You Might Know Our Beauty Standards Are Unrealistic, But You Might Be Affected Anyway. Here's Why.

Dr. Engeln says the way many women perceive themselves is not a failure of having information or being able to process it. In other words, plenty of smart, rational women know that the images they see aren't realistic, but it still affects them negatively. And before we start talking about how men deal with it too, please listen to her facts beginning at 3:50. She explains what beauty sickness is and why it happens beginning at 7:03. Stick around for the last three minutes to see what you can do.

"Wanting to be beautiful is not the problem. The problem is when it's all our young girls and women want to be."

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Renee Engeln: So, today's theme is the future. So, I'm going to talk about a growing epidemic and what we might do to stop it but first, I'm going to start in the past. About 15 years ago, I was an eager, young, graduate student and I spent a lot of time teaching. I really liked my students, I got to know them very well, and the more I listened to my female students, the more I picked up on something troubling.

These bright, talented, young women were spending alarming amounts of time thinking about, talking about, trying to modify their physical appearance. They wanted so much to feel beautiful. Now, our perceptions of beauty are complicated. They have deep evolutionary roots. From a scientific perspective, beauty is not just desirable, but also rare. So, what struck me was not that these women wanted to feel beautiful, or that they didn't all feel beautiful all the time, instead, what struck me was that the quest for beauty seemed, at least at times, to overrule, to overwhelm every other goal or interest they had.

These were young women just embarking on their adult lives and they were worried. They worried that they were too fat. They worried that their skin wasn't clear. They worried that they were already, at the tender age of 20, getting wrinkles. They worried that they didn't look like a "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit model or a Victoria's Secret angel. They worried that they had cellulite. They worried that they weren't a size 00, and I was worried about them.

So, I went to my grad school adviser and I said, "I got an idea, this is what I'm going to study. This is going to be my thing, and in particular I'm going to consider how images like this might be affecting women." And she said, "Don't bother. You don't need to look at that." She said, "Because really, smart women, they know better. They know better than to be affected by things like media images." And I said, "Well, that's an empirical question."

So, based on the research I've conducted since then, I have to say she was kind of right. In some ways, women do know better. This is an advertisement I used in one of my studies. I'm going to show you some responses from research participants. So, women know that the images of women they see in the media are often unusually thin, possibly even eating disordered. They know that the women they see in these images aren't representative of the general population of women. They understand that they're statistical outliers and on top of that, women are very aware that in the real world nobody, nobody actually looks like this.

So, that's the good news, women do know better. They know about eating disorders, they know about Photoshop, that's great. Here's the bad news, it doesn't help. It doesn't seem to matter. Knowing better isn't enough. The same woman who said this, for example, "This body type is unrealistically skinny, and her ribs are showing," and you're like, "Yeah, right on." She followed it up with, "I'm not as skinny. Should I go to drastic weight-loss programs and tan, risking my health? I feel like I want to be like that, I wish I was a model. Maybe after seeing this picture, I won't want to eat."

That's not what you want to hear as a researcher using this picture, I have to tell you, but we move on. This is not a failure of information processing. It's not a failure of intelligence and it is definitely not a failure to know better. This is beauty sickness and that's what I'm going to talk about today.

Now, do only women get beauty sickness? No, it can afflict men too, but women are much more likely to hate their bodies. Women spend more money on beauty, they spend more time on beauty. They're at 10 times greater risk for anorexia and bulimia. Women are more likely to get commentary about their physical appearance from friends, from romantic partners, from sometimes complete strangers. There were a little over 1.5 million cosmetic surgeries in the US in 2012. Almost 90% of those went to women. So, today I am going to talk about women.

What are these symptoms of beauty sickness? I see beauty sickness when women who are full-time college students, not professional models, tell me they know exactly what to do when someone pulls a camera out. The women where I teach have shorthand for it. I'm going to demonstrate it. It's side, out, down, tilt, skinny arm and you get, apparently, extra points for this. I don't know if you got that.

Here's one of my students who was kind enough to let me put this picture in the slideshow. Here are two others who are demonstrating the pose as a joke at their senior formal. That's how ubiquitous it is. Now, what's wrong with wanting to pose in a flattering way when your picture is taken? Nothing, but, it's worth asking, how did we get to a point where so much of women's time and energy is being taken up by concerns that used to belong only to professional models and actresses? And more importantly, what happens to women when their energy is so intensely focused on their own appearance?

So, physical beauty comprises a number of characteristics, but for women there is one that swamps all others in terms of importance. Do you know what it is? Yeah, it's weight, body size. There's a statistic that's often bandied about in conversations about women's obsession with body size, but actually comes from a survey in "Esquire" magazine in 1994 but it gets a lot of attention, because, apparently, 54% of women said they would rather be hit by a truck than be fat. I'd like to first knowledge that "Esquire" is not where we turn for careful scientific research but I'm fascinated by reactions to this statistic.

I brought it up in class once. I said, "Class, 54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat." And I expected to see outrage but instead of seeing horror on the looks of my female students' faces, I heard a series of questions. I heard, "How big is the truck?" "What kind of truck?" "How fast is it going?" and, "Just how much, exactly, would it hurt?" And it kind of makes sense. I think probably getting hit by a truck hurts but there's something else that hurts too, and that's living in a culture where you are bombarded with these three messages, over and over, and over again:

Message 1: Beautiful is the most important, most powerful thing a girl or woman can be. Message 2: This is what beauty looks like, and Message 3, which is sometimes implicit, it's sometimes just an inference: You don't look like this.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that in laboratory studies, when we expose women to images like this, even for just a few minutes, it increases depression and shame, it reduces self-esteem, it lowers body satisfaction. This is beauty sickness. Our sense of what's real, what's possible when it comes to beauty, is warped by our overexposure to these images. Instead of seeing them for what they are, which is extraordinarily rare, we start to see this as typical or average. So, you can look around the world and you can see that men and women are getting fatter, but the body ideal for women is getting thinner and thinner, so that the distance between what a woman is and what she longs to be gets bigger and bigger. It's not a small gap, it's a gaping chasm. If you look in that chasm, you're going to see beauty sickness.

Now, when evolutionary psychologists look at images like this, they make the argument that this kind of beauty is like sugar. In our modern times, we're getting too much of it, in too high-up doses. Our brains don't quite know what to do with this. It's not good for us. It gives us the message that this is typical, even though it's not. So, it warps our sense of what's real, it's making us sick.

What other signs do I see in our culture of beauty sickness? If we look at popular online news sources, we'll pick on "The Huffington Post" today, they cover things like crime and politics and world news and education, and, then, as you probably know, they also cover really important things, like what famous women look like, what they're wearing, whether they've gained weight, how they've lost weight. These are all from the same day on "The Huffington Post." Two of them were on the front page, when I took the screenshot.

Beauty sickness is what happens when women spend so much time worrying, not about their education, their career goals, their family or their relationships, not about the state of the economy, the state of the environment, the state of the world, because they're too busy worrying about their weight-loss goals, their skin care regimen, the state of their arms, the state of their abs, the state of their thighs.

How did we get to this place? According to a set of ideas called objectification theory, here's how it works. Women live in a world where they're taught that their primary form of currency is their appearance and you can't escape it. You walk down the street and people comment on your appearance, advertisers tell you how to be more beautiful, television programs, even news programs, ridicule women who fail to meet traditional beauty standards. Your appearance is so chronically observed by other people that, over time, you internalize that perspective, so you become an observer of yourself.

Instead of moving around, looking out at the world, you spend all of that time imagining how you look to the world. Is my hair okay? Is my forehead shiny? Am I standing up straight? Am I sucking in my stomach? Am I smiling the right kind of smile? Do these jeans make me look fat? Do I have muffin top? Do I have skinny arm? Do I look okay? You've internalized this notion that your body is always, always on display for other people, always up for evaluation, so you better keep an eye on it too.

Now, psychologists have long told us that we have finite cognitive resources. So, just as, despite my students protestations, I hold that you cannot be on Facebook and text and pay attention in class at the same time. You also cannot chronically monitor your body's appearance and be engaged with the world. So, that's the worst outcome of beauty sickness. When you are beauty sick, you cannot engage with the world, because between you and the world is a mirror and it's a mirror that travels with you everywhere, you can't seem to put it down. It's beauty sickness that makes women self-objectify, that makes our young girls want to grow up to be sexy things.

I spoke on a panel last fall about media images, and I got a question from a young woman in the audience. And she said, "Isn't this power? If women can get things, valuable things from this culture by being beautiful, shouldn't we embrace that as a form of power that's uniquely available to women?" And I get it, I really do, I get what she's saying but what kind of power, at least what kind of real power, is so ephemeral? What kind of power expires when you're thirty, or maybe forty, if you are lucky or a celebrity? What kind of power is inversely correlated with the attainment of wisdom and life experience?

I want to reiterate here that there is nothing wrong with beauty. Our brains are so sensitive to beauty. We know it when we see it, we process it in milliseconds. This desire to be beautiful, the desire to be desired, it is not something you can completely shut off in the brain. Wanting to be beautiful is not the problem, the problem is when it's all our young girls and women want to be. I would like young girls and women to be like this, I'd like them to be so much more than hot.

So, how can we turn the tide against beauty sickness? Here are just a few ideas. So, first: invest less in beauty. Instead, invest in things that last, into things you don't have to fight to keep in middle and older age. If television shows like this leave you thinking more about your appearance instead of less, stop watching them. If there are magazines that leave you obsessed with a body ideal that most women can never realistically achieve, stop reading them.

Try not to think of your body as a collection of parts for other people to look at. Think of your body as unified, as whole, as your tool for exploring the world. Stop worrying maybe about the size of your thighs, and think about the strength of your thighs, because those legs, after all, are the legs that walk you around in the world and stop talking about your upper arms as though they are "diseased." Those are the arms that reach out and bring the things you love close to you.

As this anti-anorexia ad says, don't let people make you into a sketch, you can be more than this or this because your body is not for looking at, it's for doing things. Another thing you might consider is, just as some people like to limit their children's screen time these days, maybe limit your mirror time. And since today's talk is about the future, here's a direct way you can impact the future with respect to beauty sickness. You can stop telling little girls they're pretty. It sounds counter intuitive, right? Don't tell them they're ugly! Don't do that either but every time you feel compelled to comment on a little girl's appearance, consider complimenting one of her other many lovely qualities instead.

Do you need help? Here are some ideas. Consider noticing when she is smart or hard-working or generous or persistent or kind or brave, and, when you do that, you undermine the system that teaches girls their best bet for social status is the pursuit of beauty. Try to raise daughters who see their appearance as a minor side note to their character and their hard work. You can change this conversation.

We are never going to live in a world where beauty doesn't matter. Our brains weren't made that way but we can live in a world where beauty matters less and these types of characteristics matter more. And, in fact, small changes in the way we think, and the way we talk, and the way we interact with each other, could pave the way for a truly more beautiful future. Thank you.

There may be small errors in this transcript.
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Dr. Renee Engeln gave this talk at TEDxUConn.

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