Did you know 10,000 people Google this question every month?
[photo woman looking in mirror]
Meaghan Ramsey on Ted Talks discussed this very subject recently. This set me thinking about, firstly, who was asking this question, and what kind of mind-set would you be in at the time? As someone in the very business of selling beauty, or at least a version of it, I know that this theme of beauty and ugly is prominent in the minds of my potential clients.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of those asking are female. And, the vast majority of those are teenagers. Some are as young as 6 years old. A lot of our younger generation are deeply worried about their appearance. This is only exacerbated by the rise of the selfie culture, the fact that how things look are vastly more important than the real person, and the constant pressure to ‘look good’ is permeating into the mind-set of younger and younger people.
Whether you are still a teen or not, how we perceive ourselves has a huge influence on how we look upon life and, most importantly, how others perceive us. It all comes from within. But the pressures of a peer group, themselves influenced by a media culture obsessed with how things look, are driving forces in the increasing mentality of ugly/beauty. It’s being forced down your throat like junk food that you know is bad for you and barely counts as food, but if it’s the only option, that’s all you’re going to eat.
But it doesn’t have to be the only option.
[photo woman looking at phone in mirror while upset]
Emily (aged 13)
Emily has just turned 13 and like many of her friends, is into clothes, music, spending hours on the phone, all the usual teenage stuff. She’s friendly and has a good home life. Her parents are reasonably well off and she’s not lacking in any of the basic necessities. But Emily doesn’t like herself, she thinks she’s ugly. She’s also feeling really inadequate. What is this perception based upon?
For one, she just Googled London fashion week, as many of her friends have been talking about it. It’s the same this year as it has been every year, rake-like models in ridiculous clothes surrounded by armies of hair and makeup artists before tottering about on a stage, while the captions and commentary talk endlessly about how wonderful it all is. (Do you remember the sporadic campaigns to get ‘real women’ into fashion shoots? How’s that working out?)
This year though, Emily’s new phone allows her to see all the details up close. She’s also now a fully-fledged user of Twitter and Instagram now she’s reached qualifying age (a number of her friends have been using Twitter for much longer, but that’s a story for another day). So all her friends and a lot of people she doesn’t know at all are all talking about how amazing these models look.
Think about that last sentence. It doesn’t matter that most of the comments are from complete strangers and may well have been set up by PR companies. The point is, the social pressure is already there.
It’s being talked about, so it must, by definition, be important.
Emily starts looking for ways she can emulate the ‘beautiful’. She obviously can’t afford the clothes, but makeup is quite easily within reach, either at home or with her pocket money. Plus, she’s noticed how some of her classmates are now wearing a lot more makeup in school. This attracts attention. Not necessarily good attention, but there’s nothing worse, at any age, than being ignored. So Emily starts putting more make up on as well. She spends hours in front of the mirror trying different things out, all the while with one thought in the back of her mind –
‘I don’t look pretty enough’
[photo sad looking Bridget Jones type pic looks out of window]
Jessica (aged 23)
Jessica works in a bank and earns a decent living. She likes good clothes and meeting up with her friends for drinks. She likes clothes shopping and a good proportion of her monthly earning goes on clothes. Her flatmate Mila also has similar interests.
Jessica commonly scans the magazines at the supermarket checkout to keep up with celebrity ‘gossip’ because, let’s face it, there’s lots of fun in seeing who’s got into and out of relationships, who’s on holiday in the Bahamas, who’s just gained weight or lost weight (always women, strangely).
The thing about the latter, is that there is always something inherently bad about the women who are in this latter category, something to be mocked or judged. Just harmless gossip, right?
It must be acceptable; there are about 10 magazines on the shelf all about the same kind of thing. Jessica sees other people reading as well as they queue up to pay. She knows, she’s certain, that those same people are looking at her and noting that she too has put on a little weight recently.
Jessica is feeling down now. Mila tries to cheer her up over dinner and wine. Jessica feels a bit better, but then Mila’s boyfriend comes around and they disappear off to her room together. Jessica can hear them talking and laughing and now she feels more down. She hasn’t had a boyfriend for a while and when she looks on Facebook, all her friends seem to be talking what they’re doing with their boyfriends too. She sits in her room and thinks
‘Why can’t I find a man? There must be something wrong with me’
Here we have two people who have, by social programming, developed feelings of deep inadequacy yet have nothing to feel inherently inadequate about. They are taking their self-esteem cues from external influences and since they have no control over what those influences might be, this perpetuates a feeling of dependency, poor self-image and lack of control. Does this sound familiar?
[photo hands in cuffs]
The first step in breaking free of this prison of social programming is recognising it exists.
All around, 24 hours a day, messages are fed to us about how we are lacking something, and we need to get it in order to feel complete. It usually means we have to buy it, whatever it is. Have you ever felt that? This is how the worlds of advertising and marketing work, the basic tenet of inadequacy.
‘You need Product X, and you are a poorer person without it’.
And marketing is now aimed squarely at women, because it is easiest to take aim at their self-esteem.
This wasn’t always the case – advertising was rarely aimed at women in the past because they didn’t have the spending power. Times have changed and women earn and spend independently of their husbands or spouses. So now the focus is not on who has the money to spend, but who can we make feel inadequate? It’s not that men are immune to this, oh no. But look at the statistics – 70% of all spending power is now in the hands of women. No wonder advertisers have changed their focus. And no-one ever sold a product to someone by making them feel good about themselves.
Take the first step. Recognise you are being screwed with. Take the time to notice all those subtle and not-so-subtle messages that ram home the idea, over and over, that you’re not good enough. Once it’s entirely clear that you can take the power back, you will open up a whole new way of thinking.
Instead of asking ‘am I ugly?’
Start asking ‘what is it about me that’s so powerful and attractive that makes others so desperate to control me?’
There are 3 times as many search results in Google to ‘Why am I ugly’ than ‘Why am I powerful’.
Start asking better quality questions of yourself if you really want better answers.
By the way, we’re not done with Jessica or Emily yet.
To be continued…