Body Confidence the Key to Success
Raising low self-esteem and increasing body confidence could be the key for gender equality and modern societies to succeed. This is what a recent study conducted by Bristol University in the UK asserts. The British government has launched a self-awareness campaign called “Be real“, along with several sponsors like DOVE and Facebook that is meant to increase body confidence amongst the public.
The Bristol study looked at 25 worldwide studies examining the link between body confidence and success, especially in women and adolescent girls. The results show that women spend an incredibly large amount of time on their appearances, presumably taking energy and time from other activities. It goes so far as to say that women would probably fill more leadership roles and be more visible in society’s higher positions if they were equipped with better body confidence.
Concerns about appearance, size, weight, shape, or being attractive enough, overwhelms many women, all the way down to five year old girls to women that are over the age of seventy. Poor self-esteem and body shame (often left unsaid but very real in women’s – but also increasingly girls’ – and boys’ minds) are more prominent today than they were thirty years ago, despite increased media coverage about the need to battle the same issue.
Studies show that poor body confidence and the fear of being overweight (even though it is not the case in real life) affects academic achievement of adolescent girls. It does not lead to a total collapse but affects self-esteem enough so girls have reduced learning capabilities. Girls who are unhappy with their bodies are for example less involved in school:
“In the last 10 years several studies have revealed girls’ diminishing participation in secondary education because of concern about the way they look. 31% of adolescents in the UK do not engage in classroom debate for fear of drawing attention to their appearance, and 20% say they stay away from class on days where they lack confidence about their appearance” (Lovegrove & Rumsey, 2004).
There has been focus on increasing women’s access in many areas of society and the number of women seeking education has never been higher. Girls see education as the key to their future, but they have possibly already missed out on opportunities, even before they start on their academic journey. Women have been targeted by the beauty industry from day one, that fills their heads with impossible beauty standards, wrapped in the illusion of entertainment:
The message is clear: Beauty will ensure you a bright future. These priorities have created insecure individuals, who spend enormous time on appearance-related thoughts that cause distress in the long run and can potentially be self-destructive. It also reduces cognitive performance and could explain why many women doubt their own abilities. We can therefore wonder what economic gain is lost when women’s potential is not fully realised and what could be accomplished if all that time wouldn’t go into self-criticism and body shaming.
Unrealistic Beauty Standards
A whole industry is devoted to protecting fictitious, fleeting stereotypes, where the models are photoshopped and images are edited before they reach the consumer. Orbach’s study from the sixties shows that women believed their appearance played a major role in their wellbeing and potential success in life. “Being beautiful” was the tickets to fit in and to have a worthy life. And it didn’t matter whether you were talking about teachers, doctors, engineers or housewives, they all spent a lot of time on their appearance and criticising it. This hasn’t changed today. If anything, the feeling has grown stronger. What has also changed is that now, beauty stereotypes also apply to men and boys.
The Orbach study was well before the time of social media like Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and the number of magazines and music videos that we see today. Research in Denmark shows that Danish teenagers have increased concerns about their appearance and not belonging to the group. More children and adolescents suffer from anxiety and depression today than before, and twice as many girls than boys.
Their worries stem from different sources but what experts agree on is that “Perfection” has become the new norm. Everything needs to be extra-ordinary and it puts a lot of pressure on teenagers, not least on how they look. During adolescence, it matters to fit in and questions about the body and sex are perfectly normal. However, what do unrealistic and unattainable stereotypes do for the self-esteem and body confidence of our children and teenagers in the long term? Women have experienced it on their own skin for decades, and the results are nothing we should be proud of. In the UK, every fourth person is on a diet at any given time, girls begin their first diet on average when they are eight years old and every fifth male has tried supplements to increase body mass before the age of twenty. In the US, similar figures show that when it comes to teenage girls, there is a clear relationship between low self-esteem and risk behavior:
how girls see themselves
Female leaders must look good
Requirements for looking good seem less important for middle-aged successful men than they do for women of the same caliber. The focus on appearance and perfection continues for women throughout their lives. And the higher they reach, whether in public affairs or as CEOs of major corporations, the greater the focus.
Lets take Hillary Clinton as an example. Her appearance is discussed regularly, from her hair and to her pantsuits, to how she looks when she cries or when she’s angry. In her book “Living History” she mentioned herself the ridiculous attention her hair has been getting all her life.
Don’t start me on her pantsuits! Before she even hit the campaign trail, it was getting attention, for, and I quote “being too colourful”.
Good thing it fits her logo!
Hillary Clinton is a politician and can be criticised on her political views. Her appearance should not be the center of attention. Or are male politicians given as much heat over their looks? Think Progress recently pointed out the sexism in reports headlining the “exotic and beautiful Tulsi Gabbard” a Democrat from Hawaii and expert in US foreign policy. According to a study from 2013, abnormal coverage of how female politicians look, negatively affect their chances for election, and it does not matter if the coverage is negative or positive.
Images of high heels are regularly used to illustrate stories about women in management. Many successful women in the private sector have their looks regularly commented on. They look either too sexy or not enough, they show too much cleavage, or not enough, they must not be too fat and must be feminine. The CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer was recently criticised for posing for a spread in Vogue:
Model or CEO? Can you be both?
Female leaders have to be attractive but are criticised if they go too far. A woman’s appearance is supposed to give an indication of where she stands. You have to look powerful. You have to look successful, it’s not enough to have the qualification your job requires or to just be a good leader when you are a woman. You have to look the part. Do we ask the same of male CEOs?
Is it possible that many women do not want to seek higher positions because of the focus it means on their appearance? Is it possible that if our beauty standards were more in tune with realistic and varied stereotypes and represented the society we live in, that more women would focus on what matters, instead of how they look? (But can you blame them, it plays a part in what job you get and how you fare so it is a return on investment as things are right now). Or is it the unattainable race for perfection that holds back women in all those fields where we lack female leadership today? In the US, fewer women run big companies than men named John, and in Australia there are more men named Peter high in the ranks than all the women combined.
Confidence and Success go hand in hand
The UK launched the “Be Real” campaign to try to counter body hatred. The aim is to increase the confidence of women and men with healthy stereotypes and get people to feel confident in their own body. The initiative is three-fold:
Real Education helps children and adolescents to get self-esteem from the start, calling on parents to be good role models and helping young people to support each other to be body confident.
Real Health focuses on health and wellbeing instead of appearance and weight, calling on the fitness industry and health sector to promote long-term solutions for good health instead of quick fixes and thin waists.
Real Diversity encourages the media, advertisers and companies to show how we really look like, show diversity in size, shape, race, age and ability, so we see the world we live in instead of promoting unhealthy and undesirable appearance-obsessed stereotypes.
Soap manufacturer Dove is a member of the Be Real campaign and has begun its own campaigning with “Choose Beautiful“.
The campaign encourages people, and women especially, to see the beauty in all of us, also ourselves. Participants are asked to choose between two doors into a shopping center. Over the doors are signs, one says “beautiful” and the other says “average”. We see women hesitating and when asked why they chose “average”, many women said they were afraid to walk through the door with the beautiful tag, not considering themselves being beautiful enough. Dove wants to point out that one can choose to be beautiful everyday, by expanding our perception of what is beautiful.
But first, we need to start by freeing ourselves from the shackles of our unattainable stereotypes. As the following video shows, we are often our worst critic:
– I wrote this article for Kjarninn but it is in icelandic. I thought it would be perfect for the blog so here is the english version –