The United States often promotes beauty standards that women may feel pressured to conform to. Through various media outlets, women are bombarded with advertisements that promise all of their problems will disappear if they use a product that makes them look young, thin, and beautiful.
To fit this ideal form of beauty, women may feel pressured to permanently change aspects of their appearance through plastic surgery. Yet, women are often judged for having these procedures done. Bonell et al. (2021) described this as creating a “cosmetic surgery paradox,” which means women are often met with an expectation to achieve a certain look, yet are criticized if they do so in a way that is considered “unnatural” (p.236). For women, this situation may cause them distress as they feel it is a lose-lose situation.
So, what now?
Renee Engeln the author of “Beauty Sick” described beauty sickness as “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” (2018, p.7). For instance, a woman may be so focused on her appearance at a party that she forgets to enjoy herself! Engeln had several recommendations for ways women can combat beauty sickness, which included the following:
- Stop the “Negative Body Talk.” It is not uncommon for women to frequently talk about what they dislike about their appearance. However, engaging in this kind of talk around others not only hurts you, it hurts the people around you.
- Remind yourself of what your body DOES for you, rather than what it looks like; your body allows you to experience the world around you in beautiful ways.
- Use exercise as a way to focus on how movement feels rather than as a way to control your body size.
- Unfortunately, media literacy, which is having an understanding that not everything portrayed in the media is true, is not necessarily enough to combat beauty sickness. A research study conducted by Engeln showed that even when women understood a photo was photoshopped, they still wanted to change their appearance so that they could achieve the same look as the photoshopped image. Engeln recommended that people “walk away” from forms of media that are causing them to feel pressured to conform to a certain beauty ideal. This can entail unfollowing people, turning magazines around so that you (and others) do not have to see advertisements, and switching off the television (p.210).
Therapy can assist women in feeling empowered to make choices based off of what brings them joy rather than out of fear. A form of therapy that can be helpful in understanding the cultural context and its influence on a woman's relationship to her appearance is feminist therapy. Feminism promotes the notion that all people should be created equal, including women.
A therapist that utilizes a feminist approach within their therapy may help accomplish some of the following with a client:
- The therapist will talk about the power dynamics between the therapist and client so that the effect of these dynamics can be minimized and a collaborative relationship can develop.
- The therapist will discuss with the client how the larger societal context can impact a person’s mental health (such as experiences of discrimination and objectification).
- The therapist will assist the client in feeling a sense of empowerment within their lives.
- The therapist will assist the client in practicing assertiveness skills so that they can advocate for themselves and their needs.
Bonell, S., Barlow, F. K., & Griffiths, S. (2021). The cosmetic surgery paradox: Toward a contemporary understanding of cosmetic surgery popularisation and attitudes. Body Image, 38, 230–240. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2021.04.010
Engeln, R. (2018). Beauty sick : how the cultural obsession with appearance hurts girls and women. Harper.