Are women too hard on themselves when it comes to their looks — and everything else?
A Dove ad campaign called “Real Beauty Sketches” has gone viral. In it, women describe themselves to a forensic artist who sketches them from behind a curtain. Next, strangers describe them.
Women used more negative words to describe themselves:
- (My chin) kind of protrudes a little bit, especially when I smile.
- My mom told me I have a big jaw.
- I have a big forehead.
- I have a fat, rounder face.
Strangers made more positive assessments:
- Her chin was a nice, thin chin.
- She has nice eyes. They lit up when she spoke.
- She has a cute chin.
- She has very nice blue eyes.
Afterwards, the women were surprised by how much more attractive they appeared in the eyes of strangers who — tellingly — yielded more accurate results.
In fact, Dove’s campaign was inspired by research finding that only 4% of women believe they are beautiful. Meanwhile, beauty can be a huge source of self-worth, which is unfortunate when there is so much more to women — and so much that is more significant.
“Good Morning America” did the same experiment and got the same results.
Last summer’s HBO documentary on supermodels, “About Face,” also found plenty of self-criticism among women who are thought the most beautiful among us. For instance, Carmen Dell’Orefice disliked one photo because it showed her feet, which she deemed “unattractive.” I looked at the photo and saw nothing wrong at all. Perfectly normal and natural looking.
We can be our own biggest critic.
But self-criticism doesn’t stop with our looks.
I’ve noticed that I can be pretty tough on myself. But when I consider how I would advise another person in the same situation I’m much more generous.
Being too harsh on ourselves can be a problem because low self-esteem limits us. When we lack faith in ourselves we don’t try, or when we do try, we are less likely to succeed. Or, we may put others down to feel like we’re better than someone else. But as they say, you can’t love until you love yourself.
If we were more self-accepting and self-loving everyone would likely be better off.
For women it’s more complicated. Many college women think that being “hot” is the most important thing in the world. That’s because self-worth is so attached to beauty. But Elizabethe C. Payne, Director of Queering Education Research Institute (QuERI), explained in the Huffington Post that girls can face a double bind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” as society tells them they will only be loved and held in high regard if they show off their bodies – but they’d better not do it the wrong way:
Girls have to “straddle an often unclear line in appearing sexually attractive (desirable) and receptive (thus not “gay”) yet unavailable (not “sluts”).
She says that middle school girls who simply dress attractively and wear makeup—or who develop breasts before their peers – may be labeled “sluts.” And any girl who actively pursues a boy, defying the double standard, can get slut-shamed too. She needn’t have sex, she only needs to be assertive:
Many young girls who have never had sex or anything close to it — at all — have been marked as “sluts.” Once marked, young girls are repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment, threats and taunts.
But the pressure on young women to constrain themselves moves beyond sexuality and sexual allure. Middle school girls can also be labeled as sluts, bitches, whores or gay for acting assertively or challenging male authority – including the authority of boys.
Girls and boys both slut-shame. Girls, because they feel threatened by attractive young women, especially when they feel they cannot be attractive, themselves. And boys might sustain the male privilege to act and be free while girls must hold themselves back.
Which brings us to another double-bind. Women and girls who criticize a system that judges us only by our beauty, and who seek, instead, to work for equality can be labeled “feminazis.” But if they smile and take it they still lose.
If you’re going to lose either way in the short-term, you might as well work toward long-term freedom and empowerment, I’d say.
When women lose their virginity, they can lose self-esteem, too, experiencing a small drop. That’s what a recent Penn State study reveals.
Women college students were surveyed over time. Before sex the women felt increasingly good about their bodies. But after first sex they felt worse. Looks like when they’re in bed women start worrying about whether they look good enough. Masters and Johnson tagged the phenomenon of watching yourself from a third person perspective instead of focusing on sexual sensations or your partner, “spectatoring.” Women are much more prone, being the objectified. Then, feeling they don’t measure up, self-worth drops.
Other usual suspects may also affect self-esteem, including the double standard that provokes worries about labels like slut and whore. Tracy Clark-Flory over at salon.com points to a 1995 study that found “women were significantly more likely to report that their first sexual experience left them feeling less pleasure, satisfaction, and excitement than men, and more sadness, guilt, nervousness, tension, embarrassment, and fear.” Even now women continue to experience that bind.
The double standard strikes again when women feel used, unappreciated, and worried about reputations after short flings or one-night stands.
Meanwhile, a study I recently posted finds 35% of women in strong partnerships feeling sad, anxious, restless, or irritable, after sex. Researchers don’t know why. Commenters, speculating on their own experience with the phenomenon, fingered sexual repression or difficulties with orgasm (which are related to repression) as culprit.
Studies repeatedly find that women are less likely than men to enjoy sex. Other research suggests the problem is not biologically based, or inevitable. Women in sex-positive cultures enjoy sexuality a great deal.
We are going to have to move beyond sexism for women to reclaim their sexuality. That would benefit both women and men.
From time to time men’s magazines exalt body types that vary from the tall, skinny, buxom shape they typically flaunt. True, the lovely ladies on Maxim’s and FHM’s “Hot 100” lists look pretty much the same, but it’s nice to see a little branching out now and again, so let’s celebrate what we can.
Small Busted Bombshells
While buxom breasts are a highly appreciated part of the female form, Mila Kunis was just named #3 on Maxim’s Hot 100, which considers their picks “the definitive list” of the world’s most beautiful women. Mila also made #9 on FHM where male readers vote for their faves. Also on that list are Kristin Stewart, Paris Hilton, Pippa and her sister Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. And Keira Knightly once made FHM’s #1 hottest hottie.
Slim figures are also admired, but Kim Kardashian, along with Scarlett Johansson and pear-shaped Jennifer Lopez, made FHM’s top 100 this year. And, Christina Hendricks, “Joan” of Mad Men, was picked as a “Girls We Love” covergirl.
When women see men gaping in appreciation of Joan’s full figure, I’m sure they are better able to appreciate their own curves. And when Mila Kunis asked Justin Timberlake if her breasts were too small in “Friends With Benefits,” I’m sure plenty of women were happy to hear him respond, “They’re breasts, aren’t they?” No problem. And then he falls in love.
Opening up the ideal is good for both women and men, even if there is still far to go.
When a woman sees herself as beautiful her self-esteem rises. It’s also easier to feel sexy. And when she feels sexier her interest in sex rises, too. She isn’t distracted, wondering if she’s attractive enough. And, women tend to get aroused by feeling that their partners see them as alluring. Plus, when men see that the ladies they love resemble Maxim’s Top 100 in some way, they can more easily see the beauty of their partners.
I suspect most women overestimate how harshly men see them and I suspect that most men are more accepting of women’s bodies than women are, themselves. So that’s good news ladies.
Our society’s ideals don’t have to determine our self-esteem, but they usually play a heavy role both in how we see ourselves and in how others see us. And so while we can work to move beyond the superficial, we’d all benefit if our culture expanded its notions of beauty, too.