doll with make-up lying on grass

I don’t often buy books without consulting online reviews or a friend. When I do, it feels like I have a delicious secret.

Having confronted no direct evidence that another human had encountered the book Perfect Me by Heather Widdows, I felt like a voyager alone, making a profound discovery that I hoped to one day share with the folks back home.

My feeling of secrecy was compounded by the fact that the book’s introduction launches into a discussion of philosophical concepts that don’t usually arise in ordinary conversation. And so, like an intrepid explorer, both exhilarated by and afraid of marching into an exotic place, I read this passage:

“It is important to remember that one thing worse than locating the self in the body is locating the self in the mind and neglecting embodiment . . . (the ghost in the machine). . . . As embodied beings, appearance—beauty—should matter, but it should not be all that matters or what matters most.”

Thus Widdows begins her book by reminding her readers (or, for all I knew, just me?) about Descartes’ philosophy declaring a dualism of mind and body. Today, this idea is often referenced through the term the ghost in the machine. Is the ghost (a.k.a. the mind or consciousness) a separate phenomenon from the machine (a.k.a. the body and brain)?

Sidestepping that debate, Widdows reminds us (or only me?) that, just as it’s not a great idea to live in your head and ignore your body and everything else in the world, it’s also not a great idea to focus solely on your body and what others think of it, to the exclusion of your intellect, emotional strength, values, and so on. She fears that, in the age of the Internet, appearances matter too much: that the primacy of machinelike attributes is making ghostlike attributes increasingly irrelevant.

Widdows declares, sensibly enough, that we should strike a balance when it comes to beauty. A machine without any hint of a ghost is like a doll. She may be beautiful . . . but she’s lifeless.