So Un-fair: The Ethical Issues surrounding our Obsession with Image

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

For all the reasons employers hear from their staff for wanting a day off, weight usually isn't one of them. However, there are people who are permanently off work because they are allegedly too fat to do just that. Almost 2000 people in the UK are claiming incapacity benefit on grounds that they are too fat to work. Some people who suffer with acne also use this as a basis not to work and thereby claim incapacity benefit. Of course, there are people with various problems, perhaps even some of those who are overweight or have acne as well, who are genuinely unable to work. Equally, there are people who will be abusing the system and claiming ill health when they are in fact capable of working. The Government is addressing these issues by introducing new methods of assessment. However, it is the group in-between, i.e., those who are neither genuinely ill, nor those who are taking advantage of the system, that requires closer examination. This in-between group consists of those who are able to work but believes that they cannot. It is important to ask, therefore, why some people believe that they are incapable of working when, in fact, they are able to work.

We live in a society that is obsessed with image. This week's health news also covers a story about skin bleach and how it makes one's skin fairer but contains carcinogenic and other harmful chemicals. Some of the creams being sold to make one fairer are in fact illegal because they are steroid creams and legally ought to be available only on prescription. That these products ought to be withdrawn on grounds of safety is indisputable but the interesting question is why some people want to use products that make them fairer. The South Asian, African and Caribbean communities provide a market for these products. But people who try to make themselves fairer are not alone in wanting to alter their skin colour. We live in an age of the "fake tan" where numerous people who consider themselves too pale or pasty like to add a bit of "colour" to themselves. It seems that no matter what colour we are, many of us are less than satisfied with the way we look.

If we aren't trying to alter our colour, we are constantly thinking about something else that is wrong with us. If we aren't too fair or too dark, we are too fat or too thin, or too short or too tall. If we like our hair, we don't like our skin; if we like our skin, our tummies or our legs are a problem. The list goes on. It is no wonder then that there are people who genuinely believe that they are too fat to work or that their acne is so severe that they are unable to face what they perceive as the humiliation of the workplace. All of us are victims of the perfection culture we live in; unfortunately, for some people, the impact is much greater.

So is there an image of perfection towards which we are striving and, if so, will we ever get there? That our images of perfection are subjective is clear from our choice of bleach and tans but what is also clear is that our images of perfection are so unreal that we are hardly likely to attain them. If we view models and film stars as having perfect bodies, we should also ask ourselves whether they are satisfied with the way they look. If they were, they would not invest the amounts they do in tummy tucks and Botox. Neither would they have their images airbrushed. If we hold these people and the images they portray as goals towards which to strive, we are in fact chasing a goal that does not exist.

This obsession with image may be superficial but it can lead to deep-rooted psychological and physical problems. A number of young women and some men suffer from anorexia, for example. Images in the media fuel our ideas of perfection and encourage us to strive for goals that are not only unattainable but also unreal. The claim that one is too fat to work may seem like a convenient way to make a few pounds without doing much but for those who genuinely have a fear of the workplace, their problems run much deeper than mere laziness. They may be depressed, suffer from low self-esteem or from mental health problems, and ought to be offered the moral support they need to start working.

The impact of the media on our images of ourselves, particularly with regard to the younger members of society, has often been discussed. That many people are lazy and happy to make implausible excuses to avoid work is also well known. However, it is important to link the issue of incapacity benefit with one that, at a first glance, is far removed from the image-obsessed society we live in, to understand that when people avoid work there may be genuine reasons why they believe that they are unable to work. We ought to be worried not only because there are so many people who do not work but also because there are many who can work but believe that they cannot.

Part of the problem with the society in which we live is that we have lost our sense of the natural process of life. We want anti-ageing creams to help us look young even though the natural progression of life is such that as we grow older, we are meant to look older. We try to alter our colour to look darker or fairer even though we live in a world that is meant to have people of different races. We spend our lives trying to perfect our looks without realising that such an obsession with image is detrimental to our minds.

So far we have seen that the media and the fashion industry promote an obsession with image that, for the most part, is confined to what we wear and how we look. This link is innocuous if it merely gives us a taste for what looks good. But it does so much more than that. In addition to the problems with anorexia that are now widely established as being connected to the media and fashion industry, there are also other subtle but no less severe problems we have seen this week. There may not be an obvious or direct connection between the people who claim incapacity benefit but on a closer examination it becomes clear that this obsession with perfection lies at the heart of this problem as well. For as long as society merely guides us through the media about our fashion sense and dress tips, we have nothing to worry about. But when people have their lives and their work interfered with because they believe that they don't look good enough to work, we have a problem that is far from innocuous. We are faced with a situation where the impact of image extends far beyond what we wear. Image governs our work and our lives and, in many cases, interferes with it and destroys our very being.