body talk · feminism · musings

HAVE WE GOT BODY POSITIVITY ALL WRONG?

That’s the question I asked myself when I finished reading Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln. She’s a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and a revolutionary when it comes to body image. (She also blogs on Psychology Today if you want to read some of her work without reading a whole book.)

When I finished reading Beauty Sick, I was inspired and moved by its message. I highly recommend the book, but Engeln’s TEDx talk, which I’ve posted below, is well worth a watch and presents the book’s message in a very digestible way. Essentially, she argues that women are in the grips of an epidemic of beauty sickness, a sickness which leads us to believe that being beautiful is a woman’s most powerful form of currency.

Add to this belief an onslaught of unrealistic, digitally-altered images, and you have a recipe for self-objectification, which sees women internalising the experience of being “chronically observed” and thus spending more time worrying about their appearance than the things which actually contribute towards a rich and meaningful life. Unsurprisingly, low self-esteem is the logical result of this kind of cultural environment, since beauty sickness keeps us in the vicious cycle of never being good enough.

Her suggestion is to consciously change the way we relate to the concept of beauty by investing time and energy in the things we value, turning away from the images, relating to our bodies as a tool for exploring the world, limiting ‘mirror time’ and changing the conversations we have with the young women in our lives.

Of course, this is not the first time efforts have been made to counteract this toxic culture, but it seems to me that many efforts to date have largely focussed on what we might call the ‘Dove approach’.

You may be familiar with this video:

When I first saw the Dove video many years ago, I thought it was touching. Now that I’m on the beauty sickness bandwagon, though, I’m starting to believe that this approach to body positivity is counterproductive.

After becoming acquainted with Renee Engeln’s refreshing take on our relationship with our bodies, I’m inclined to think that body positivity shouldn’t force us to choose between the ‘beautiful’ door and the ‘average’ door. This dichotomy necessitates a self-judgement and, at the end of the day, is just as obsessed with beauty as beauty sickness itself. (I guess Dove cottoned on to the fact that the beautiful/average ‘choice’ is a great way to market its products to emotionally vulnerable, beauty sick women.)

I love the idea of feeling comfortable in my own skin – and it’s definitely something I’m consciously trying to cultivate in my life – but what if the solution to feeling better about ourselves is not feeling beautiful (or as Dove might put it, choosing beautiful) but simply caring less?

What do you think?

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12 thoughts on “HAVE WE GOT BODY POSITIVITY ALL WRONG?

  1. I totally agree, and I have had a long time dislike of Dove ‘woman empowerment’ brand strategy. I recently read an article that some of the top Instagram influencers are actually digital models. Not even real girls with photoshop but fully digital creations (check out Shudu as an example). I can’t even imagine the effect on the generation born into the smartphone era.

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    1. Hi Erin! Thank you for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment, too. 🙂 Isn’t that freaky that some of the ‘idols’ out there are digital models? I don’t like the idea of such one-dimensional characters (literally and figuratively) who have been created only to be looked at and judged on their appearance. I would like to think that Shudu et al’s large following is the result of a sense of curiosity at the sheer novelty of digital models, but I’m not so sure.

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  2. This is another very worthwhile topic to explore, Lisa. Thank you for writing about it. I have clicked through to the psychology today page and saved it so I can read the articles as my leisure. It’s amazing how much our minds are turned toward the ‘pleasure’ of admiring beauty in all its forms, whether in nature or human created design, and a pity that it has to also fall on the shoulders of females of all ages. I do my best to watch my thoughts about such things, whether it be in response to the effervescent energy of the young, or how I respond to seeing my own image in the mirror.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Ruth! Glad to hear you got something out of the post and I hope you enjoy the Psychology Today blog articles. I’ve been slowly reading my way through them and having been really enjoying them.

      I agree with you on how amazing it is that we are so sensitive to beauty in all its forms. It seems to be hard-wired into us, and I like that Renee Engeln points out that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying beauty – it’s when it become our only goal that it becomes a danger.

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  3. Hi Lisa, thanks so much for sharing this insightful article and TEDx talk and your own thoughts on it. It’s quite depressing, isn’t it – as though the feminist movement never even happened 😦 That’s one of the things that makes me drawn to minimalism, though – the ability to shed the stuff and the expectations of others to be a certain way, and put your energies into living a more meaningful life. Wonderful post, as always, Lxx

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    1. So glad you enjoyed these musings, Lorraine! Thank you for reading. 🙂 I really agree with you that minimalism is getting at this same message – who we are isn’t truly represented on the outside, it comes from deep within. It’s so refreshing to be able to mentally put those expectations aside and focus on the more important things in life. 🙂 xxx

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  4. Wow, so very powerful, this “beauty sickness” concept. I think this a big part of how patriarchy keeps us leashed to obsession with our appearance. Brene Brown once said that if women woke up and looked in the mirror every day and said “Omg: awesome” whole industries would fail: cosmetics, fashion, etc.

    I believe that true beauty arises from within, when we embrace our precious souls and our realize our own compassion and tremendous love. But it’s taken me a while to arrive at this place, and I will never claim that I don’t care about my appearance. So very powerful to realize how many forces want to keep us stuck in this cycle of self-loathing or this feeling of “not enough.” If we realized that we ARE enough in this very moment, no matter how much we weigh, how we look or what external factors are going on, we would embrace a larger truth. Nobody is perfect, but by embracing our flaws and recognizing we are worth of love no matter what, we defeat all of these messages designed to get us to buy stuff.

    Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your thoughts on this, and sharing this powerful message.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful comment on this post! What a great quote from Brene Brown; I’ll definitely be remembering that one when I look in the mirror. You are absolutely right, there are SO many forces that want to keep us in the cycle of ‘not enough’, and it’s sad and frustrating to think just how much money is being made off this misery. Your reflections on worthiness are truly inspiring. Thank you so much for contributing your wisdom to this conversation! 💕

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  5. Hi Lisa! So glad I found your blog. Cristy (meximinnesotana) recommended it to me after something I wrote. Glad to find another woman thinking along these same lines and eager to reject the system that has been set up for us by the patriarchy. I have been thinking about limiting “mirror time” for a while and feel glad to have read what you wrote today–I am taking it as a sign! thanks! x

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    1. Hello Cat! I’m absolutely flattered that Cristy recommended my blog to you and that you came to visit, too! It is always such a pleasure to come across kindred spirits on the blogosphere. 🙂 So pleased for you that you are reconsidering your ‘mirror time’, too. I’m being a lot more self-aware when I’m looking in the mirror these days, monitoring my internal dialogue and making sure to step away from the mirror when I notice myself heading towards obsessing over my appearance. It’s so refreshing to channel one’s energy elsewhere, to the things that really matter in life! 🙂

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  6. Great subject! I had never heard of “beauty sickness,” but I have done some research on how the images we see affect our body image. We are so bombarded with unrealistic “beauty” so it’s hard not to get obsessed with it. I’ve been struggling so much with this recently. I was going through a bit of a depression recently and I’ve gained some weight and now I’m even more paranoid! I’d love to get to the point where I can accept my body as is, but also love it enough so that I put more effort into exercise and nourishment, not necessarily focus on the “need” to get skinny — if that makes sense.

    After I finished the TED talk you shared, I realized just how quickly I go back into my ways. I watched it just before my mother-in-law was due to come over so when I finished watching, I closed my laptop, went to my mirror, put some concealer on a blemish, fixed my hair, put on a sweatshirt (because I’m not digging how I’m looking in short sleeves these days) annnnd yup! I’ve got some work to do 🙂

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  7. Oh, and I completely agree that body positivity can align with beauty sickness because we’re still focusing just as much on our bodies. I’d love to find the balance between being comfortable in my own skin, as you said, and simply caring less!

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