04.09.1410:27 AM ET

Rethinking the Price of Beauty

Women need to overcome social pressures and learn to feel good about themselves. The problem is doing it. Randi Hutter Epstein reports from the Women in the World summit in New York.

Following a clip of Dove’s film Evolution—that showed a model getting made-up and hair done in fast-forward and her image stretched every which way by Photoshop—ABC news correspondent Deborah Roberts, said, “women are just bombarded every day by these unattainable images of beauty and it’s very hard to feel great about yourself when you look in the mirror.

At the fifth annual Women in the World Summit in New York, Roberts moderated a Dove-sponsored self-esteem session that focused on how women can overcome social pressures and just feel good about themselves. Panelists covered a lot of ground: They talked about women as their own worst enemies—studies show a mere four percent of women think of themselves as beautiful. They talked about the contradictory messages thrust on teenage girls today—mothers can say all they want about inner beauty but their daughters get the opposite messages from magazines and TV. They talked about the evils of Botox—ironically, the face-tightening makes you feel worse about yourself.

As Tomi-Ann Roberts, a panelist and psychology professor at Colorado College, put it, “if you are eight you are supposed to look 21 and if you are 51 you are supposed to look 21. And you are supposed to spend a lot of money to make that standard, whether it’s big butt, little butt, big boobs or little boobs.” Fashions change she said, to keep the beauty business in business. Studies have shown, she added, that girls and women feel a tremendous amount of body shame because they can’t help but compare themselves to the airbrushed images.

Mika Brzezinski, co-host MSNBC’s Morning Joe admitted, as she had in her book, Obsessed, that she is vulnerable about weight issues and addicted to make-up. When she said that make-up is no longer fun because “it owns me,” her fellow panelists handed her make-up remover pads. (They all seemed to have them coincidentally in their handbags.) She then spent the next 20 minutes or so wiping off her foundation, worried about plucking off the fake eyelashes, and wondered if eye-liner counted as “no make-up.” Luckily, she happened to have a mirror in her purse so she could see what she was doing—and seemed appalled by the results.

“You’re beautiful,” yelled a woman in the audience, which backed yet another study that Colorado College’s Roberts reported: Women, she said, tend to see beauty in each other but not themselves.

Ten years ago, Dove launched a campaign aimed at breaking stereotypes of beauty with women of all sizes, shapes and ages appearing in their ads. Gina Boswell, executive vice president of personal care for Unilever (Dove's marketer) and panelist said the ads had an overwhelmingly positive response and encouraged a dialogue not just among women but among men as well.

In addition to the talk of social pressures, panelists offered advice for older women and teens: They told mothers not to denigrate their own image in front of their daughters because you are, in essence, putting down your child’s image. Think about it, they said. You may think you are just noting your own flaws, but if your daughter shares any resemblance, you are disparaging her, as well.

They said teenagers need to talk to each other about pressures to be too thin and too made-up because conversation fosters a supportive, rather than competitive environment.

Crystal Ogar, an African-American blogger and feminist, choked up when she talked about a childhood thinking that only white women were pretty. She now works with Spark, an organization that fights against objectification of women in the media and encourages self-esteem among young women. 

She added that selfies are empowering, showing all sorts of women being silly and being themselves and—of course—being beautiful as they are.

“I’m a mess,” said Brzezinski as she continued to rub off the foundation. She said she thought she had the perfect diet until a therapist diagnosed her with orthorexia, which means having a too-perfect diet, which is really another type of eating disorder. “Two years ago, I was 118 pounds and I was 47 and that’s not right. I was really unhappy and really hungry.”

She said she’s gained 20 pounds since—and even brought a scale with her in her purse. Apparently, she’s not afraid of the numbers anymore and doesn’t want others to be, offering her scale, she said, to other women in the program. And, best of all, she’s not hungry anymore either.

As they concluded the panel, Deborah Roberts said talk is easy, but, as an audience member told her in an email, activism against the objectification in the media is key. Talk is talk. Activism can change the status quo.