The Beauty Trap

04.08.1412:41 PM ET

Powerful Role Models Can Change How We Value Girls

Girls and women strive to embody images that are unrealistic, unattainable and often not even real.

There’s a new, free app that allows girls and women to take a “selfie” and then instantaneously—and subtly—tinker with every single aspect of their face: skin tone, nose width, tooth color, cheekbone height, eye color—and then also apply makeup and change their hair. When finished, users can flip back and forth between their original photo and the new and “improved” one (with the option of posting their edited photo online).

I tried this the other day, as an experiment, and despite having felt relatively good about my original pic, after two minutes of staring at a not all that different version of myself (but with slightly smoother skin, thinner nose, wider eyes and fuller lips) I felt truly awful about how I really looked.

And I’m an adult who has worked on body image. Imagine how a 10-year-old girl would feel.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine. We know that girls as young as ten are already struggling with body image: over 80 percent of ten-year-old girls are afraid of being fat; by middle school, 40-70 percent of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body; and body satisfaction hits rock bottom between the ages of 12 and 15.

It is not news that girls and women struggle with expectations concerning appearance. But not only is the struggle affecting girls at younger and younger ages, with real consequences for physical, mental health and self-esteem. We have now reached a point where hating one’s body is the norm. In fact, studies of girls as young as seven have found that they are unhappy with their body even when they are not overweight—or even perceive themselves to be overweight! 

Those results echo one of the more illuminating, and disturbing, quotes from the analysis “Disordered eating in women: implications for the obesity pandemic:” “Female university students with or without eating disorders have similar levels of psychological disturbances about eating and weight. Thus, possessing intense weight concerns alone is not considered pathological.” To the contrary, most women (and men) would likely agree that not possessing food, weight or body image concerns is the exception these days.

Girls and women are constantly bombarded by images to which they aspire—even when they recognize the images are unrealistic, unattainable and often not even real. Then they suffer even more when they inevitably fail to live up to those images. A 2010 study by Girl Scouts of the USA and Dove Self-Esteem Fund found that:

Sixty-three percent of girls think the body image represented by the fashion industry is unrealistic and 47 percent think it is unhealthy, yet 60 percent say that they compare their bodies to fashion models, 48 percent wish they were as skinny as the models in fashion magazines, and 31 percent of girls admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat as a strategy to lose weight.

Highlighting the insidious nature of the media, research found that only 30 minutes of watching TV and advertising can affect the way a girl perceives her body.

On the upside, there is active and growing resistance to the constant pressure and reinforcement of a singular, unrealistic, and unattainable “ideal.” Groups like Spark Movement and Realize Your Beauty engage girls in activism, such as speaking out against Photoshop in magazines (as a result of Spark’s efforts, Seventeen magazine changed its practice) and against an app that simulated plastic surgery. A coalition of groups, “Brave Girls Want,” led a successful charge against a sexualized Meridia doll from the Disney cartoon Brave. And most recently an effort to crowd-source an “average” alternative to Barbie blew past its fundraising goal in less than a day.

Additionally, companies like Dove are taking leadership and putting thought and effort into counter-messages that help girls (and women) realize they are beautiful the way they are. Dove’s new “Selfie” campaign builds on their decade of work expanding the definition of beauty and harnesses the power of social media. After Dove’s research showed that 63 percent of women believe social media is influencing today’s definition of beauty more than print media, film and music, the company filmed a short documentary featuring mothers and daughters taking honest, unfiltered selfies. Encouraged by the producers to embrace the features that make them unique and special, the women and girls start to embrace their own attributes and redefine “beauty.”

The result is a powerful campaign that encourages the public to post unfiltered, unedited selfies with the hashtag BeautyIs so that other girls and women can see their peers—girls who look like them—claiming beauty for themselves. What’s especially interesting about this is the mother/daughter component since moms’ self-talk influences their daughters. 

This conversation about expanding the definition of beauty is critical, but perhaps more important is actively changing the way we value girls and women. Even as women have made enormous strides in education, politics, and the workplace, we are still more often than not rewarded or punished for our physical appearance. The enormous pressure for girls to focus their energies on being thin comes at the expense of being brilliant, creative, kind, passionate, leaders. Not only do we have to stop propagating a single standard of beauty, but quite simply girls need to believe that their value is not derived from their appearance but from who they are and what they do.

For three days, I watched more than 125 of the world’s most brave, powerful and intelligent women stand on the Women in the World summit stage and talk about their work, their drive and their passion. And you know what? Not a single one said that she could have accomplished more if her hair were blonder, if she had fewer wrinkles, or if she could just lose 5-10 pounds.