Self-Esteem Falls with Rise in Power? Blame Beauty Ideals

Even 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 piece by Nick Kristof of the New York Times, entitled, “Equality, a True Soul Food.”

He cites evidence from two British epidemiologists who wrote a book called, The Spirit Level. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that “Gross inequality tears at the human psyche, creating anxiety, distrust and an array of mental and physical ailments,” with those at the bottom of unequal societies suffering from 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. Notably, 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.

Inequality undermines social trust and community life, and people feel stressed when they sit at the bottom of a pecking order. Kristof discerns that the toll of our inequality is a melancholy of the soul.

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). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on June 27, 2011, in body image, feminism, gender, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It’s no accident that the same year women won the right to vote, the Miss America Pageant was created. . .

  2. This posting makes me wonder how much of women’s falling self-esteem with a rise in power is due to the long-held stereotype that smart, powerful women are ugly. Unfortunately, in my own life, I’ve felt boring or less attractive at times when talking about how much I love science. This also seems to be the reason that girls dumb themselves down to appear more attractive to men. As women see themselves moving up, they also see themselves not fitting into the beautiful, helpless female role that we’ve all been exposed to from young ages. I wouldn’t be surprised if that makes many us feel less attractive.

  3. Although I agree that more women are rising to power, I disagree that the cause of low self esteem in women is the unachievable beauty ideal. I think it goes much deeper than this. I feel yes, this can cause a woman with low self esteem to feel worse but I feel that the root cause of feeling bad about oneself is looking externally in order feel good about ourselves. If this article were true then every unattractive woman must feel really bad about themselves which is obviously untrue. There are very confident women who do not measure up to America’s standard of beauty yet are confident in who they are so much so that they do not play into the game of media disempowerment. Instead of blaming the media, we need to empower women around us to build true confidence. For me, I build my true confidence through prayer. How do you do it?

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      However, I didn’t mean for the post to be read quite so starkly. Thomas Friedman wrote a bestseller called, “The World Is Flat,” and of course he didn’t mean for readers to take the title to extreme. In this post I don’t mean that ALL women are BOUND to suffer low self-esteem because they don’t meet a societal ideal.

      But if you look at women’s self-esteem, it is VERY often tied to their failure to meet beauty ideals. That is a strong social pattern. And it comes from basing your self-esteem on external ideals (as you point out). Naomi Wolf makes a compelling argument that there is purpose behind the impossible ideals in a backlash against women’s newfound power. A serious consideration of her thesis could be freeing.

  4. Randal Catherwood

    Low self-esteem is a negative evaluation of oneself. This type of evaluation usually occurs when some circumstance we encounter in our life touches on our sensitivities. We personalize the incident and experience physical, emotional, and cognitive arousal. This is so alarming and confusing that we respond by acting in a self-defeating or self-destructive manner. ,

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    • Makes sense. But it’s interesting how context affects our sensitivities. So during periods of time in our history when looks weren’t so important to women, not being so attractive – so to speak — wouldn’t have the same effect as it does when being attractive is very important and is defined in a narrow way.

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