1. Your cycle
  2. Lifestyle
  3. Hygiene and beauty

Flo Fact-Checking Standards

Every piece of content at Flo Health adheres to the highest editorial standards for language, style, and medical accuracy. To learn what we do to deliver the best health and lifestyle insights to you, check out our content review principles.

You Are Beautiful: What's Wrong with This Message?

Recently, we had a pleasure to talk to Renee Engeln, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, the author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.

Among other questions, we asked Renee why she wasn't a fan of You are beautiful! messages. And this is what she answered. 

It's one of the most controversial things I say. Everywhere I go, I see these little stickers, or signs, or T-shirts that say, "You are beautiful." They come from a really good place, I think people mean well with them. But I actually think they backfire. I don't think those stickers make women feel beautiful. Instead, they often make women feel not beautiful. 

What we have shown in research, is that when you tell women "you are beautiful," when you give them that message, often the first thing they will do is think of all the reasons that it's not true. And we see this happening in conversation too. If someone comes up to you and says, "You look so good", a lot of times what women will say is, "Oh, no, no, no I don't, this is wrong, that is wrong." 

And the same thing happens with those "you are beautiful” stickers. You see the sticker and you think "I'm beautiful." And then you think, "But what I have doesn't look quite right. My skin is not so good." And suddenly you spend five minutes thinking about all the things that are wrong with your body, all of which you don't like. So in fact, those messages can backfire.

What we have shown in research, is that when you tell women "you are beautiful," when you give them that message, often the first thing they will do is think of all the reasons that it's not true.

The other thing those messages can do is just make you think about how you look at a time when that's not what you are thinking about. So, maybe you are walking down the street having a really good day and thinking about all the great work you're going to get done that day, and suddenly some sign says "you are beautiful" and now you're having to think about how you look. 

For most women there are lots of cues in our everyday lives that are already telling us to think about how we look. We don't need more reminders. We don't need more things telling us that that's important. 

So I would rather see those stickers replaced with questions like "What do you value about yourself?" or "What's important to you?" or "How do you care about people?" 

Those kinds of things can really remind us of positive aspects of ourselves. And they don't take us down that cycle where we get overly concerned with how we look. We've already got social media, magazines, TV, and billboards, and all sorts of other things to make us worry about how we look. I don't think we need those stickers doing it more. 

I wish we would talk to women in a different way. If you want to affirm a woman, you can compliment her about something that has nothing to do with how she looks.

When we tell women all the time "you're beautiful," part of what we're saying is that beauty is what matters. We're giving women the idea that the most important thing they can be is beautiful. And I think that's a message that really sinks in at a young age. We see it in little girls when we call them pretty all the time. What  they learn is that they need to be pretty and that they ought to be pretty, and that being pretty is what matters. 

I wish we would talk to women in a different way. If you want to affirm a woman, you can compliment her about something that has nothing to do with how she looks. 

And of course, the other problem with calling women beautiful is that most women don't believe you anyway. If calling someone beautiful would fix body image, then no one would have a bad body image because your mom could just say, "No, you're beautiful" and you would say "Oh, OK." And then that would be the end of it. So it's a nice idea, but I don't think it works in real life.

Read this next