Beauty SickHow the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Women and Girls

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Released: April 18, 2017
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This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!

An emphasis on youth, beauty, and looking good is not a new trend in American culture—especially for women and girls. One must only turn on the television, look at the nearest billboard, or glance at an internet celebrity “news” site to see it. Feminists, academics, and psychologists have for years drawn attention to the mushrooming influence of advertising and social media in making women of all ages feel insecure about their looks, but successful strategies to combat such pervasive media messages are in short supply. Northwestern University psychology professor and Body and Media Lab (BAM) founder Renee Engeln terms the cultural obsession with women’s appearance “beauty sickness,” and explores the consequences of—and possible solutions to—the epidemic of body dissatisfaction.

Engeln defines beauty sickness as “what happens when women’s emotional energy gets so bound up with what they see in the mirror that it becomes harder for them to see other aspects of their lives,” and notes that it is “[…] fed by a culture that focuses on women’s appearance over anything else they might say or do or be.” Some of the results are clear (eating disorders), while some are less so (an excess of time or money spent; judgment of other women). But for women of all ages, the consequences can be severe.

Beauty Sick builds its case with a combination of interviews, personal stories, pop culture case studies, statistics, and studies from the BAM; Engeln convincingly argues that our culture’s current correctives to beauty sickness—including media-literacy training, “body positive” advertising, and working to expand the definition(s) of traditional “beauty”—are not working. In fact, they may be making things worse.

But while Engeln’s use of statistics and interviews with beauty-sick women is convincing, the book as a whole is less so. Most of her conclusions will seem obvious to those already well versed in concepts like body shaming, diet culture, and media pressure to look ever-perfect. She takes care to interview young women of different racial backgrounds, but the book is rarely intersectional in other ways; her arguments would be strengthened by including a lens on how more marginalized people—transgender or nonbinary people, disabled women—feel the effects of beauty sickness. Beauty Sick may offer a valuable perspective to someone who believes that turning off the TV or tuning out social media constitutes a credible solution to a serious problem. But seasoned body-positivity advocates and media-savvy feminists will want to look elsewhere.

This article was published in Invisibility Issue #75 | Summer 2017
by Anna Hamilton
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