Low Self-Esteem? Blame Beauty Myths

the beauty myth 2Even as women’s power has increased over the last fifty years, self-esteem has too often diminished. Why? Blame unachievable beauty ideals.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the number of women and girls with poor body image has greatly risen. A big problem, since feminine self-worth has become closely tied to body image.

As Naomi Wolf explains in The Beauty Myth, women have more money and power than ever before but, “a secret ‘underlife’ poisons our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging and a dread of lost control… In fact, in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.” Too bad her book, which was written twenty years ago, is not now obsolete.

Once upon a time, she says, the family was a productive unit so that a woman’s value lay in her work skills, economic shrewdness, physical strength, and fertility, with physical beauty playing a lesser, and less oppressive, role.

Before the industrial revolution – before photographs, photoshop, and plastic surgery – women did not feel pressured to live up to a mass-marketed ideal – one that is nearly impossible to achieve, leaving women frustrated and depressed, obsessed with their looks, and wondering what is wrong with them.

As the beauty myth creates a hierarchy pegging some better than others, I am reminded of a book called The Spirit LevelBritish epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett say “Gross inequality tears at the human psyche, creating anxiety, distrust and an array of mental and physical ailments,” with those at the bottom suffering a range of pathologies.

The Spirit Level is concerned with economic disparity. But the theory fits with other inequities. Beauty hierarchies leave too many women depressed with low self-esteem, eating disorders, competing to be plastic on reality TV, jealous, envious, and sometimes dying from anorexia or plastic surgery. Importantly, the problem isn’t so much where you stand as where you think you do. Unfortunately, it’s common for women to place themselves at the bottom, and suffer.

Why not celebrate the wonderful variety of figures and faces that women embody, instead?

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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 February 18, 2013, in body image, feminism, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Excellent post, sums up everything I’d have to say on the subject. Sadly I still struggle with low self image, but I’m working on it!

  2. “unachievable beauty ideals.” Yes. This is very true. A heavy-boned dark woman will never, no matter the starvation, bleaching or plastic surgery, be the fine-boned blond idealized today.

    Even with the media turned off in my life for over ten years, I still catch glimpses of these unachievable ideals. In the grocery line I saw a picture of an impossibly slender young beauty on a magazine cover. There was an arrow pointing to her “baby bump” that said she was pregnant. Honey, pregnancy didn’t look like that either time when I had it. Everyday life never looked like that on me.

    Even without the media pressures, I have impulses to diet and the impulse to “go blond”. Thank you impulse control.

    I’ve had these since first grade. Back then, I believed that I’d automatically “grow up” and develop a svelte outline, soprano voice and lighter hair. I thought I’d turn Disney princess, given time and proper development, in spite of being the biggest and tallest kid in first grade.

    Thanks for keeping us on track and paying attention.
    Alice

  3. Low self-esteem plagues us all, it has to. You have instigated a prolonged pause, not sure how to put the next sentence together. Will have to devote the morning to achieving a stasis. It merits a post. I am glad you are out there keeping such issues alive, making us question where we stand.

  4. Adorina Betgorgiz

    I have a group of friends which we hang out almost every other day. It’s a group of 14-16 people and only three of us are girls. The guys of our group are nothing like perfect (media perfect) but they constantly talk about ideal women (media ideal) and how their sex partner or the person that they’re going to dance with in the club look like! None of these guys have six-packs! none of them are masculine or even fit! Last night they showed me a picture which had two sides, one side a perfect, athletic women with large breast, flat belly and nice ass. On the other side of the picture there was a perfect looking guy with six-packs, masculine and fit. And on the bottom of picture it said “ladies, if you want us to look like this, you have to look like this women.” This picture started an argument between us and I mentioned that, us, women, never ask for such a perfect guy! We want a normal guy who behaves and treats us good, and its you guys who always talk about perfect looking girls! for once in your life look at yourself and demand what matches you!!

    I think media has a large impact on what people think of “perfect” and that eventually leads to a lot of plastic surgeries, unhealthy diets and disease! people, especially women, forget the fact that they need to stay healthy! Women constantly compare themselves to fake bodies showed in TV and make unreachable goals! I think, no matter how your body looks, if you have confidence you can attract man! all that matters to a good man, is how you see yourself! They will see you the way you see yourself! If you say you’re fat, you have fat on your sides, you have acne on your face, by this you are bringing to their attention the weaknesses you have.

    • I think it’s really interesting that you bring up the fact that women don’t expect guys to have the six-pack washboard abs and look like the guys on the cover of Esquire. I’ve never thought about that before but I suppose it’s true! We’ll enjoy eye candy, and we’ll like the fact that they’re good-looking. But when it comes to attraction, there are so many more things to a man that would attract a woman aside from his looks. Good point!

  5. Great article. Thanks.

  6. This is a great article and I think it hits home with most women who have these issues and who struggle everyday to be that perfect body and face. Today’s society and media are beyond cruel when it comes to body shape and beauty and they keep making it impossible to love our bodies and beauty for what it is. I personally struggle everyday, I’m 31 and feel like I’m not beautiful anymore because I had two babies so my body doesn’t look the same. And every time I go out I see these images either on magazines, or in store displays with these thin young beautiful images that are hard to get because a lot of them have been airbrushed or photoshopped. So it makes my day even worse and sometimes I catch myself trying harder to fit that look of beauty, but honestly I’m tired of it and I just want to be me, thanks again for the reminder.

  7. Natthinee Sutjaitham

    Personally, I used to think that I was ugly, and not pretty like some other girls, so I was very concerned about my body, my looks, my clothes. I used to have an idea about getting a plastic surgiry in order to become a beautiful woman like some singers and actresses. But everything was wrong. When I realized of this, and started improving certain things, my apearance improved. And it suddenly changed how people saw me. What i think now is that there is no ugly-people. If you feel unattractive, I’m sure it is because there is something to improve. The way you think is the way you want to be. The key to life is when you think POSITIVE about yourself, your self is who you are. Why be a copy, a fake person. Honestly, be happy and enjoy your life, no-one is ugly. And I agree with the article that the inquality in society play an important role of how women think of themself. The culture forces them to adhere to an impossible standard of beauty in order to be accepted and taken seriously. We live in a society that values the look more than the person. 

  8. I’ve recently read a poem named “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy that is related to this issue. It is a reflection on this ongoing issue in our society that women are supposed to have a perfect look when in reality that perfect look doesn’t even exist, and it also shows the placement of women in society as well. It mentions a young girl playing with dolls that can go to the bathroom, and that she also plays with GE appliances, examples of the roles of women already being taught at a young age. The core of “Barbie Doll,” is about the beauty of women. This girl suffers from self-esteem issues since childhood when a classmate told her she had a big nose and fat legs. She’s smart and healthy but society makes her feels like her physical appearance is not accepted. She goes on diets and exercises, she wanted to belong and be accepted and realized that no matter what she did, it was not enough. She eventually got her perfect look, which lead her to death and now being inside the casket people say he’s pretty. It comes to show that society would not accept your appearance unless you’re perfect, like a Barbie doll. This is sad because all women should feel like they’re beautiful regardless of their physical appearance.

  9. Melinda Jeffries

    With the media.modeling agencies, and air brushing all creating that perfect “beautiful women” and what she is supposed to look like…This is how “beautiful” has been preceived for years and how we have been conditioned to define and see “beautiful.”
    it really boils down with being confortable in your own skin. There are so many beautiful women in all shapes and sizes. Beauty also has to come with in yourself. You can meet a beautiful women and she may have a crappy attitude, thus making her not so beautiful. Take for instance celebrities…they have the means to be beautiful…$$$ = plastic surgery, personal cooks, personel trainers…etc
    I say if your not happy with yourself than work towards some personel goals that will make you happy or dig a little deeper to find out WHY you feel insecure. There may be reasons in your childhood upbringing that make you feel this way..
    It comes down to liking yourself inside and out.

  10. Women are usually more interested in modifying their appearances than men. Partly, I believe that it is because women inherently care more about how they look than men. Mostly, I think that it is because many different types of social influences such as the mass media make them think that they are visually imperfect. In a magazine advertisement for Dolce and Gabbana, a slender woman is surrounded by attractive men. In Sex in the City, all primary female characters have tall noses, wide eyes, and long legs. In Love Actually, no female characters are corpulent or not wearing any makeup.

    The main customers of companies such as Lancome and Chanel that sell makeup and skincare products are women. In order to lose weight, Women are oftentimes more willing to adapt a diet that is not scientifically proven and dangerous, such as the cabbage soup diet, than men. Women are ordinarily more interested in cosmetic surgery than men. There is something wrong with the standards of female beauty to which the majority of women adhere. It makes them think that there is something wrong with them.

    For the well-being of women, there is no doubt that the distorted standards of female beauty must be fixed. So many women in the present suffer so much because of it.

    • Women’s focus on looks is probably learned. For one thing the higher you go up the evolutionary ladder the less we are ruled by our genes.

      But historically women couldn’t work to make a living, and their beauty was the only thing that would attract men. That made looks pretty important. But the lack of mass media did protect them, in that there were no (fake) images that women were all supposed to conform to. Today unrealistic beauty images may be working to tell women that that’s the most important thing for them, And being unrealistic, driving down their self-esteem.

  11. Great point! I do not know that I have met a girl before that hasn’t struggled with low-self esteem due to beauty at some point in her life. I myself have struggled with how I felt about my weight. It’s exhausting and at some point you have to just decide to be happy with how you look and be happy with yourself. If you do not make that decision I could definitely see how someone could become depressed. Just the other day I was having dinner with my beautiful confident friends and somehow we got on the subject of plastic surgery. Every women at that table name one or more procedures they wanted to have done at some point. This absolutely shocked me because I had always thought of them all as the MOST confident women with the highest-self esteem. I guess we all have our insecurities.

  12. Women are constantly bombarded with messages of having to look a certain way to be beautiful. It’s in the magazines, on the tv, in music… I work for a high end retailer and I love fashion, but the industry does not represent the average woman. It’s even worse now as technology has advanced. I cringe when I see magazine covers and compare them to the original photos. People who retouch these images do everything to make these women practically unrecognizable. They remove every blemish, thin out an already slim waist, etc. Heck, there are even contouring techniques with makeup to make your face look even slimmer. I think a lot of people, if you asked them, are aware that a lot of work is done on people before their images are presented to the public, but we see it so often, we start to accept it as what the norm should be. As a result, you get women spending tons of money on beauty products in order to get as close as they can to looking like a glamour model, but at the end of the day, they still feel like they’ll never be able to compete. It’s really unfortunate, and I can admit that I suffer from low self-esteem because of how I look. I think that if the industries started representing real women, it would help change society’s standard of beauty. But no, they cater to a certain type of woman.

  13. It is so true that nowadays, the body shape of women affect how women look at themselves. Media always try to “brain-wash” the society that “slim equals beauty;” skinny women are more attractive, they are self-confident and successful. These messages influenced women to try to achieve the impossible goal, such as stop eating and do too much exercise. On the other hand, women look down on themselves when they think they are fat (which usually they are not). Therefore, I think that the beauty myths really affect women both physically and mentally. As a girl, I have to admit that sometimes I face this kind of problem. I have to say that, I am not a fat girl, but just not skinny ones. However, there are many girls around me, who are skinnier than me, always say that they are too fat and have to be on diet. At first, I followed them, ate only a little a day. Later, when I went to have a body check, the doctor told me that this would affect my growth because I was still on my puberty.

  14. I really enjoyed this article.
    I think society has changed so much and its causing young ladies to not be happy with their bodies and try to change it as much as she can. We see pretty girls on the covers of famous magazines and sometimes they even say “Look inside for tips to look like her” I don’t like that because they tell you that in order to look like her you have to go on a diet and buy all this expensive clothes.
    I think every women is beautiful in there own way. Curvy girls are gorgeous and they don’t need to go on a diet because food is so good and skinny is not cute. I’m skinny and I think its okay, id rather have more fat so I look healthy. I like my brunette hair an would not change it to blonde because everyone thinks is hot.
    I remember seeing a magazine with Jessica Simpson pregnant and her looking a little over weight.. because she was pregnant. Well there was several people that kept making comments like “omg she’s fat”, “eww why would we want that in the cover” or even “wow she looks like a pig.” I thought that was very rude because no one said that only skinny girls are suppose to be on the cover and anyway she was pregnant! she looked amazing!

  15. Alexandra Holmes

    I never took the time to think about how women gaining power over the years has diminished their self-esteem so much. I find it amazing that in the past women were more concerned with reproducing and work skills rather than their body image and beauty. Today, it is a constant struggle to maintain that image of perfection, which is completely realistic. I have a good friend who is beautiful, blonde and thin yet constantly complains that she is overweight and seems to always be dieting. She has spent a ridiculous amount of money on laser hair removal, liposuction and botox injections! This friend of mine is always trying to make herself more beautiful even though she already is. The magazines she sees at the grocery store or celebrities on the television make her believe that she is not as beautiful which is why she constantly strives to be thinner and more beautiful. I find that it is really sad that women today struggle with these body image issues and low self-esteem. I would have to imagine that the world would be much less stressful if women were not constantly trying to reach perfection.

  16. I think it’s ridiculous how many women today feel they have to live up to the images projected by our modern culture. The other day I passed by a woman at the gym who was telling her friend that she felt fat and needs to lose weight. She was in perfectly great shape. She had a very thin figure, yet somehow thought she was fat. As you mentioned, before the internet, photography, etc., there was no need to worry about being a thin and perfect woman. I think today some of these women need to realize that all shapes and sizes share beauty. And if they do feel uncomfortable with their weight, then they should do something about it. So long as it’s not to the extremes of trying to obtain a skeleton figure.

  17. I completely agree that beauty myths are the main reason why women have such low self-esteem. Because beauty myths are essentially “myths,” they are virtually unattainable and placed above reality. This creates a sense detachment from the female herself and the ideal. From a first hand experience I often compare myself to the mass spread ‘ideal’ of what is considered beautiful and become discouraged when I realize it can only be attained through reconstruction, whether it is through surgery or extreme measures. When I realize the measures I would need to take in order to attain the desirable goal, I end up feeling self-conscious. If I, and women, start accepting and discovering the beauty in diversity of figures and looks, we would not beat ourselves up as often or harsh as we do.

  18. “Unachievable” beauty ideals is just the start! I would go as far to say: insane, hurtful, unhealthy, and sometimes borderline morbid.

    I think it is completely nuts for altered photographs and images to be shown as anything but pure fiction. As the initial post points out, as the proliferation of mass media ideas of beauty have expanded in the last century, so has the relative self-esteem and body image of women. While manipulations in photographs and images as always been possible, the sheer amount of straight up falsification, or “photoshopping”, of women’s bodies has reached insane levels.

    Women are expected to meet a standard that is not even possible. They are shown these cartoon characterizations of women without the pretense that they are false and completely created using computers.

  19. This topic is a very important one for me because I have struggled with my body image and low self-esteem, for most of my life. I think that it is more important to celebrate and embrace the different figures and faces that we were born with because we are beautiful in our own special way. We shouldn’t dwell on what society wants us to look like because it only leads to eating disorders and depression and that is not good at all. We should embrace who we are and love ourselves no matter what we look like because we are all unique individuals that have a lot to offer in this world.

  20. Kenny Stenhouse

    As was said in the blog, women in the olden days did not have to “compete” with the skinny and beautiful models that are always displayed on social media. I know this first hand through my sister and girlfriend. They are constantly comparing themselves to models in victoria secret and how skinny actresses are. They are skinny themselves but don’t think they are because of the raised expectations of people on how they should look due to these horrible ads. It is a horrible new world that we live in where beautiful girls do not see it because they are constantly comparing themselves to photoshopped women.

  21. Ever since the bloom of exposure of the touched-up, massively photoshopped truth behind those models on magazine covers, they have ceased to affect me (for the most part). Those pictures have never really influenced how I feel about my body, because I know that most people know that there’s a difference between real-life average common people and the starlets being broadcasted. There’s a reason why they’re on the magazine covers–they’re good looking. When I look at their images, I don’t think “I need to look like that” because I know that’s never going to happen. Instead, I focus on being the best I can be. That’s why I say that it still affects me to a certain degree; I remind myself that in addition to the computer enhancements, these women worked REALLY HARD to achieve their looks. They restrict their eating, work out, make up, etc. If I put in the effort to do all of that at that level, I’m sure I could be the best I can be. I see them and I am reminded of the motto “There are no ugly women, only lazy women.” If I have low self-esteem, it’s because I know I haven’t been doing all that I can to make myself better–not because the women on magazine covers are representatives of an unachievable ideal.

  22. It’s frightening to see little girls already talking about who’s fat or skinny, blond or brunette and comparing themselves to other little girls. My 3 year old daughter has beautiful, long curly dark hair, and has a year round tan. She’s always telling me she wants “white” hair(that’s how she describes blonde hair) like the little girls in her preschool class. I tell her that she’s beautiful and perfect the way she is, that she’s smart and funny, silly and kind and that she should be happy for the way she looks!

    With all these messages bombarding us that we are not beautiful if we’re darker complected or a size 14 that our self esteem suffers as women, how can we tell our daughters to not absorb these same stigmas? Short of me moving to the country and cutting all ties to the modern world to prevent any negative messages from destroying her innocence, I feel as if I have to constantly reinforce what a REAL woman looks like. I show her pictures of different women from different nationalities, body types, professions and ages and I point out how incredible we are as women because we are so very diverse, intelligent, strong and powerful. Especially, after having kids get our grey hair and wrinkles and not always blond or a size two. That’s what standard of beauty should be.

    It’s exhausting to always have to battle these negative messages on women about our appearance, intelligence and abilities from every angle and not fall prey to them myself, but yet convince my daughter that she’s perfect. Are we as women so oppresed in this society that we ourselves are becoming instruments of our own oppression?

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