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?