Beauty and Self-Esteem

For women, beauty and self-worth can seem like the same thing. So do women at the top of the hierarchy have the highest self-esteem in the world? That’s one question that “About Face” explored in an HBO documentary on supermodels that aired over the summer.

Some supermodels did think their beauty made them better than others. Kim Alexis admitted she felt that way for while – but got over it. And Beverly Johnson explained:

You do live in a bubble where everyone is telling you you’re beautiful all the time, and get you coffee or whatever you want.

But I was also struck by how many of the world’s most beautiful women had thought they were unattractive in some way or at some point in their lives. Usually because someone had told them so.

While looking at a lovely shot of Carmen Dell’Orefice skipping in the street I was surprised that she didn’t like the photo because of her feet.

I don’t like my feet. I don’t have sexy feet. My mom used to tell me I had feet like coffins and ears like sedan doors. Then I internalized that.

First of all, her feet are perfectly fine. But you have to wonder about the self-criticism that fills women’s heads to make them find phantom flaws were they don’t exist.

Marisa Berenson had not thought she was beautiful, either:

People called me Olive Oil because I was long and lanky. I used to cut out pictures of actresses of the time, Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth, and wish I looked like that.

Jerry Hall – Mick Jagger’s ex — felt she was unattractive, too, because society said so:

I used to be really upset about not having a boyfriend. I’d say, “I feel like a failure. What am I going to do?” And my mom would say, “Well, look at Twiggy. She’s a model and she is even skinnier and flatter than you.”

She got over it and went to St. Tropez to be discovered. A story in itself:

I wore a crocheted metallic bikini and platform shoes that made me 6’4. And I was expecting to be discovered. And I was, within about an hour this guy came up to me and asked if I’d like to be a model.

Most people see themselves through a positive bias according to psychological research. I assume that includes our assessment of our looks. If so, it seems strange that models so often go the opposite way. Maybe it’s a matter of age, going through the self-doubt of adolescence. Maybe it’s feeling unworthy of being at “the top.” Lisa Taylor got into cocaine because:

I was so insecure that I needed to do it. It made me feel like I had something to say, that I was worthy of being photographed, that I was somebody.

But the modeling industry, with its exacting standards — and lack of Photoshop in the early days — could be hard on self-esteem, too.

Paulina Porizkova got the double-whammy. As an immigrant child she was relentlessly teased, only to land as a supermodel and be torn apart once more:

My parents escaped to Sweden from the Czech Republic, and I was called a dirty communist bastard for years. And so when I had the chance to escape and be called beautiful – I don’t think there is any 15-year-old girl who would give up the chance to be called beautiful.

You don’t realize at that point that you will also be called ugly.

They would open my portfolio and start discussing me, start cutting me apart. “Good mouth, but what are we going to do about those teeth? Don’t let her open her mouth. And I don’t like the color of her hair. That can be fixed, but what about those thighs!”

Paulina goes on to explain that looks are not a very good platform on which to base self-esteem:

Beauty is about being self-confident and modeling has nothing to do with self-confidence. Working off your looks makes you the opposite of self-confident. So maybe I became beautiful once I stopped modeling.

Advice we should all heed.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on September 26, 2012, in body image, feminism, gender, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Beauty is a lie. There is always somebody younger, prettier, sexier etc. In the real world, looks don’t count as much as the internet would like you to believe. I’m pretty, yes – I said it but in the real world I’m quiet. My personality is shy and withdrawn so in the work place people don’t gather near me too much. They much rather talk to the overweight secretary that has a very outgoing personality and sharp wit. I sit there alone. And yes everyone agrees I’m pretty but that’s not all that entertaining now is it?

  2. Thank you for this, Georgia. I am FB-ing again.

  3. From years of struggling with how I view myself (and in certain respects I still struggle, but I have someone to help me when I’m beating myself up over something stupid), I’ve been pressing to myself that although you may not see yourself as anything special, but there are so many people out there who do. You have to focus on what makes you special, and that makes you beautiful. It’s not about how lustrous your hair is or how tiny your waist is – there are thousands of ugly, horrid people out there with beautiful hair. It’s about displaying what you like about yourself. When you’re happy when you walk out of the door, people will look at you and see your beauty shining through.

  4. We’re all “modelling” something, to some extent. Even having a blog is just the intellectual equivalent of strutting up and down a catwalk expecting people to ooh and aah over how clever we are, for our own validation and satisfaction, isn’t it?

    • If that’s your reason for blogging, then blogging and modeling are equally superficial. I’d like to be a part of changing the world — or at least a few perspectives. What I’ve learned has helped me a great deal, and I hope to give something back.

      Really, this post is about women getting — or trying to get — their self-esteem from something that will likely never provide it. Don’t think that looks are going to raise your self-worth — doesn’t seem to work that way even for the most lovely. Look elsewhere, develop something inside yourself that is more substantial, the words are meant to suggest.

  5. Well you can see from all the model’s and actresse’s quotes that they do have a lot of insecurity. It seems to me that even the most beautiful girls in fact think the exact opposite of themselves most of the time. Most need to put themselves down to get that extra reassurance from people to tell them how perfect and great they are. The people that society is influenced to recognize and look up too are often not the confident people they portray themselves to be. They are pressured left and right to be perfect in every way that they possibly can, and they form their lives around that. So these actors and models live in constant fear of dissapointing their fans. They work twice as hard to try to cover their flaws. I believe that a confident person is someone who can embrace thier flaws whatever they might be. It is okay to want to try hard to look good and impress somebody because who does not want to try to look thier best for someone or dress up for a special occasion. But I think it is sad when people get the mentality that they have to always have to try to be perfect and can not just sit in their own skin for a day without thinking how they can be better or look more beautiful. Society can ruin people and make them obsessed with their images.

  6. I do believe society’s focus on womans outside beauty has caused us women to asess ourselves from the outside first and inside second. In my teens to mid twenties I too thought I could get what I wanted out of life based on my looks alone. Then something happened to me…..I became a mother. I started thinking about how I wanted my daughter to look at herself more than just another pretty face. I wanted her to have high self esteem and attain any goal that she set for herself. That in turn got me thinking about my own self esteem. How I was so confident before I was a mom because I was the 36-24-36, measurements that society had told me was perfection, beauty wise. After I was a mom I was not so confident and my self esteem went way down just because my hips measured 40 instead of 36. I thought to myself how stupid I was to think my entire self worth was based on my body measurements. I want to show my daughters that your “pretty face” or ” perfect body” will not dictate your self worth. As long as a woman is able to attain her own idea of what makes her beautiful she will have very high self esteem, be it education, motherhood, super-model….the key is for her to decide what makes her feel beautiful, not society’s standards.

  7. I always thought men and women have a different view on beauty, what attracts them. Men go for woman’s looks and women not so much but what men keep in their wallet. After reading this article I was quite surprised that even the beautiful models think they arent so beautiful. As a man I can’t really understand because what men usually think is that when a women is good looking, we assume that they know and act like they do. Sadly sometimes or most of times in this society these days women are judged by looks by men more than than any other criateria at first. I think thats what really affects womens self-esteem and their attitude about their looks.

  8. When people make little comments that are rude or offensive, i believe they stick with you for the rest of your life. Because even if it was only said once, or many times by different people, you internalize how people perceive you negatively and it makes you feel unhappy about yourself. I myself have endured this as I’m sure many others have so it’s no surprise that some models aren’t as confident as you would expect. Being an insecure person, I would never enter the modeling industry because even if they do make you beautiful and take gorgeous photographs of you I would never want to be constantly looked at and critiqued. Whether it be positive comments or negative, I don’t understand how women enjoy the modeling industry.

  9. elizabeth rankin

    I believe that in today’s society it is hard for men and women to have a high level of self-esteem because as a society, we are focused on appearance, fitness, and beauty. For women, one is able to see this in ads such as Victoria Secret where models are in intimate clothing, with skinny bodies, large breasts, and healthy looking hair. For men, GQ magazine epitomizes what a man should look like; young, well dressed, beautiful smile with straight teeth, and handsome. When a consumer sees how much attention these men and women get, it causes them to idolize the models for all the wrong reasons and it causes them to want to look like the models in hopes of garnering more attention. Instead of men and women concentrating on the inner self and intellect, they focus on appearance. Technology also plays a role because the editors of these magazines are able to use Photoshop to enhance the appearance of the models. In some cases, these models do not look like what is depicted in the ads. So then, is beauty and being perfect false?

  10. In today’s world it is extremely hard for one to have self-confidence, even if it’s a model. With all the constant pressures to maintain the standards of beauty and what you are supposed to look like, self-confidence is the last thing that would come to mind as to what models feel like about themselves. If someone was to ask me what it would take to be consider a beautiful person, I would say that, “Self-confidence equals beauty”. My reasoning behind this is that it takes a confident person to be beautiful and to believe in themselves that they are beautiful.

  11. Tenaya Bennett

    A woman’s self-esteem has a lot to do with what we girls are told is considered beautiful. We are brought up to believe that a certain image of being skinny and blonde and covered in make up is what is necessary to be beautiful. I like many other young girls in our society feel the pressure to uphold our so called “responsibility” to be beautiful and attractive to guys. We are continuously struggling to be perfect. When we do not feel that we are perfect our self-esteem dwindles. I think girls need to recognize their own natural beauty.

  12. I believe that beauty is not essential in a women’s body or face, everyone is beautiful no matter how they look or feel that they look. There is no actual picture that says the requisites of how a girl should look to fit in society or how she is suppose to look so people can call her beautiful. For me personally I believe that having self confidence, you will feel good about your self and you won’t pay attention to the surroundings of other woman because you know that you are happy just the way you look. At times I know that it is difficult for woman to feel good about themselves and have self confidence because society pressures you to feel that you need to look “one way”, and theres a phase where you believe that you need to look that way. But then later you realize that you are fine just the way you are and that there is no actual way that a girl needs to look to feel beautiful. because every woman is beautiful. Having high self esteem is way better than being like “everyone else” just because they have image of being what society thinks “BEAUTIFUL” looks like.

  13. Stefanie Cuaron

    Who’s to say what is beautiful and not beautiful? Society? It’s a shame that people base looks and what is beautiful by what society says is beautiful. It’s hard to be a woman and be confident with the way you look when everywhere you look, such as magazines, TV, movies, and etc, keeping telling you that to be beautiful you have to look a certain way. Why do we feel like we need to seek for approval. Looking in the mirror, there are always going to be “flaws”. No one is ever going to be perfect. And really what is perfect? Every flaw that we see is what makes us beautiful in our own ways. People shouldn’t feel they need to be a certain pant size, height, or weight to be beautiful. I feel beauty comes from within. If you are beautiful inside, it will most definitely reflect on the outside. I think that is one thing that people forget, but that is the one thing that they should constantly remind themselves.

  14. Society places a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way, with all the fashion magazine, etc. It seems that in our culture, it’s more acceptable for men to not place so much effort into their looks. If a man has rough skin or if his feet or hands are too large, it doesn’t take away from his masculinity. However, if a man has soft skin that’s a plus on his end and might even make him more attractive. Women, on the other hand, are expected to look beautiful and have beautiful skin and when we don’t, we are criticized. Women’s beauties should be accentuated and not be taken for granted.

  15. I blame society’s definition of beauty for the lack of confidence women have nowadays. In today’s society, to be beautiful is to be the stylish, lean, have beautiful hair, and glowing perfection we see in advertisements everywhere. Every time you flip through a magazine, and see model and say, “I wish I looked like her,” you contribute to and perpetuate the exact thing you claim to be disgusted by. I wish people would just open their eyes to how the media brainwashes you to become attracted to and promote an unrealistic idea of what is beautiful or sexy, when instead they should be promoting individuality and personality.

  16. As a young woman I struggle with my self-esteem everyday. Being surrounded by advertisements with beautiful models eventually causes one to doubt their own beauty. Reading this blog made me realize even the “most beautiful” women in the world have their own insecurities. I find this extremely depressing because this means most women are not happy with themselves. All women should feel beautiful in their own skin. Beauty comes in all different shapes and sizes. There is not one person who defines beauty. I agree with Paulina “beauty is about being self-confident”. If you have the confidence you have the beauty all women want.

  17. I have always been struggling with my appearance, ever since probably high school. I have never felt good enough for any guy. I started to wear make up at an early age and recently about a year ago i started to tan in booth so I would always have a tan instead of white skin. I am still very ugly around my boyfriend, he always makes comments about my make up or my “fat” which i am 5’5” and I weigh 124 pounds…. the media makes girls wish they were a lot thinner and prettier and its a joke. Beauty comes from the inside not what you look like. magazines and tv needs to make bigger people models and stop having all these thin looking girls supporting there make up or clothes. they are starting to make girls my age hate our bodies.

  18. Everybody has their own perspective on what is beautiful. A tall, skinny, petite, or heavier women can be seen as being beautiful by a men’s eyes. We as women tend to always find something in our bodies that we don’t like. The reason for this is because of the media bombarding, of what to them being beautiful really is. The media constantly reminds us that having a sex appeal or a cute face with perfect lips or eyes is what makes a women gorgeous. Being a model does not take a way a women’s insecurities. In my opinion your insecurities get worse, because you feel like you need to try harder to fit in in the modeling industry. I have never felt like I am prettier or uglier than any other girl out there. I have always understood that good looks may help a women get more attention from males, but in the long run what the opposite sex is more attracted to is the women’s morals and values. This quote summaries my post “Nothing makes a women more beautiful than the belief she is beautiful” (Sofia Loren).

  19. Beauty is the “key” to life. I always admired other cultures how they choose to be covered from top to bottom so a man will love them for the inner beauty not all the superficial things such as body boobs butts etc. I’m a firm believer in inner beauty because although women put on big fronts that they are perfect it’s always that one thing that make them feel ugly and not even just that a man can make the most beautiful women feel extra ugly jus by taking a double look at another women. Once again the media make monsters out of us and having us thinking we are no good enough for the society that we live in.

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