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Obsession with beauty, or how far will we go to reach the ideal.

Models, actresses, fitness trainers, beauty influencers and many other women we see in the media. What connects them? Image. Slim figure, long legs, athletic, shiny hair and healthy complexion. The media, culture and society somehow force us to become like other women. Women who are considered the ideal of beauty are perfectly fitted into the current canon, they create it. Most of us compare ourselves with them every day, looking at our reflection in the mirror and thus falling into more and more complexes. From an early age, we hear comments about our appearance, weight, the way we dress and be. For many of us, the external pressure is too strong. Obsession with beauty or beauty sick, because we are talking about it, can make us lose ourselves and our potential.

We deal with the obsession with beauty from an early age, throughout our lives. Think how often you heard the messages: “When you grow up, everyone will look at you.”, “You should dress nicer”, “Lose weight, you will feel better”, “Cover your imperfections with makeup” or “The butt is nice, but that nose …’.

Have you ever missed an important meeting just because you felt ugly? Starve yourself to look good in a bikini in the summer? Or maybe you wear turtlenecks and scarves around your neck because you can’t look at your sagging skin? You are no exception. You’re not stupid or vain either. These are signs of what Dr. Renne Engeln calls beauty sick.

beauty sick

How often do you think about your body? asks Dr. Renee Engeln, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, an Artemis high school student. – All day long. It sucks, but it happens all the time. For example, when I get changed, I think, “I should lose some weight.” Or when I’m hanging out with my friends, I dream of being thin like them. It makes me quit doing a lot of things.

“When I was younger, I was very stretchy, had long arms and legs, and used my body freely the way only children can. That was until I entered high school. It was then that I realized very strongly that I was not pretty and wanted to become completely invisible, says Erin, a 26-year-old student.

“If there weren’t so many photos of me online and if there weren’t so many opportunities to take more, I would feel completely different about it. One of the most important factors motivating me to care for a nice, stylized look is how I look in these photos” – admits 25-year-old Maria to the researcher.

What is beauty sick?

We can say that it’s a state where all your emotional energy is focused on controlling how you look.

“The obsession with beauty is fueled by a culture that focuses on women’s looks more than their words, actions and personalities. It is reinforced by the way women are portrayed and the language we use to describe ourselves and other women. People who praise girls and women only for their beauty contribute to it” writes Dr. Engeln in her book Beauty Sick.

Because, let’s be honest, how many of us strive for a slim figure for its own sake? For us isn’t it rather the case that we are taught from childhood that a certain appearance is a condition for achieving success in the personal and professional field? However, such a message is also a trap, because the power that comes from beauty is not based on solid foundations. First, it depends on the judgment of others. Secondly we can say, it is still strongly correlated with youth, and therefore unstable. As Dr. Engeln notes, we usually lose it after the age of 30 or 40, and it should be the other way around – women with age and experience should gain more and more power and recognition.

The objectification of women

In 1997, two researchers, Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts, created a THEORY OF OBJECTIFICATION, which boils down to treating another person not as a human being with thoughts, feelings, goals, or desires, but as a body or collection of body parts – existing for that purpose to please others. Most of us cannot avoid it. The objectification of women is any situation in which someone comments on our appearance – even if they say something that is seemingly positive: that we have lost weight or have great legs, not to mention such blatant examples as criticism of our weight. The objectification of women is, of course, also sexual harassment – both verbal and bodily – but it is also the election and rankings of the most beautiful female students, actresses and politicians.

Some of us are desperately trying to maintain some kind of balance in all this – that is, to look attractive enough to be accepted, but not so attractive as to attract the unwanted kind of attention. But is it even possible? Yes. Just as it is possible to do twine. And that’s not all. If we are knowing that our appearance is constantly being judged makes us hostage to other people’s opinions. That’s why being called ugly hurts us women the most in the world.

10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman – Hollaback



The consequence of objectification is also self-objectification, i.e. a situation in which knowing that you are constantly being evaluated, at some point you start to do it for others. You are in charge of supervising and monitoring your body yourself. Does my hair look good? Did I stain my blouse at lunch? Does my belly stick out too much in this dress? As Dr. Engeln explains, self-objectification is when you physically move away from the mirror, but it remains present in your mind.

Jennifer Lopez in Versace at the 42nd Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles, CA on February 23, 2000 Photo by Scott Gries/ImageDirect

“I’m going to sound like an old grump, but the first example of self-objectifying clothing that comes to mind is the famous green gown Jennifer Lopez wore to the 2000 Grammy Awards,” she writes.

It’s about the famous Versace design with a deep V-neckline that reaches the navel. “I wonder if Jennifer remembers anything from that night. Could she concentrate on anything other than making sure her breasts weren’t overexposed? What happened when she sat down? Is it possible to sit in such a dress at all? Did she have to suck in her belly? How distracted must she be by such an outfit?”

In pursuit of an ideal

All of Dr. Engeln’s interviewees pointed to a specific event that made them pay close attention to their appearance and feel that something was wrong with them. It could have been a comment from the school nurse about excess body fat. Or – very often – the painful words of the mother: “You are fat.” It could also be a comment from a friend about the fact that you already have very large breasts. We are taught to be ashamed of our bodies, especially the carcass. According to Dr. Engeln, today children aged three to five associate being overweight with negative characteristics

Added to this is the pressure of the media, especially social media. And the beauty ideal they promote is unrealistic and harmful. It’s not even that such beautiful women as we see on billboards or on Instagram do not exist at all, but that they are extremely rare. Some of them have such an appearance thanks to good genes, and some thanks to the titanic daily work and sacrifices that are the basis for earning for themselves, because they are models, influencers or fitness trainers. Above all, however, according to research conducted on this subject, exposure to idealized and thin images of female bodies leads to an increase in the level of dissatisfaction with one’s own body.

beauty sick

One of the most spectacular studies concerned girls living in Fiji. Anne Becker carried out this lecturer in 1990s at Harvard Medical School. In the early 1990s, there was no cultural norm in Fiji that encouraged women to lose weight and stay slim. On the contrary, during meals, family members used to encourage eaters by saying: “Eat and you will get fat.” However, when in 1995 access to television in the provinces became widespread, commercials and series like “Beverly Hills 90210” came to teenagers’ rooms. Three years later, the researcher returned to the island and to her base group. It turned out that as much as 11 percent. of the surveyed girls induced vomiting in order to lose weight (none had done it before) and as many as 74 percent. of them thought they were too thick.

We can say that today we already know that most of the photos we see on Instagram are passed through filtering programs and various overlays. And in glossy magazines there is retouching – larger or smaller. Nobody looks so perfect in real life. As it turns out, it’s not enough to know that this beauty is artificial to ignore it. It doesn’t change the fact that we still want to look like this.

One participant in the study conducted by Dr. Engeln summed it up this way: “This ad pisses me off. People shouldn’t be so thin! On the other hand, I know that I would like to be like that myself.” That’s why the expert advises: when you see such an advertisement, turn off the TV. Close the newspaper, look away from the billboard, unfollow the Instagram profile. It is not about critically examining overly retouched silhouettes, but about not looking at them at all.

Don’t tell me I’m beautiful

“I’m ugly”. “It’s not true, you’re beautiful just the way you are” – this (nomen omen) beautiful message doesn’t work either. As research shows, this is because our thinking continues to focus on appearance. The messages: “Love your body” or requests: “Name ten things you like about your appearance” also do not work, because – again – they focus attention on the body, but also remind us that it is actually difficult for us to say that we love it. Instead, we immediately pay attention to the things we hate about our appearance. Therefore, instead of thinking more positively about your appearance, it is better to think less about it.

beauty sick

It is also not true – and even less so any support in the fight against the pressure of beauty – that everyone is beautiful in their own way. It makes no sense to undermine something like the canons of beauty or say that in each culture something else is considered attractive. Yes, there are some differences, but there is such a thing as objective beauty in the case of the female body. For example, smooth, youthful skin. Shiny, healthy hair. Large eyes with bright whites and a clear gaze, symmetrical facial features and limbs. Hourglass silhouette.

“Our perception of beauty is partly based on its rarity. Beauty stands out because it is extraordinary. If we think everyone is beautiful, no one is. I’m not talking about the beauty of the soul or character – I see inner beauty in almost everyone. But physical beauty is governed by different laws,” writes Renee Engeln.

In her opinion, beauty will always be important to us, but it does not have to be as important as it is now. Evolution hasn’t blinded us to above-average beauty, but it hasn’t prepared us to deal with the amount of it we’re currently bombarded with.

Objectification of women – how to protect yourself from it?

Doctor Engeln has been dealing with women’s struggles with the ideals of beauty for 15 years. And she strongly believes that those who do not feel good in their bodies do not constitute a small subculture. That’s the vast majority of us. “We have created a culture that tells women that the most important thing is to be beautiful. We impose unattainable canons on them, and then, when they care about them, we accuse them of vanity or, worse, dismiss them with caring words: “Everyone is beautiful in their own way.” And we remind that they should accept themselves as they are,” she writes in the introduction to her book.

As a result, we think about our appearance all the time. So much so that we sometimes find it difficult to notice other aspects of life. This ailment affects not only a huge number of women, but also little girls. Research by Dr. Engeln shows that as many as a third of five-year-olds think about diet. One in three teenagers and one in five teenagers who use social media feel pressured to improve their appearance.

It is important to promote a body-neutral perspective that sees appearance as just one aspect of our identity. This new approach has already entered the mainstream and is even starting to displace the earlier – body positive.The body neutrality trend is about focusing less on what our body looks like and more on what we can do thanks to it: run, walk, climb, maybe even lift kilos, but also show love to ourselves, pursue your passions and rise after heavy falls – both literally and figuratively.

beauty sick

The ambassador of the new approach is, British actress and activist Jameela Jamil, (here instagram @jameelajamil)who once struggled with body dysmorphia (a disease that focuses on imperfections in the appearance of the skin, even though they are often not even visible). In one of the interviews she said:

I believe that you can just not think about your appearance. I also know that I can afford this luxury because I have never been criticized because of my body size. I just see that I manage to get so much more done during the day when I’m not thinking about how I present myself. And I can’t stand in front of the mirror and say, “I love my thighs! I love my cellulite. But I can just try not to think about them and focus instead on my bank account or orgasms. The only time I look in the mirror during the day is when I put on my eyeliner in the morning and when I wash it off in the evening.

The ideal of beauty is unattainable, so requiring us to feel shame or guilt for failing to achieve it is just plain stupid, says Renee Engeln. Stigmatizing and evaluating our bodies does not bring us any closer to this ideal. And even if we succeed in this difficult art – it does not guarantee us health or happiness. And in some situations, it even contributes to their loss.

Renee Engeln about beauty sickness TEDx

Please share this important topic with as many people as you can. Don’t be indifferent to what is going on around you.

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