Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Beauty Sickness Is Everywhere

Pressure to uphold beauty ideal is pervasive.

Recently, I started reading Beauty Sick, an analysis of how cultural pressures regarding the unattainable beauty ideal is impacting women today. Written by Dr. Renee Engeln, a fellow graduate of the doctorate program in psychology at Loyola University Chicago, in many ways I am struck by how her book is an expansion of the seminal work of Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, that came out in 1991.

It is sad to reflect that while women have attained greater equality since Wolf’s groundbreaking work, in many ways, certain entrenched norms—particularly regarding expectations of how women should appear, and the ways in which our worth continues to be measured based on that appearance—haven’t really changed all that much. In fact, Engeln (2017) presents some startling statistics when she reports that one study found that 34% of 5-year old girls engage in deliberate dietary restraint at least sometimes. Moreover, between the ages of 5-9, a startling 40% of girls say they wish to be thinner. In many ways, the beauty myth that Wolf introduced us to in the ‘90s has become magnified with the social media age.

Engeln (2017) presents the concept of beauty sickness as the pervasive energy and effort that females divert to their appearance, which takes a toll on their cognitive resources, their self-esteem, and often, their bank accounts, given how much money it takes to attempt to uphold the unattainable beauty standards of the modern age. I say attempt because clearly these standards are not attainable, nor should they be, given that the thinness ideal is largely unhealthy, and other images we are inundated with on social media and through other mediums are significantly digitally altered. Let’s be real here, even celebrities don’t actually look the way they appear to on their Instagram feeds.

Engeln’s (2017) analysis makes it clear that this isn’t just about aspirations to be pretty, it is about a larger cultural value system that reduces women’s worth to their appearance, the effects of which have ramifications in every aspect of our lives, from the workforce to our safety to how we are treated by men. Moreover, in a culture that explicitly equates female beauty with both thinness and youth, this has huge implications for how women are treated as they age, particularly the pressures they may feel to maintain a youthful appearance, disguise their age, or otherwise reverse the natural effects that come with growing older. Older women are not valued in our culture as they should be, and other research has, in fact, found pervasive ageism specifically against women in the workplace, with some studies finding this begins for women as early as the age of 35. Beauty Sick takes a particular focus on the thinness ideal, as it is similarly associated with catastrophic effects for women, including negative body-image issues, taking extreme measures to try to attain this unattainable ideal, etc.

Engeln (2017) couches her analysis in objectification theory, which presents the notion that women are treated as objects rather than as whole, human beings—oftentimes this escalates specifically to sexual objectification. Perhaps just as problematic, the extension of living in a culture of being constantly scrutinized and objectified is that it leads individuals to engage in self-objectification, which is when women internalize the near-constant attention on their appearance to the way they think about and relate to themselves and others. Sadly, self-objectification limits women’s sense of self, and traps them in this cycle of constant scrutiny of their own appearance, diverting more and more time and energy to trying to fulfill the unattainable beauty ideal. Engeln (2017) interviews a lot of women to learn about their experiences with beauty sickness, and she finds herself reflecting on what other things these bright, intelligent women could have spent their girlhoods thinking about had they not been consumed by the ravages of self-objectification.

This analysis is a must-read for anyone wishing to turn the mirror on the ugly aspects of our culture that continues to transmit unrelenting pressure on girls—and eventually the women they will grow into—to fit into an unattainable ideal of beauty. Engeln (2017) exposes the hypocrisy and mixed messages of this same culture that simultaneously preaches girl power and empowerment, while also relentlessly reminding girls that their femininity and sense of worth is wrapped up in their appearance. While unattractive or fat girls are rejected or experience severe social backlash, girls or women who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time monitoring and focusing on their appearance are banished as vapid and vain. Women are all too familiar with the bind that we are placed in, and the mixed messages regarding our femininity, sexuality, and worth that we are inundated with on a day to day basis. Bravo to Beauty Sick for coherently presenting to readers some of the sources of a much larger disease.

Now if only we could all work together to develop a cure.

Source: Pixabay/ivanovgood

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2019


Engeln, R. (2017). Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. Harper Collins: New York.