Renee Engeln, a psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University, discusses on An Epidemic of Beauty Sickness at TEDxUConn 2013. Here follows the full transcript of the TEDx Talk.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: An epidemic of beauty sickness by Renee Engeln at TEDxUConn 2013
So, today’s theme is the future. 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’s struck me was not that these women wanted to feel beautiful, or that they didn’t all feel beautiful all the time. Instead, what’s struck me was that their 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, right, 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, “Mm, na, 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 use in one of my studies, and 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 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 kind of 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 here as a researcher, using this picture, I have to tell you, but we moved 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 are 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 arms. And you get, apparently, extra points for this. I don’t know if you got that.
Here’s one of my students who’s 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, right, it’s 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 gain: Message one: Beautiful is the most important, most powerful thing a girl or woman can be. Message two: This is what beauty looks like, and, Message three, 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.