Take a look in the mirror. Are you beauty sick?

May 20, 2018

In a society where celebrities’ weights make the covers of tabloids and every health magazine sells a new way to look beautiful, one author is working to turn that focus inward.

Renee Engeln is a professor in the department of psychology at Northwestern University and author of “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.” She spoke with us on “Take Care” to discuss why women are especially affected by society’s focus on physical beauty.

Recent body positivity movements have focused on looking inward and judging others based on their personalities, individuality, and mental beauty -- but Engeln said this might be a pipe dream considering the realities of the culture we live in.

Credit Harper Collins Publishing

“We want to think that we move around in the world and evaluate people based on our values, based on their character, but what we know is that there are a lot of cultural forces that are pushing us in a different direction,” Engeln said.

Although there are many men who struggle with issues like body image, Engeln said men and women live in very different social worlds when it comes to a focus on appearance.

The emphasis on beauty starts at a young age for girls -- sometimes as young as five -- which Engeln said is the start to a mindset that women rarely abandon.

“Little girls learn at a very young age that people are focused on how they look and that they’ll get rewarded in this culture for being pretty,” Engeln said.

This obsession with appearance led Engeln to begin using the term “beauty sick.” She saw women putting all of their energy into their appearance, so much so that it took away from other things they could be enjoying in their lives. Striving to be beautiful was becoming a drain on their resources.

"We don't take care of things we hate, so if a lot of your energy is going into hating your body, it makes it really hard to treat it kindly, to keep its health in mind."

A constant focus on appearance can create obsessive behaviors like eating disorders. Beyond that, Engeln said what is just as destructive is the common belief that people should feel at least a little ashamed of their body because it will help them maintain a healthy weight.

“Shame is not doing you any favors,” Engeln said. “We don’t take care of things we hate, so if a lot of your energy is going into hating your body, it makes it really hard to treat it kindly, to keep its health in mind.”

To prevent this “beauty sickness,” Engeln recommended talking a multitude of approaches, including on the individual level.

"You don't have to be beautiful; you shouldn't have to be beautiful. What matters much more to me is what you do and what you say."

First, she said people need to change how they talk to and about women, complimenting them about their interests and hobbies instead of the way they look. Second, that method has to be turned inward.

“We can also work to stop the way we talk about our own appearance and the body shaming we often do on ourselves,” Engeln said. “That really causes body shame to spread, and the more we talk about how women look, the more we’re sending the message that that’s what matters.”

It is common for women to dislike a particular body part, especially areas like their thighs or arms, and Engeln said there are times where those women are shamed for being ashamed. Neither attitude is effective, she said.

“I like to recommend reframing your focus on your body in terms of what your body does for you,” Engeln said. “Our bodies are for doing…It can be really helpful to remember that. It can help you build gratitude for what your body does for you every day.”

Renee Engeln, author, psychology professor and body image researcher, speaking at TEDxUConn in 2013 on beauty sickness.
Credit TEDxUConn Team / Flickr

It is nearly impossible to turn off the evolutionary instinct to be sensitive to people’s appearances, Engeln said, but it is possible to combat that instinct on some level.

“We can make a lot of changes in our environment and in how we act and behave that can help create a world where it’s not as focused on beauty,” Engeln said.

Engeln said that the right approach is not to take on the mindset that everyone is beautiful in their own way, but rather to place emphasis on people's actions and inner strengths.

“Some of this really well-meaning focus on 'everyone is beautiful' is just making us think more about how people look,” Engeln said. “You don’t have to be beautiful; you shouldn’t have to be beautiful…What matters much more to me is what you do and what you say.”