How satisfied are you with your appearance?
Across the ages, norms of beauty have been set by cultures and passed down in the context of family, close community and friends. With time and technology, however, the setting of norms has changed and so has their impact.
- Our versions of beauty are now very much shaped by media.
- Inundated and challenged with images of “ defined” beauty and masculine body type on the internet, TV, videos, films, magazines, and billboards, it has become increasingly difficult to hold on to what is realistic, much less to accept our personal best as desirable.
- It is estimated that young women see more images of outstandingly beautiful women in one day than their grandmothers saw throughout their entire adolescence.
- Every month magazines invite women to lose 10 pounds, flatten abs and learn secrets to a better body. Men in turn are invited to pump harder, climb higher and invest better.
- Subject to seeing the same computer altered images over and over and the messages implied, both men and women have a hard time developing realistic norms against which to measure a sense of beauty or self-esteem.
A closer look at the actual impact of such media norms invites us to reconsider ways to re-set the criteria for our own definition of beauty.
Teens and Young Adults
- While the adolescents in any generation face confusion, self-doubts and shaky body images, social media has increased the preoccupation with perfect bodies and beauty. Hostage to hormones, uneven body development, bulges, height and complexion outbreaks, it is a difficult time for many.
- Surveys show that even very young girls are going on diets because they think they are fat and unattractive. One American survey finds that 81% of ten-year-old girls had already dieted at least once.
- Studies at Stanford University and the University of Massachusetts found that 70% of college women say they felt worse about their own looks after reading women’s magazines.
- A 2006 study published in the Journal of Psychology of Men and Masculinity found that not only did watching prime-time television and music videos appear to make men more uncomfortable with themselves; in some cases the discomfort led to sexual problems and risky behaviors.
- Easily overlooked, young men often get caught in The Adonis Complex. In a vicious cycle, the more a young man focuses on his body–something he may not be able to change given age, development and body type–the worse he can feel about how he looks.
- Some young men step out of the social arena completely or postpone feared social rejection by turning to online videos and porn as their default position.
The impact of the media doesn’t abate for adults. On a regular basis, men and women see what they could, should or once looked like. Whether married or single and regardless of life’s work, people fear being judged on the basis of media ideals which obscure diversity.
- Eighty percent of women are unhappy with their appearance. Many are preoccupied with weight.
- The current media ideal of being super-thin, achievable by less than 5% of the female population, is often depicted by very young female models in the most popular magazines.
- The comparison of self by married and unmarried women to these unrealistic standards brings with it self-criticism, anxiety, distorted perceptions of attractiveness, and often assumed sexual rejection.
- Whereas some research suggests that men as compared with women tend to over-estimate their attractiveness or literally not seeing their flaws (great for them but sometimes not so great for their partners), men in midlife often become preoccupied with hair loss, body build and weight.
- For many men the impact of media is not so much on the comparison with the perfect body but with the perfect “ sexual performance” that they associate with virility, desirability and attraction.
- For them the media depicted sexual prowess of men of any age, at any time, in any place, invites fear of failure, performance anxiety and unrealistic expectations.
- The interruption of shows with advertisements for Viagra and similar drugs do not add to their comfort level.
Whether a teen, a young adult or a mid-life adult, it is crucial to take back ownership of your own body image, use your own or a flexible version of cultural norms and reclaim a way to feel personal acceptance and satisfaction.
A crucial step is putting physical appearance into perspective as one aspect of your multi-dimensional self. There is little doubt that people will more readily respond to you and you will feel at your best if you are well groomed with good hygiene. That said, when you are in the zone of playing an instrument you love, preparing a special dinner that you never tried, winning the essay contest or making your friends laugh— you are more attractive than any media image. Who we are and how we look is a function of all of our talents and traits.
An important way to change the anxiety, self-criticism and doubt we feel about our appearance is to change what we think, more specifically to clarify distortions.
Consider these findings:
A study of 118 college men and 87 college women by Cohn and Adler found that 69% of the women chose the three thinnest silhouettes as most attractive to men. In reality only 25% of the men selected the thinnest figures as most attractive to them.
Similarly men also misjudged the body size most attractive to the women. Men overestimated the extent to which women view large and muscular male figures as attractive. The men thought women would prefer a build that was actually 15-20 lbs. more muscular than the ones the females actually preferred.
In a study reported by Nick Epley in his book Mindwise, research volunteers where asked to predict how attractive they would be rated by a member of the opposite sex who looked at a photograph of them.
Their accuracy was abysmal. Whereas people tend to evaluate themselves through a more microscopic lens, noting every flaw and imperfection, others see them with a much broader lens making note of general features not imperfect details.
People are much more likely to remember the bright eyes than the unexpected blemish.
Identify What You Can Control
A crucial step in putting physical attractiveness into perspective is recognizing what we can and cannot change and taking charge of what we can.
- While being your “ personal best” may seem like a cliché, the decision to stop checking the scale or comparing yourself with everyone on the beach, in the gym or in the fitting room frees you to walk, workout or take care of your body for your own goals.
- Have you noticed that sometimes the character or person is the media that you find most attractive is not the most conventionally beautiful but the one who is competent and confident?
- Given the mind-body connection, striving for your personal best in non-physical areas be they intellectual pursuits, love of animals or caregiving is likely to fill you with a competence that enhances confidence and personal beauty.
Appreciating your own results adds the glow of self-confidence that is very attractive.
Re-think and Balance Media Messages
Remembering that everyone on film is camera ready, that the perfect teen in the movie is actually 25 years old and that shows that celebrate diversity, gender differences , range of sizes and different life choices offer a crucial and balancing message is important. Be entertained and informed–not stifled by what you see.
Recognize Serious Problems
Commonly beginning in the teen years, and often underscored by genetic predisposition, some teens and adults become so obsessed with a perceived flaw that it impairs life functioning. For them there is no procedure, workout, or medical intervention that brings relief from anxiety, depression and even suicidal thinking. This often reflects Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. BDD is very treatable with a combination of medication and therapy. If you or someone you love is suffering in this way, professional help is an answer.
Look in the Mirror of Happiness
- There is a reason that everyone smiles for photos and people in advertisements are always smiling. Happiness, laughter and smiling are contagious and engaging.
- Something that you can control and that you owe yourself is to find those things that bring you happiness and those moments that bring you laughter. That is a major way to re-set your appearance criteria.
Nothing Makes People More Beautiful Than Happiness!