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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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