Get angry at a culture that teaches you your appearance matters more than anything else and then smacks you around with a beauty standard you were never meant to meet.
At times, our culture feels like it was deliberately designed to make girls and women feel ugly. The virtually inescapable Kardashians peddle appetite suppressant lollipops to young girls, corsets have returned to the mainstream in the form of “waist trainers,” and every filtered selfie creates a stinging version of the face and body you wish you had.
Recently, Plan International released findings from a large, representative survey of U.S. adolescents. The results paint a stark picture. Though the number of women running for office in the U.S. may be the highest we have seen, the young women surveyed are clearly getting the message that leadership is not what the world wants from them. Instead, they told researchers that physical attractiveness is the characteristic our society most values in women. Nearly seventy percent said they feel judged as a sexual object in their daily lives.
The implications of these findings for the psychological health of young women are alarming. Getting the message that your looks matter more than your actions ties you to the mirror, setting the stage for paralyzing body shame. But there is another serious reason to worry about a climate that leaves young women preoccupied with how they look. The more space your physical appearance takes up in your head, the less time and emotional energy you have left to fight battles that go beyond the mirror.
Girls around the world report disruptive levels of preoccupation with their appearance. One survey found that forty percent of Australian girls between the ages of five and nine already wish they were thinner. Another found that nearly one-third of third-grade girls in the U.S. said they are “always” afraid of becoming fat. In a 2017 study, over sixty percent of high school girls in Ghana reported using skin whitening products. Researchers who studied adolescent girls in Singapore found that all of the girls they interviewed use photo-editing software to smooth their skin, and a third of the girls use software to change the shape of their face and facial features prior to posting selfies.
In a recent survey of college women I conducted, over forty percent said they are more worried about how their body looks than what it can do. If you see yourself as nothing more than a sexual object, it is all too easy to lose track of the fact that your body does not exist simply to be admired (or rejected) by others. When we forget that our bodies are instruments, we ignore the power they hold. Our bodies are how we bring our impact to bear on the world around us. Research out of Yale University demonstrates that when women focus on how their bodies look to others, they show less intrinsic motivation and lower self-efficacy. Similarly, in the Plan International survey, the more girls felt judged as sexual objects, the less likely they were to agree with the statement that they “want there to be equal numbers of men and women who are leaders in work, politics, and life.”
I have advice for the young women who feel like our culture only values them for their sexiness. Every time you feel that way, get angry. Get angry at a culture that teaches you your appearance matters more than anything else and then smacks you around with a beauty standard you were never meant to meet. Use your anger to turn away from the mirror. Take your time, your money, and your voice and aim them at one or more of the fires burning all over our social and political landscape. You may even find it easier to take good care of your body when you rightly see it as a tool you’re using to fight the good fight. There is too much work to be done to spend so much time worrying about what you see in the mirror. There are no beauty requirements for changing the world.
Renee Engeln is a psychologist and professor at Northwestern University. She is the author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women (Harper).