Ask the Expert: Melinda Green on the cult of beauty
We are a culture obsessed with beauty. Across educational, vocational, and interpersonal realms, beautiful people receive greater social and economic rewards and achieve greater social and economic status. Beautiful people garner the most “likes” on social media, the most attention in advertising, the leading roles in movies, the top positions in vocational settings, the greatest access to romantic partners—the list of benefits goes on and on.
Those who deviate from the beauty ideal are less likely to achieve high social standing and are more likely to experience punishment across social realms. Data indicate this is especially true for women.
Our focus on beauty is omnipresent and narrowly defined. The designation of “beautiful” is largely reserved within our culture for those who are young, white, with unblemished skin, and with very specific body types. To meet this ideal, women are required to be thin, with visible lean muscle mass, and with strategic “curves” in the breasts and buttocks. These curves are often the product of surgical manipulation since curves consist largely of fat tissue and are genetically less common among women with lean body types.
Increasingly, our culture dictates that young men must be hypermuscular with a V-shaped upper body. The desired level of muscularity is not genetically attainable for the majority of men without a vigilant exercise and dietary obsession or the use of supplements and steroids.
A cultural obsession with beauty often leads individuals to become appearance-obsessed. Beauty obsession has been linked to high levels of mental illness at the level of the individual, including eating disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and body dysmorphic disorder (an obsessive preoccupation with imagined or slight anomalies in appearance).
At the cultural level, beauty obsession is associated with weight obsession, increased obesity rates, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and many other negative public health outcomes.
Beauty obsession erodes the fabric of strong societies because it leads us to dismiss other valuable human traits that enhance cultural viability and social connectedness. The traits we could choose to emphasize over beauty include kindness, humor, an attitude of service, empathy, honesty, hard work, grit, perseverance—the list of meaningful, valuable traits is long.
The list of societal implications of emphasizing beauty over these traits is also long. We have the ability to prioritize whatever traits we want to value within our culture and change can begin with the individual. It’s important to be intentional about what you choose to prioritize and reward in yourself and others, and be mindful of the consequences. Cultural change begins with conscious individual choices.
Melinda Green is principal investigator for a nearly $400,000 grant awarded to Cornell College by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health to study the most effective means of treating eating disorders in women.