#1745 Beauty Sick, How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, 2017

Renee Engeln, Ph.D., Harper’s Collins Publishers, New York, NY (pp. 400)

$26.99 ISBN 978-0-06-246977-9

By Elaine M. Chisek, Academic Advising Liaison, Department of Political Science, University Advising, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA


Gender inequities in society continue to exist – a mere 6.4% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women.  Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, in her book with the famous name, encourages women to disrupt the status quo by learning to “Lean In”.  As if in direct response, Dr. Engeln’s book explains that the “current generation of young women” may be “leaning closer to the mirror” because of society’s emphasis on female appearance. (p.19) “[I]t’s hard to change the world when you are so busy trying to change your body, your skin, your hair, and your clothes.” (p. 338)

Case studies and conversations with a variety of women across different age groups and demographics provide the framework for Engeln’s work.  (The author clarifies that the surveys recounted in the book focus solely on college-bound cisgender* women [*not including transgender students]).  (p. xiv).

Engeln’s early chapters cover familiar terrain. The problem of beauty sickness starts early, as evidenced by one 7 year-old girl who defined pretty to include the descriptor thin, and can be traced through middle school and beyond (p. 4) At its core is the prevalence of manipulated images highly unrepresentative of the female population.  These depictions are everywhere, from the airbrushed cover of a fashion magazine, to those photoshopped on a middle-schooler’s social media account. (p.151-52, 174) Women comparing themselves against these unrealistic images believe that they fall short in the beauty category, which, in turn, affects their self-esteem and can be a source of other problems such as depression and eating disorders (p.157).

Activist efforts to fight the problem provide counter-intuitive results (p. 200-201). These are the sections that are more interesting, and enlightening.  One example includes groups trying to demystify unrealistic media images by promoting the use of disclaimer labels about airbrushing; and these efforts, while noble, gave female consumers a heightened, instead of a lessened, sense of body dissatisfaction. (p. 209) A critique of an image requires a careful examination and “[b]y the time you start deconstructing an offending image, you’ve already been hurt by it.” (p. 212-213).  In a similar vein, Dove initiated a series of commercials entitled “Real Beauty”, which also missed the mark.  Trying to encourage women to feel good about themselves is not achieved by affirming their beauty (p. 232-233). Any attempt to shift the discussion from a singular standard of beauty to how beautiful everyone is just backfires. (p. 238)

Distressing as the results of these efforts might be, all is not lost. Engeln found more positive survey results, and where the reader can find some comfort, when women are encouraged to refocus on what their bodies can do, instead of how they look. (p. 286) Stressing “function over form” steps outside of the beauty standard to affirm what women can accomplish.

These conversations may appear multi-layered to an expert, where a novice may just see repetition.  A greater proportion of Englen’s chapters are devoted to a description of the problem and less to a prescription for action. Academic advisors, however, can benefit from reading these descriptions, because they are central to the issues that permeate women’s lives.   The female student in an advisor’s office may be suffering from beauty sickness and understanding that struggle can give academic advisors a piece of a puzzle to make an essential connection.

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