On April 18, Northwestern psychology professor Renee Engeln released a book that, I’m confident, will blow the top off the body image movement.
In Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, Engeln, a leading researcher in the space, explains the severity of the problem, why what we’re doing isn’t working and how to make changes to shift the global conversation around women’s bodies.
The content is provocative and necessary. It covers everything from how parents should change their behaviors to why we need to stop calling each other beautiful. I sat down with Engeln for an incredibly eye-opening conversation.
KM: Why do you have a problem with the “everyone is beautiful” movement?
RE: I don’t think it works. Think of a time when you felt really unattractive and a loved one said, “No, you’re beautiful.”
Do you remember thinking, “Oh, you’re right, I am”?
I believe this movement comes from a good place, but I’m skeptical of it because I don’t think it turns anything around. In reality, what you’re doing when you say something like that is you’re making the other person think about how they look. Women don’t need more help thinking about how we look.
And for women who feel really bad about how they look, they hear the “you are beautiful” message and counter-argue it, start listing reasons they aren’t. Then, you’ve brought up all the negative feelings about their body when they could have been thinking about something else.
What is the answer to this?
We need to stop trying to solve appearance worries with more focus on appearance. Instead, we need to hear more stories about other parts of women—parts other than how we look. When we do talk and think about our bodies, it would be helpful if we did two things: remember that the primary purpose of our bodies is doing and practice self-compassion.
How have you seen self-compassion help women?
As part of The Body and Media Lab—or BAM—at Northwestern, we’ve done things like ask women to spend 10 minutes writing a letter to themselves about their bodies from someone who loves them unconditionally.
And the results?
Women have written letters that would bring tears to your eyes. We know how to be compassionate; that’s one of the things we are trained in from an early age. We just aren’t very good at turning that compassion on ourselves.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions around the issue of body image?
That smart women know better than to look at images that might hurt them—that those women can just ignore that stuff. When I first started studying this, I thought that women who were good at criticizing images of women’s bodies as fake and unhealthy probably felt better about their own bodies, but that isn’t the case.
Images impact everyone.
Yep. It’s fighting back after you’ve already lost. You see an image and it hurts you and you lash out that it’s fake or unhealthy, but it’s already left its mark.
What can women do to make headway against those negative images?
I think we should be careful about how we deconstruct images. Think about every time you see a model that is really unhealthy or dangerously thin. Maybe you put up the image on social media and tell your followers to look at the image as a representation of what isn’t good about media. But what you’ve done by doing that is guarantee that hundreds—maybe thousands—of women will look at that model. We need to find ways to critique advertisers that hurt women without inadvertently spreading their messages.
How do we do that?
I don’t have the perfect answer, but I think it would help to use less imagery in some ways. The answer of the focus on women’s appearance isn’t more pictures of women.
How do you respond to critics who accuse you of being pro-obesity?
I get that a lot, and think it is asinine because it isn’t backed up by data. People who care about their bodies take better care of them. You don’t take care of things you hate; you take care of things you love. The more people are shamed about their bodies, the less likely they are to exercise, for example.
How big a role do parents play in this issue?
A huge one. I ask every woman where she learned to talk about herself so negatively and almost all of them answer, “My Mom did it.”
Gulp. What are a few ways parents can change this paradigm for their daughters?
The first step is to have awareness of the problem. Stop saying negative things about your appearance in front of your kids. It takes practice to stop. Then, focus on what your daughter does, not what she looks like.
Also, think carefully about how you dress little girls. So many outfits for baby girls impede their movement, like dresses. We put silly things on their heads to mark them as girls, but babies want to pull them off. If your baby is pulling the thing off its head, don’t put it on. Give your little girl the freedom to move in soft and comfortable clothes. If you have to shop in the boy’s side of the store, so be it.
Let’s talk about your book, “Beauty Sick.” Why now?
I wanted to bring together the research of many people in this space and give it context. The book includes in-depth interviews with women from different ages and backgrounds on what this issue looks like for them. I think it is also timely because our obsession with women’s bodies has never been this bad.
Our president isn’t helping.
Yeah, it’s almost like the election was timed for the book. There is so much objectification going on right now—treating women like they are less than fully human. What does it mean when the president publicly rates women on a 1-10 scale? It’s nothing new, but it is new to have it sanctioned in this way. I think it is devastating. Being treated like that isn’t just “mean;” it has demonstrable effects on women’s health.
Where do you see hope on this topic?
I actually see some hope in social media. As destructive as it can be, I see potential. As women, we can stop clicking on those “who wore it best” slideshows. And in life, we can stop talking about other women negatively, and stop talking about ourselves negatively. If we don’t like the advertising culture, we can start our own businesses to change it.
We can make better choices ourselves—to stop following Instagram accounts that make us feel bad about ourselves and to stop reading magazines or watching shows that hurt us. Those actions, although they seem small, can make a real difference for the better.