California Girls, Part II
In Part I of this blog post series I shared my personal experience growing up in Southern California’s appearance culture. I’m glad to say that I am now pretty happy with the way that I look. It’s helpful that I have an amazing partner who always makes me feel attractive with his sidelong glances and his sweet compliments (he’s a keeper!). But long before I met him, I somehow got past many of the insecurities of my California youth.
Yet there are still regrets. I realized I had spent 10 years, from age 11 to 21, weighing myself in the morning every single day. What I regret the most is all that brain space that was taken up with caring so much about my looks – all of that mental energy wasted. Being thin and beautiful really preoccupied me. Anyone who has ever tried dieting can attest to this. Meal and snack times are daily occurrences. Compounding the problem, adolescence is a time when teens are already obsessed with checking each other out and are hyper aware of what their peers think. I wonder if I hadn’t been thinking about being beautiful for all of that time, maybe I could have been thinking about other, more useful and positive things. I could have been cooking up wild ideas. Or, I could have just been thinking about nothing, which would have done my psyche less harm.
Kooky social psychology studies show the danger of spending too much cognitive energy on one’s appearance. One study had women try on a bathing suit and then take a math test. Yes, you read that correctly. These women performed worse on a math test compared to women who tried on a sweater before taking a math test. The researchers speculated that objectifying their own bodies took up working memory that was needed to perform well on the test.
Despite these findings and despite being happy with the way that I look, I admit, it’s still hard to stop the pursuit of beauty from taking up brain space. It’s still hard to be immune to an appearance culture and to resist placing one’s self-worth on how one looks. It’s something that I’ll probably continue to struggle with and find frustrating. When I’m reading women’s magazines, which are usually focused about beautifying oneself, I think, what if I spent this time reading Kiplinger’s Personal Finance or Money magazine? I think, I should really pick up that latest issue of The Economist. I’m aware of the latest laser technologies out there to make me look younger. What if I knew the latest mutual funds with the best returns? Social media has given us so many avenues to satisfy the craving of how to look our best – Instagram, beauty and fashion blogs, YouTube makeup tutorials. Imagine if all that time spent learning about how to look better was used on something else more lasting and edifying.
Beyond taking up brain space, a high preoccupation with appearance is linked with a long list of other negative outcomes. Studies have shown that appearance preoccupation is linked to lower achievement and motivation in math and science, lower general intrinsic (self-propelled) motivation, lower self-efficacy (feeling like you can affect change and are capable), reduced self-control and lower self-esteem. Other studies find that making one’s self-worth contingent on how one looks is associated with psychological distress, alcohol and drug use, sexual assault victimization, and even major depression. One in five women experience an episode of major depressive disorder at some point in their lives, and depression is also about twice as common in women than in men. Psychologists have shown that a high focus on and dissatisfaction with physical appearance contributes to the high rates of depression in women.
Clearly, fostering a high level of concern about physical appearance so that one’s sense of self-worth depends on how one looks is unhealthy and harmful. What’s troubling to me is that in the face of this research, appearance culture persists and seems to start to evolve in very young children. A few studies have found that as young as in preschool, many children report being concerned with their weight. Half of preschool-aged girls surveyed in one study said they worried about being fat or wished to be thinner. These concerns with thinness become even more common in elementary school. Because of my own struggles with caring about my appearance (see Part I in last week’s post), it’s hard to watch the same standards and values being pushed onto the next generation. More to come on young children and appearance preoccupation in the next post.