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Beauty Sickness: How Does It Affect Women?

Renee Engeln, PhD, is an award-winning professor of psychology at Northwestern University, where she directs The Body and Media Lab. Her TEDx talk on beauty sickness has more than half a million views on YouTube.

Today, Flo asked her what beauty sickness is and how it affects women. Read on to learn the answers. 

What is beauty sickness?

Beauty sickness is the term I use for what happens when all of your energy, and your emotion, and your money, and your time get so wrapped up in worrying about how you look that you don't have enough left for the other things in your life that actually matter to you more. 

It's not the kind of illness that gets diagnosed at the doctor's office, but it does some of the same things to us that being sick does. It makes us very tired, it keeps us from being able to do the things that we want to do. 

Who is to blame?

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that encourages women to be beauty sick. You see advertisements all the time that are trying to convince you to change the way you look. They suggest you need to try new makeup, you need to lose weight. And they're constantly telling you that your main job in this world is to look beautiful for other people or to be sexy for other people. That can really wear women down. 

What are the effects of beauty sickness?

  • What we see for women is that if you get caught in that cycle where you're so worried about how you look all the time, it can lead to depression.
  • It can lead to anxiety in general or social anxiety in particular.
  • And we know that it can also feed into eating disorders or eating disordered behavior, which means you don't have an official disorder, but you're still doing some things that are not healthy, that are dangerous. These are all ways that beauty sickness can affect your physical and mental health negatively. 

Beauty sickness does other things too. 

  • It takes your money. If you're always having to spend money on some new makeup or some new diet plan, that means, for most women, that they don't have as much money left for something else, like going somewhere with a friend or trying to learn something new. 
  • It affects your time. If you're spending 45 minutes to get ready every morning, those are minutes that you could have been doing something else with. 
  • It affects gender equality. If your time, your money, and your energy are so bound up in how you look, it can keep you from going out there in the world and working harder to change things and to make things better for other people. 

It's a very destructive kind of culture that tells women, "You need to worry about how you look all the time and how you look will never be good enough." Those are the messages that a lot of women are dealing with, and it's part of why so many women struggle with body image. 

Is there a hope?

What I hope is that we can work to make changes in our culture so that we can have bigger, broader ideas about what it means to be a woman, and what matters to us, what we value. It's not that you shouldn't worry about how you look at all. Everybody does. That's totally normal.

But what I encourage women to do is to put beauty concerns in their place, to think about what matters to you in your life and make sure that beauty concerns are behind all those other things, behind the things that matter to you more, instead of having them front and center, where they're taking up so much of your emotional space all the time.

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