Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 953–966 | Cite as

Through the looking glass: good looks and dignity in care

  • Jeannette Pols
Scientific Contribution


There are roughly two meanings attached to the concept of dignity: humanitas and dignitas. Humanitas refers to ethical and juridical notions of equality, autonomy and freedom. Much less understood is the meaning of dignitas, which this paper develops as peoples’ engagement with aesthetic values and genres, and hence with differences between people. Departing from a critical reading of Georgio Agamben’s notion of ‘bare life’, I will analyze a case where aesthetics are quite literally at stake: women who lost their hair due to cancer treatment. The analysis shows a complicated interplay between varying evaluations of female baldness by the self and others, mediated by (often strongly negative) cultural imaginaries, and aesthetic genres depicting conventional ways of ‘looking good’. The paper concludes by arguing for a reconnection of the two notions of dignity, and for a rehabilitation of aesthetics in daily life and care as fundamental values for organizing our societies.


Dignity Aesthetic in daily life Cancer Empirical philosphy 



I am most grateful to the women who taught me so much about their lives and the importance of ‘looking good’. Many thanks also to Dick Willems for pushing the idea of aesthetics in care and getting in money for this study. I am very grateful to Amade M’charek, Christine Ceci, Thomas Franssen, and Maartje Hoogsteijns for their critical comments on an earlier draft of this paper. This project has been made possible through a grant from ZonMW, palliative care, grant number 1151.0018.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Section of Medical Ethics, Department of General PracticeAMC/UvAAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2. Department of Sociology and AnthropologyUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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