Most women in America and the world over have at one time or the other in their lifetimes involved in some form of a beauty contest. People want to look physically attractive. According to our society’s standards, beauty is so important that it is becoming everyone woman’s obsession. The media presents images of celebrities with a perfect body shape; size and appearance that we subsequently wish to emulate. Moreover, companies dealing with beauty products have exploited this opportunity to lure people with an array of products, which are frequently advertised by the media. The existing beauty contests where people are continuously comparing themselves with others have adversely affected people and the whole society in general. People are so much obsessed with beauty that they are willing to go on the strictest diet or undergo dangerous cosmetic surgery procedures among other things that they are willing to do to attain that perfect image. On the other hand, those who fail to comply with the set beauty standards are judged on this basis and may find themselves missing on several opportunities. This paper looks at how women and especially those from North America are obsessed with beauty. The paper also looks at the health and economic implications associated with this obsession. The purpose of the paper is to show why this obsession has become a big problem in our society and what needs to be done to get out of the obsession trap.
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To understand better, it is important to consider what factors have led women to be obsessed with beauty in our society. Apart from the media, which has been shown (by researchers) to be the most influencing catalyst of beauty obsession behaviors in women, life expectancy which has greatly increased in the past years has coupled with media influence to promote beauty obsession in North America. Some decades ago, people lived for an average of fifty years. This however has changed with an improvement in the quality and accessibility of effective medication and eradication of dangerous plagues that had been causing millions of deaths. Today, people live for an average of 85 years. A person in his/her fifties is therefore considered young and likewise expected to act. As we all know, actors are supposed to maintain their youth physical appearance. This calls for one to be a beauty fanatic.
Two theories that I will consider explain why the media is one of the most significant catalysts of beauty obsession in our society. According to Leon Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory, people tend to evaluate and rate themselves by comparing themselves to others. These comparisons increase significantly with perceptions of similarity. There are two types of comparison. There is a downward comparison and upward comparison. According to this theory, when one compares himself/herself downward to people who are inferior to him/her, he/she experiences a boost in self-esteem and a decreased feeling of anger.
On the other hand, when one compares himself/herself upward with people that appear to be superior to him/her, he experiences feelings of anger, depression and a low self-esteem. The media plays here significantly by portraying celebrities as people with a beauty that others need to emulate. These comparisons with celebrities have seen women in North America in a mad rush to look and remain beautiful.
Below is a picture that shows some of the activities that are done by women in order to look beautiful.
First developed by George Gerbner in the mid-1960s, cultivation theory explains how television is influencing people’s behaviors. According to this theory, televisions portray ideas that cannot work in the real world.
These are ‘television world’ which can be thought true by television viewers although they can never work in the real world. For example, a television may show a slender woman maintaining her perfect body size while taking junk foods. Although this is obviously false in the real world, viewers will pick and try to apply these ideas in the real world. In North America, many women for example have been influenced to emulate ‘television world’ ideas leading to problems like eating disorders among others that result when people mistake the ‘television world’ as real. Many women in our society are economically empowered. According to Maslov’s principle, the fact that most people have basic needs like food, water and clothing has driven human wants up the apex where things like love and acceptance become important for people. People are therefore concerned with physical self-image to gain acceptance to our society that has set beauty standards. Moreover, increased economic capacity for people means that people have resources to spend their money on expensive beauty products and procedures. This has combined with other factors to explain why our society is obsessed with beauty.
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To illustrate how our society is obsessed with beauty, I will consider a secondary source study that was carried out with the objective of finding out how women perceive their appearances and the strategies that they intend to take in order to maintain a youthful appearance. The questionnaire survey was carried out on a sample that consisted of two cohorts. The first consisted of about 290 young ladies while the second cohort consisted of about 70 elderly women.7
The following table shows a summary of results obtained from this study.
An important observation that can be seen from this table is that many young women are dissatisfied with their weight and therefore intend to increase physical exercise in order to cut their weights. This is irrespective of the fact that most of the women interviewed were not overweight. This dissatisfaction with physical appearance is stressed in the following table.
The problem of obsession with beauty is not new in North America. However, we have seen a general increase in this trend and especially an increase among women of color and young girls. Many women are living with a lifelong burden of trying to have that unattainable physical appearance and image. There has been an increase in cosmetic surgery which has brought along associated health risks. Obsession with beauty is leading to economic problems, health problems besides affecting people’s social life. How much is beauty worth? This is an interesting question because beauty is not just worth billions of dollars that people could invest in other things like education and savings but it is actually becoming greater than anything else in life. Unfortunately, physical beauty is not just affecting how women view and treat themselves but it is also affecting how the society in general is viewing and treating women. The society has therefore embraced a culture that is turning out to be too costly in many ways that we might not be able to fully understand.
The economic implications on women due to their desire to have unattainable physical appearance are enormous. Research has shown that women in America in general spend about seven billion dollars per year on cosmetic products alone. Many people think that obsession with beauty is only a problem that is prevalent in America. This is however not the case. In Canada where the country’s population is much smaller, about 1 billion dollars was spent on cosmetic and fragrance products in 2005. These figures do not include much more billions that are spent annually on physical modifications through cosmetic surgery. These implications are even reaching the workplace where research has shown that women who don’t adhere to particular standards of beauty are impacted negatively professionally and financially.
A recent study has shown that the amount of money spent by women on beauty products alone is so much that it can be used to finance university education when saved by every American woman for a period of five years.1 Two groups that are increasingly adopting cosmetic sugary to alter their physical appearance in the United States are young women including teenagers and women of color. According to a recent study, about 11.7 million cosmetic surgery and non-surgical procedures were carried out in the United States during 2007 alone. This represents an average increase of over 500% as compared to the previous ten years. Women represented about 91 percent of these surgical procedures. During this period, Botox injection was the most performed non-surgical procedure while the most common cosmetic surgical procedure performed was liposuction.
Young people are showing an increasing interest in cosmetic surgery. According to a survey done recently, young people aged between 18-24 years got most approvals for cosmetic surgery. An interview carried out in the same study showed that as much as 69% of young people respondents are in favor of cosmetic surgery. This represents an increase of 7% from 2006. Another group of people showing great interest in cosmetic surgery in North America is people of color. Most of these are African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans. Almost a quarter of all cosmetic surgeries carried out in 2007 were performed on people of color. This is an increase of 13 percent when compared to the previous year.
Women are also impacted negatively at the workplace from an expectation of physical beauty. What is referred to as lookism –prejudice that is judged from physical outlook presents a problem for many women in our society. Physical appearance does not have a direct link with productivity although many employers think that it does according to a recent study. Another study found out that workers who do not consider themselves physically attractive earn about 9% less money than workers considered physically attractive. Those who were considered as being most attractive earned far more money than the rest. There is therefore a direct relationship between physical beauty and income distribution in our society. This aspect alone makes the North American woman want to look more beautiful since it is a gateway to attaining financial emancipation.
Another area that has been greatly affected by people’s desire to attain that unrealistic physical image is health. This occurs due to behaviors intended to attain desirable physical appearances like unhealthy dieting, smoking to lose weight, going through dangerous cosmetic procedures, among other habits. Women and young girls are placing themselves at risk of developing chronic health problems. These health problems are increasingly starting at an early age as teenagers adapt to the beauty ideology at an early age. The following are some findings that came out from a research on how people’s health can be affected by obsession with beauty.
The study was carried out on women aged between 24-45 years. According to this study, 67 % of women in this age bracket excluding those with dieting disorders are trying to lose weight. The interesting trend is that 53 % of dieters are trying to lose weight although they are at a healthy weight. Moreover, as high as 39% of women are greatly concerned about what they eat.
Smoking is a habit that has been adopted by many women in order to lose weight. A Study on women has shown that 13% of women smoke in order to lose weight. The American Lung Association has discovered that tobacco companies while marketing extensively target women. These Companies present themes of an association between weight control and smoking of cigarettes. These are carried out through advertisements that feature slim and attractive females. The American Lung Association also discovered that young girls start to smoke at an early age to lose weight and identify themselves with groups that are models to those featured in smoking advertisements. These advertisements are misleading teenagers that being slightly overweight is worse than smoking although the reverse is true according to medical evidence. Cigarettes are portrayed to cause slimness and loss of appetite. Medical evidence however shows that smoking is very harmful to our health. Smoking is not a problem that is only prevalent in America. The Canadian government through the ministry of health noticed that the problem was prevalent in the country and gave out a report showing that this was the primary cause of early deaths in Canada. The report showed that more than 10,000 people die every year due to excessive use of tobacco.
It is interesting to note that a big percentage of this is women who are eager to look beautiful. This goes to show that smoking among women is not only a problem that is prevalent in America but in Canada as well.
The graph below illustrates the results of a study, which linked lung cancer with cigarette smoking per day. Results obtained are astoundingly similar although the study consisted of three samples taken at different times and places (Doll and Hill, Hammond and Horn and Dorn samples).
The American Lung Association states that cigarette smoking alone is responsible for up to 90% of lung cancer deaths in the United States. This reality is also observable in Canada.
It is interesting to note that lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States in 1987. A study has also shown that women smokers aged above 35 years are 12 times likely to die from cancer-related illness when compared to non-smoking women in the same age bracket. This fact leaves a lot to be desired since in a desire to look good, these women are destroying their health.
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It has been shown that as much as 10 million women in the United States alone suffer from an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. Besides, 40 percent of all newly diagnosed eating disorders are found in girls aged between 15 to19 years old. The problem with eating is not only prevalent in America alone. According to a 2002 survey, 1.5% of Canadian women aged 15 – 24 years had an eating disorder.
Some symptoms of eating disorders can be noted as early as kindergarten. Minority women are fast developing eating disorders on a high scale. This can be explained by the fact that they are currently being uncultured into the dominant white culture where high beauty standards are emphasized and maintained. Research has also shown that people who suffer from eating disorders are also more likely to suffer from a low self-esteem.
Cosmetic surgery has many risks that may affect one’s health. An expert in cosmetic surgery by the name Barry L. Friedberg, M.D had this to say about cosmetic surgery:
“General anesthetic (GA),the predominant choice of anesthesia for cosmetic surgery, includes many unnecessary, avoidable and potentially fatal risks to patients choosing to have surgery that has no medical reason or indication…including blood clots to the lungs, airway mishaps leading to lack of oxygen to the patient’s brain, postoperative nausea and vomiting(PONV), and postoperative cognitive disorder (POCD). All of these risks can and should be avoided by having patients and doctors choose a different anesthetic technique.”
A recent article in the New York Times titled “Unlicensed cosmetic procedure practitioners”, talked of how illegal practitioners in cosmetic surgery who include doctors and nurses trained in other countries attract low fees patients. These use illegal permanent wrinkle fillers, work in a congenial atmosphere and do other things that put their patient’s health at great risk. It is interesting to note that cosmetic surgery is becoming cheaper and accessible in Canada raising the possibility that it is the standards that are getting compromised putting patients’ lives in more danger. According to some research in Canada, about 90 percent of cosmetic procedures are unnecessary and do not make any difference to someone. Besides, non-cosmetic procedure operations have increased significantly in recent years.
There is increasing concern that these procedures are not performed in a healthy setting by a qualified physician and where records are kept. There are also increasing cases where some of these procedures are performed at home or beauty salons with no proper licensing and training. This is also causing health concerns.
Some major complications are experienced because of cosmetic procedures. Breast augmentation complication is one such side effect. This may in rare cases include scar tissue infection, sagging of implants and rupture or deflation of implants. The implants may also settle towards the middle of the chest. Another complication is tummy tuck complications, which may include infections and bleeding of areas under the skin. This may lead to deadly clots in the lungs. Liposuction complications can lead to skin discoloration and skin infection.
It is unfortunate that cosmetics are not subject to testing by North American governments including the United States government and the Canadian government. This is unlike European countries. For example, the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not required by law to approve cosmetic products before they are marketed. To even make matters worse, cosmetic companies have not been compelled to register information on important things like ingredients or cosmetic-related complications to FDA. Cosmetic companies are solely responsible for ensuring the safety of their consumers. Interestingly, some components found in cosmetics have been shown to be harmful. For example, a component called phthalates found in perfumes has been found to cause damage to the liver and reproductive system.
These chemicals can enter the body through skin absorption or inhalation. The European Union has banned these perfumes in Europe although they have not been banned in the U.S. The 2003 European Union’s directive on substances states that those substances with carcinogenic, mutagenic or that which are poisonous for reproduction should be banned in the cosmetic industry. The United States on the other hand does not have laws that can prohibit these products from entering our consumer market.1 Another area that has been impacted negatively by the society’s obsession with beauty is interpersonal and personal relationships. Obsession with physical body image has contributed to a culture that has certain norms that are harmful to women and girls. This creates interpersonal behaviors that are damaging to the society. Advertisements featuring thin and physically perfect characters contribute greatly to behaviors that seek to have the unattainable beauty that is advertised. According to experts, the issue of self-esteem is a core character issue that determines if one is happy or not. Once people achieve it, then it is manifested on the outside.5 This culture promotes the sexualization of women and creates unnecessary competition among women.
A study carried out on teenage girls found out those teenage girls who watched commercials showing underweight icons were so much affected physiologically that they lost self-confidence and became unhappy with their own bodies.
Another study showed that thirty minutes of watching television commercials is enough to change the way a young girl views her body shape. Body shapes and size can therefore be affected by observing unrealistic body images through television. Various studies have also shown that young girls are taught by the media to derive confidence in how sexy they look rather than on their character and what they have achieved. One’s physical image is thus reduced to sexual attractiveness.1 The standards set by the media which depict young teenagers are unrealistic to achieve. This creates a condition where girls and women affected develop negative thinking to a point where they cannot think cognitively apart from having wrong beliefs on ideal standards that they think they can achieve.
Three of the most common mental health problems associated with girls have been directly linked to sexualization of women. These mental problems include eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem. Girls are also creating a new form of competition which is carried on among themselves by displaying each other in a manner that conforms to thinness and sexiness standards. A recent study has shown that there is a direct link between how women and girls view themselves in relation to beauty and feelings of anxiety and shame. This has affected women’s ability to focus their attention appropriately affecting their productive capacity to perform tasks efficiently. Young boys are also affected by beauty commercials at a young age since these commercials teach them to objectify women sexually something that further affects women even more negatively.
This objectification of women has created a culture of risky sexual behaviors in young girls. For example, a recent study showed that many young girls think that coerced sex is not bad.
Girls and women are increasingly developing a mean culture brought about by competition among themselves as result of obsession with beauty ideals. For example, studies have shown that bullying between girls has been on a steady rise since early 1990s. Girls referred to as mean girls because of their aggressive relationships that hurt others are not born with this kind of character. They however develop this kind of character as a result of inadequacy feelings brought about by competition and sexualization of women on beauty. A study carried out on competition between women found out that as high as 80 percent of women interviewed said that they compared themselves with other women on their physical image. These women are tempted to use all means including cosmetic surgery in order to attain unrealistic body shape that would give them an edge against other women. They have wrong mental perception that good looks will earn them a good husband and or a good career among other things that they desire. Heidi Montag’s story is a good example that shows how our society is obsessed with beauty. The 24-year-old who underwent 10 plastic surgeries in a single day admitted that she is more than obsessed with plastic surgery.
The reality star underwent 10 different procedures in a single day to attain perfection.
She had been planning to launch a pop career after undergoing the cosmetic surgery procedures.
According to media sources, “She also underwent a mini brow lift, chin reduction, Botox in her forehead and frown area as well as fat injected into her cheeks, nasolabial folds and lips”. In an interview, she said that she felt more beautiful after the surgical procedures that she had undergone. She also said that she had gained self-confidence because of the procedure. According to Montag, the world would now appreciate her more after the plastic surgery.
“In just a single day, Montag underwent the following processes: Mini brow lifts botox in forehead and frown area, nose job revision, fat injections in cheeks, nasolabial folds and lips, chin reduction, neck liposuction, ears pinned back, breast augmentation revision, liposuction on waist, hips, outer and inner thighs and buttock augmentation”. Moreover, she maintains that she may go for more surgeries to maintain her body shape. Fellow co-stars who think this is going too far have even criticized this move.
Montag’s story shows how young women in our society are so much obsessed with being beautiful that they can go to the extent of doing anything including ten surgeries in a single day to attain their ideal body shape. Montag underwent these procedures before launching her career probably to gain acceptance from her fans that are living in a society that is very conscious of physical appearances. Furthermore, an
issue that has well been raised by her co-workers is the influence that stars like Montag can have on women and girls in North America. For example, many young girls will be lured to follow Montag’s example as they are lured to try to achieve that unattainable physical image. Young women in our society like Montag are going to extremes in search of that unattainable physical image. Physical pain, mental pain and economic costs among other strains cannot even deter these women.
- Most people in North American are highly obsessed with beauty. Women are the most (more than eight percent of women are dissatisfied with their physical appearance and they form about 91 percent of cosmetic procedures.) affected which explains why they form a bulk of cosmetic procedures which are significantly increasing in our country.
- Our society has developed a culture of obsession with beauty something that does not only affect how women view and treat themselves but also how the society views and treats them. Women have been shown to have income distributions that match their physical appearance beauty.
- Two most affected groups that are increasingly adapting cosmetic surgery and other behaviors associated with obsession with beauty include young women and women of color. (in 2007 women of color represented 25 percent of all surgical procedures in the united states)
- Very large amounts of economic resources are spent on beauty and beauty products in North America. These resources could greatly empower women if they were used for other purposes.
- Obsession with beauty is causing health problems to women world over through dangerous cosmetic procedures, cigarette smoking, and unhealthy dieting habits.
- The media is the single most influencing agent of obsession with beauty in the society. Its adverts, especially television adverts are primarily responsible for shaping people’s attitudes on their body shape. It has created an ‘ideal body image, which though unattainable in the real world is frantically sought by women in the society.
- Obsession with beauty is limiting people’s capacity to enjoy life as they concentrate on their bodies neglecting other areas of life.
- Obsession with beauty has created unnecessary competition among women and sexualized women in our society.
- Women’s cognitive capacity has been negatively impacted by obsession with beauty, which has also diminished women’s self-esteem apart from creating unhealthy feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
- American laws do not have provisions that protect American citizens against dangerous cosmetic products found in our market. The European Union has banned some of these products, which have been shown to be harmful, in Europe.
- Cosmetic procedures could lead to health complications either because of unhealthy and unqualified settings in which they are carried out or because of an infection that may occur because of the cosmetic procedure
From the above study, I recommend that the following measures should be taken to prevent women from further obsession that may ruin their health.
- Since most women are obsessed with beauty in North America, the state governments should discourage women of color from using plastic surgery due to the health implications associated with these procedures.
- Tobacco companies should be discouraged from using advertisements that depict women who smoke as being beautiful. This is because more women are following the advice and they are in turn ruining their health.
- There should be a law that ensures that only registered clinics carry out plastic surgery. This is due to an emerging trend that shows that unregistered individuals are carrying out this procedure hence putting the lives of citizens at risk.
- The government should ban the use of some dangerous cosmetics chemicals that are harmful to people’s health. This ban should be done with urgency since the bans have been done elsewhere in the world.
- Employers in North America should be discouraged from categorizing women in the workplace according to the level of their beauty.
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