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Inequality, Health and Beauty

Hanne Petersen
Graduate School, GS
School of Business, Economics and Law
University of Gothenburg

In their book The Spirit Level, the authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who are both British doctors, write that inequality leads to social erosion – also of welfare and well-being. They underline the paradox that we may live under conditions of both great wealth, great fear and personal and societal insecurity. An inequality scale may also be an indicator for psychological well-being or lack of such. "We have got close to the end of what economic growth can do for us" (W&P, 2009, p.5). An evidence of this is that the general life expectancy of the US has for a long period been similar to that of Cuba, which has a much lower GNP.

The consequences of inequality are declining mental health and drug use, obesity, lower educational performance, more teenage births, increasing violence, growing imprisonment and punishment and lack of social mobility. In sum dysfunctional societies. Depression and anxiety are closely connected; people who suffer from one often suffer from the other (W&P, p.35). Women's obesity rates turn out to be more closely related to inequality than men’s are (W&), p.17).

"We may… have become highly self-conscious, obsessed with how we appear to others, worried that we may come across as unattractive, boring, stupid or whatever, and constantly trying to manage the impressions we make… This vulnerability is part of the modern psychological condition and feeds directly into consumerism" (W&P, p.42 -43). The quality of social relations deteriorates in less equal societies (p.51). and "in several respects more unequal societies seem more masculine, at least in term of stereotypes... just as levels of trust and social relations are affected by inequality, so too is the status of women" (p.58).

'Depression epidemics' and 'beauty traps', seem especially to hit women, and 85% of all cosmetic surgery is performed on women (Nacea 2016). Beauty has been highly valued in all societies at all times – although what has been considered beautiful has varied. In a market society dominated by a neo-liberal economy, increasing inequality and commercialization of social relations and intimate life, beauty becomes commodified, and seemingly improved by cosmetic cuts. "Cosmetic" comes from the Greek word cosmos, meaning order, world order, the universe, the ordered world – in contrast to chaos. Are women trying to recreate (world) order through individual suffering and sacrifice, which may perhaps increase beauty – and may perhaps also threaten their health?

The Danish philospher, Dorthe Jørgensen, has dealt with beauty and aesthetic ideas on many occasions. She has written about beauty and of aesthetic experience as related to a tradition of transcendence. Aesthetics is according to her by nature a metaphysics of experience. Classical metaphysics emerged from ideas of the good and the beautiful. She is looking for aesthetic experience as an experience of coherence and meaning, which we are otherwise distant from – an experience of something, which is valuable in itself. According to her, we cannot have a utilitarian approach to everything.

Do we need to de-instrumentalise and de-commercialize health, beauty and justice?


Dorthe Jørgensen (2001) Skønhedens Metamorfose. De æstetiske idéers historie. Odense Universitetsforlag

Diana Nacea (2016) Shaping Bodies and Laws. A Comparative Study of Cosmetic Surgery Regulation in England, Denmark and Europe. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009), The Spirit Level. Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin Books

Sidansvarig: Kristina Hermansson |Sidan uppdaterades: 2017-05-19

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