We’ve never had the privilege of living in a world where our appearance wasn’t viewed as our primary form of social capital.
Hair and makeup, body glitter, eating right…on the bright side of beauty there’s unicorn eyeshadow palettes and healthy living.
But there’s a dark side, too, that’s explored and examined in the fascinating book Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, by Renee Engeln, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.
“Beauty sickness is what happens when we focus so much of our attention, energy, and resources on how we look that we don’t have enough of those things available for things that matter more to us — things that have nothing to do with how we look,” explains Engeln, who also writes about how to recognize beauty sickness and ways to combat it while still engaging with the practice of beauty.
Before reading the book, I wondered if someone can still have fun with the concept — like my aforementioned love of colorful eyeshadow palettes as well as makeup that uses chocolate as an ingredient — while also feeling empowered as a woman?
After reading Beauty Sick, I recognized beauty sickness as an absolutely real thing that rang a lot of bells for me…but I still wanted to enjoy “beauty” as an issue, a topic, an ongoing experiment, a conversation. Turns out I still can, while at the same time working toward a cure — not just for me, but for all women, one watched word at a time.
Do You Have Beauty Sickness?
You might automatically think the answer is No if you think your thoughts and feelings about beauty seem under control. But do any of the following behaviors ring a bell with you? “Beauty sickness is the force that makes you skip an important event because you’re unhappy with how you look,” says Engeln.
“It’s that little voice in your head that distracts you during an important meeting, drawing your attention to how you look instead of what someone is saying.”
Engeln adds that it goes way beyond your individual mindset: “[Beauty sickness] makes us focus on how young girls look instead of what they do and say. It’s a cultural illness that leads us to treat headlines about celebrity women’s changing body shapes as actual news.” (Remember those screaming headlines about Jennifer Aniston’s supposed baby bump?)
But What If You’re Really Into Beauty Stuff?
For some women, beauty is about a swipe of lipstick in the morning and a no-frizz conditioner. For others, it’s a full-on hobby that involves books, websites, magazines, and Ulta Beauty Rewards. And for still others, it’s a career or a muse for creativity. None of these are wrong or harmful.
“Only you can assess whether beauty sickness is a problem in your life,” points out Engeln.
“If you’re happy with the amount of time, money, and emotional energy you spend on how you look, then that’s great. If worries about your appearance are not intruding on your social life, your career, or your family relationships – that’s wonderful. If looking in the mirror doesn’t spark anxiety or sadness, that’s excellent!”
So how to differentiate, or figure out which of our beauty preoccupations may be harmful?
“Beauty behaviors can be a positive source of expression and creativity for some women. But remember that it’s always hard to tell when we’re engaging in beauty practices for ourselves vs. for others,” Engeln warns.
“We’ve never had the privilege of living in a world where our appearance wasn’t viewed as our primary form of social capital. Given that, how can we really know which beauty practices are freely chosen and which aren’t?”
How Is Beauty Sickness Harmful?
Engeln puts it eloquently when she talks about some of the ways beauty sickness harms us: “It’s linked with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders,” she says.
“But beyond that, beauty sickness is a thief. It takes our incredibly valuable time and energy away from other issues that are more important than how we look. The more we look in the mirror, the less time we’re spending looking out at a world that needs our attention and passion.”
Now I’ll put it in a much less eloquent way: Beauty sickness can make us feel like sh*t. How many times has a preoccupation with how we look spoiled our enjoyment of the here and now? How can we feel so passionately negative about, say, the subject of our hair, because it doesn’t look the way we want it to or the way we think it “should” look? And how much money do we spend not just out of a sense of fun, but because we want to change how we look? Fortunately, there are different ways we can combat beauty sickness.
Take care of your body and yourself, physically and emotionally, in the way you would do with someone you care about.
“Remember that your body is the only home you’ll have the whole time you’re on this planet. Take care of it as you would a loved one; speak to it and about it with the kindness you’d show a loved one,” notes Engeln.
Thinking negatively about yourself, or talking smack about your appearance?
“If you find yourself thinking (or saying) critical things about your body, ask yourself if you’d talk that way to someone you love,” advises Engeln.
Appreciating your body goes beyond being loving toward it; you can begin to think of it in a completely different way, too.
“Remember that you are not an object. You are an instrument. Your body doesn’t exist for other people to look at and evaluate. Your body exists for doing things,” Engeln says.
And doing important things, besides: “It’s how you make your impact on the world. It’s what allows you to communicate. Every time you find yourself criticizing something about how your body looks, take a moment to appreciate everything it does for you.”
Engeln suggests avoiding “programs and movies that traffic in body shaming and focus on how women look” and on “social media, unfriend/unfollow/block as necessary to keep your feed free of images that prompt you to focus on how you look or compare your appearance to other women’s.”
I love this idea, and the effectiveness is two-fold. First, you’re protecting yourself from media that encourages beauty sickness. Second, you’re making a statement by not patronizing or participating with individuals or companies that promote body shaming or objectifying women.
Taking the concept a step further, Engeln recommends “voting with your wallet” by supporting companies that “advertise in a way that is respectful of women and acknowledges the diversity of women’s bodies” as well as “us[ing] your dollars and your voice on social media to call out companies and brands that fail in this regard.”
The antidote to beauty sickness stars with you and the power that words can have.
“Our words are a signal to the world about what we think is important. When we spend a lot of time talking about beauty, it tells others that beauty is what matters,” says Engeln.
“Try to limit the amount of time you spend talking about how other women look,” she suggests, also recommending that “When you compliment women, think of something to compliment them on that’s not about beauty.”
Your words are an immediate way to express the things that matter: “Let your words reflect your values,” Engeln says.
“Spend more time talking about issues you care about.”
Luisa Colón is SHESAID’s beauty writer and a New Yorker who has been writing and editing professionally since 1997, when she started working at New York magazine. Since then, her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, New York, USA Today, Family Circle, Glamour, and many more.
This originally appeared on SHESAID. Republished here with permission.