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When Obsession With Beauty Becomes a Disease

In a new book, Northwestern University professor Renee Engeln argues that today’s “beauty sick” culture is distracting girls and women from more important goals.
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Models pose for photographers during the launch of a new lingerie line in central London on July 21st, 2011. (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Models pose for photographers during the launch of a new lingerie line in central London on July 21st, 2011. (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Feminists and researchers havelongargued that the beauty industry warps women’s perceptions of their own bodies, undermining them in their professional and personal lives. But in a new book released today, Renee Engeln, a professor of instruction in psychology and director of the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University, argues that our obsession with women’s looks amounts to a society-wide psychological illness.

In Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, Engeln calls this appearance-obsessed culture “beauty sick” — referring to “what happens when women’s emotional energy gets so bound up with what they see in the mirror that it becomes harder for them to see other aspects of their lives,” she writes.

The book indicts social and news media in helping to create beauty sickness by drawing on research and interviews with real-world girls and women. Engeln cites studies that show that women and girls who engage in social media report higher incidences of eating disorders, increased symptoms of depression, and more desire to have plastic surgery. In her own research, Engeln has found that 82 percent of college-aged women report comparing their body unfavorably to a model’s body, and 70 percent of young women say they believe they’d be treated better by others if they looked more like the beauty ideal they see in the media.

Recently, some celebrities — including Alicia Keys and Katie Holmes — have resisted aspects of the “beauty-sick” world by appearing in public and taking selfies without make-up. But, as Engeln shows, the anti-cosmetics movement is still a niche one: She highlights studies showing that the average woman owns 40 different cosmetic products and spends about 55 minutes getting ready each day, while more than half of men say they use no product getting ready in the morning. As a result, women sacrifice time and resources that Engeln says could otherwise be devoted to pursuing goals in education, a career, family, or hobbies.

Through her research, Engeln has found that, no matter how educated or confident a woman is, most still feel insecure within their own skin. We talked to the author about the “beauty sick epidemic” and asked for suggestions for a cultural makeover.

What’s a quick definition of “beauty sick”?

Beauty sickness is when you are so worried about how you look that it’s taking your time, your attention, and your emotional resources away from things that you would rather be spending those resources on.

The balance is different for every woman. I don’t think that if you think about how you look, that means you’re beauty sick. But I’ve heard a lot of women say: “This is keeping me from doing things I want to do”; “I’m spending my money in a way I’m not really comfortable spending my money”; “I’m angry about the fact that it costs me so much more to look presentable at work than it costs a man.”

What led you into the psychology of beauty?

I actually started out thinking I was going to be a clinical psychologist and I got more and more disenchanted with the discipline’s focus on “something’s wrong with you,” or “It’s in your head,” or “You’re broken,” or “We need to fix you.” My attention began turning more and more to our beauty sick world [when I began teaching]. I felt like I saw a lot of elements that were making my students sick, and, in particular, my women students — I remember overhearing a conversation about whose thighs were squishing out the most, and how you could sit one way, but put your legs up just a little so that your thighs wouldn’t squish out. I [erroneously] had this idea that if you got old enough, if you got enough education, if you got smart enough, you could opt out of some of this.

Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. (Photo: Harper)

Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. (Photo: Harper)

You talk about beauty sickness being one of the barriers to gender equality. Tell me about that.

We think about the focus on women’s beauty like [it ’s] a cultural artifact, a side show. But when women are spending more of their intellectual resources, more of their financial resources, more of their time, more of their emotional resources on something that men aren’t, you need to step back and say, “What’s going on?” There’s no way that doesn’t have an impact on our everyday lives and on our ability to do other things.

It is a barrier to gender equality if the newscaster, who’s a woman, has to spend an hour on hair and make-up and the man has to spend 10 minutes — who gets more time to prepare for their segment then? And it’s a barrier when women are afraid to write things or say things online because they know they’re going to get hit with “You’re ugly,” “You’re fat,” or, even worse, a rape threat. These are issues that I think we need to be taking more seriously, but because we associate beauty with vanity and superficiality, we think this isn’t something we should take seriously.

Does beauty sickness affect men too?

It does, absolutely. Men are not free of these concerns. But they live in a different world than women do. Looks matter for men, but anyone who tries to tell me it’s the same world for men and women, I just want to say, look at the plastic surgery statistics. When you have a dangerous medical procedure that people are opting into to change the way they look, and it’s 85 to 90 percent women, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that this is a problem that’s not impacting women differently.

You say in the book that it’s not really a choice to be beauty sick and someone can’t really just make a snap decision to not be beauty sick. What, then, can people do?

I think beauty sickness is a cultural problem. I don’t see beauty sickness as something that’s wrong with women — it’s a sick culture. That doesn’t mean we can’t shield ourselves a little by making small changes, and that’s one thing that we know from psychological literature, is that small changes can be helpful over time. And if we have enough people making small changes, they can start to shift the culture, shift the conversation.

How do we do that?

One of the easiest ways to start pushing back is to stop denigrating your own appearance. If you’re really seriously struggling with it, talk to a close friend, talk to a therapist, but don’t make it a public conversation, particularly if there are girls and young women around you. Every young woman that I talked to said: “That’s where I learned [to talk negatively about how I look]. I learned it from the adult women in my life.” When you start changing how you talk, it does change how you think. Why aren’t we having more conversations about women’s lives, about women’s intellectual achievements, about their well-being, about what they care about?

You can think about the content you’re generating on social media. Before you post something, ask why. What reaction are you trying provoke? I think if your answer in that honest, quiet moment is I’m posting this because I need people to tell me that I look good, or I’m posting this to show people that I’m sexy, I think you stop yourself and say, first, is it going to work? And, second, is that the social media world you want to live in? How do you feel when your friends post those bikini shots? Is that what you want to see from your friends? Is that the kind of post that you like?

We have a president who has made judgmental comments about women’s appearances. How do we combat those messages coming from above?

When we don’t like something about our culture, when there’s an argument we want to knock down, the way to do that is to hit the argument at its strongest point. If you can destroy it there, then you will succeed in your persuasion. It is the weakest way to have an argument to talk about how the person looks who’s delivering it. That’s what we do to women [and] it’s a sign of disrespect. It’s not limited to the right or left, but we’re seeing it all the time and I think we need to be really careful.

Are you hopeful for the future?

I am. When you have a big problem, it doesn’t change overnight, and, at the root of this, our focus on women’s beauty isn’t going to go away. Using the volume metaphor, we can turn this down. It’s blasting us. It’s bothering the neighbors. It’s too loud. So let’s file a noise complaint. Let’s turn it down.

I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t care about how they look. I think that is a normal part of being human. All I want is more honest accounting and more honest conversation about what this is doing in women’s lives. I’ve never spoken to a woman who didn’t think she needed more time. So here we’ve got this whole domain, it’s like a big pool of time. So why aren’t we asking for some of that back? And what would you want to do with it if you did take it back?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.