center is having access to an incredible network of motivated students and faculty who are all working to promote justice and better the world. Whether it’s learning about student initiatives to promote peace by creating art, reading the work of international judges discussing contemporary issues in international justice, or speaking with Sorensen Fellows who just came back from a summer-long fully funded internship abroad, I am constantly in awe of the resources and programming offered through the Ethics Center.


Starting this February 1, the Ethics Center is sponsoring ‘DEIS Impact 2014, a weeklong festival of social justice. Rumor has it, Nelson Mandela’s grandsons will be speaking at the keynote address! Be sure to check out the schedule of events for a complete breakdown of the entire festival!


If you’d like to become involved in the Ethics Center, please check out our upcoming events. We’d love to see you there!


-Talia Lepson, ’16

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