We live in a culture where beauty matters and many feel compelled to try to achieve some unattainable standard of beauty. The pressure to be “attractive” is everywhere, and the media is more than happy to try to define what attractive is, and what people need to do, and buy, to measure up to the airbrushed images they see. We are constantly bombarded with ways to “improve” ourselves, sending the message that we are never quite “okay” as we are.
According to one estimate, women spend almost 7 billion dollars every year on products in pursuit of beauty (Fahmy, 2009). Within the last decade, men are spending almost as much as women on products and procedures to enhance their appearance (Press Association, 2012). The obsession with appearance is also migrating to “tweens” and adolescents, with companies using cheap prices to entice younger consumers (Fahmy, 2009).
Many women, men, and teens constantly scrutinize the way they look. They compare themselves to others, and to media images, often feeling less than and inadequate. They may search outside of themselves for something to make them feel better and more okay. While there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to look and feel great, it’s important to set realistic limits on what we will and will not do to improve our appearance.
Spending a little money on eye cream or hair highlights is one thing, but what about products, treatments, and procedures that can have potentially serious or even life-threatening consequences? Many times, we are very aware of the risks to our health, but we still choose to value beauty over health. So, why do we do it?
Dangerous Beauty Practices
“Risky Appearance Management Behaviors” is a term that describes the dangerous things people do in the pursuit of beauty (Johnson, 2012). Striving to attain beauty is not only costly in dollars, but some will pay the price in life-long health problems. Some potentially “Risky Appearance Management Behaviors” include:
Unhealthy Weight Loss: This may be one of the most common of the dangerous behaviors people engage in to try to look better. Being overweight or obese is a legitimate health concern, and most people know, deep down, that there is no quick and easy fix. When people feel unattractive because of their weight, they can become desperate to lose pounds quickly, often sacrificing their health in the process. There are some bizarre diets out there, including the “tapeworm diet”, the “magnetic diet”, and the “12-day grapefruit diet.” But most people are more likely to engage in behaviors like: severe calorie restriction, laxative abuse, purging, cutting certain foods out of their diet, and excessive exercise to lose weight (Weight Loss Desperation, 2009). Some overuse diuretics or take dangerous diet pills that can lead to cardiovascular or psychiatric problems. Cigarette smoking is also sometimes used as a way to prevent weight gain. There are a number of risky behaviors that can be extremely dangerous, and can actually undermine efforts to drop pounds and get healthy. Some of these include:
Botox: While this treatment for wrinkles is generally thought to be safe, there are risks of both short-term side effects and more permanent injury. Recently, there have been concerns about retrograde botulinum toxin transmission. This means that the toxin could travel back to the central nervous system, causing long-term damage (Schlessinger, 2012).
Plastic Surgery: This is an extreme, often voluntary, measure to alter appearance. Going under the knife to look better is a very serious decision. Each situation and every person is unique, but cosmetic surgery can backfire when the person has unrealistic expectations about how the surgery will make them feel, or how it will improve their life. Many plastic surgeons require that the patient undergo a psychological evaluation, or counseling, before surgery. Like any surgery, plastic surgery comes with risks related to anesthesia, infection, bleeding nerve damage. Surgery is also more risky if there are underling medical issues (Cosmetic Surgery, 2014).
Tanning beds or over-exposure to natural sunlight: There is now a great deal of evidence and information out there about the dangers of over-exposure to natural or artificial UV /UVB radiation, and yet many still flock to tanning beds and bake in the sun. A study by JAMA Dermatology they found that the number of skin cancer cases due to tanning is even higher than the number of lung cancer cases due to smoking. Additionally, in the US alone, 419,254 cases of skin cancer were attributed to indoor tanning. Out of this number, 6,199 were melanoma cases (Skin Cancer.org, 2014).
This all seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Many are doing some very dangerous things in the pursuit of what our culture tells us is beautiful, even though these behaviors can result in life-long health problems, or even death.
Why do we do it?
It doesn’t make sense, right? Sometimes there are very good reasons to take risks to improve or change our appearance. For example, breast reduction surgery may be very helpful for a women struggling with back and neck pain. Sometimes the benefits really do outweigh the risks, and each situation is different. However, sometimes “Risky Appearance Management Behaviors” are done for less than healthy reasons. Why would we risk our health to look good? There is no one simple answer to the question of why we put ourselves in danger to look good, but there are some clues.
Beyond Vanity: The need to be attractive is powerful and possibly even innate. It’s not just vanity that drives us to try to meet the cultural standard of beauty. Dr. Irene Elia, a Biological Anthropologist at Cambridge, found that our appreciation of what is “beautiful” seems to be innate. She found that even newborn babies prefer pictures of the faces of people whom their elders would define as beautiful to those they would not, regardless of the sex and race of either the baby or the person in the photo. Even today, at a biological level, being beautiful may be just as much about finding a mate and being successful (surviving) as it is about being aesthetically attractive (Face the Facts, 2013).
“Self- Objectification”: This has to do with the extent to which a person views themselves as an object. This can also include “sexualization” or sexual objectification. This is the belief that being sexy and attractive is not only important and necessary in intimate relationships, but in all areas of life, including work (Johnson, 2012). The media sexualizes women at every turn; making it difficult for women and young girls to shake the images and the pressure to live up to a culture’s standard of what is beautiful. Johnson (2012) also points out that the energy and focus women put on beauty may not only endanger their health, but also cause them to invest less time in more “empowering pursuits.”
Body Dysmorphic Disorder: While most people who take minor or even extreme measures to alter or improve their appearance do not have any type of mental illness, there are some who are driven to take drastic steps because of an unrealistic and unhealthy appraisal of their appearance. Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a diagnosis that is given when a person has a fixation on some part of their appearance, and this fixation interferes with their daily life. Several studies have shown that 7 to 12% of patients who get plastic surgery have some form of BDD. These patients are often less satisfied after plastic surgery, and are more likely to request additional surgeries (Dittmann, 2005). Counseling can help people with BDD to develop a more realistic view of their appearance, and work through any underlying issues that contribute to the disorder.
Beauty is not a simple thing, and these are just a few possible reasons that people will risk their health to try to be more attractive. Before taking drastic measures to change your appearance, it’s important to ask yourself some important questions:
How do I feel about myself right now? How is my self-esteem, overall?
Am I doing this (tanning, plastic surgery, unhealthy dieting) for myself or for someone else?
How do I hope my life will improve after I lose weight/have surgery/get a darker tan?
Are there safer or less drastic measures I could take to make changes? Have I tried these?
Am I fully aware of the risks associated with this behavior/ procedure?
Answering these questions can help to clarify the motivation behind potentially risky behaviors. There may be underlying issues related to body image or self-esteem that can be addressed with a counselor. One 2012 study showed that having plastic surgery does not increase self-esteem, especially in younger women. The study followed 1500 young women for 13 years and found that the 78 women who had plastic surgery were more likely to be anxious or depressed during the course of the study. While these young women may have had poorer mental health before the surgery, the study showed that their mental health did not improve after the surgery (Ehrenfeld, 2012).
The pressure on both men and women to be beautiful is enormous. Media images, advertisements, and pressure from others can overwhelm our judgment about the risks we’re willing to take. Weighing the risks and benefits of behaviors and procedures, and understanding our own motivations can go a long way toward keeping us healthy.
Cosmetic surgery. (2014, May 14). Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cosmetic-surgery/basics/why-its-done/prc-20022389
Dittmann, M. (2005, September). Plastic surgery: Beauty or beast? Retrieved July 1, 2014, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/sep05/surgery.aspx
Ehrenfeld, T. (2012, December 10). Plastic surgery doesn't boost self-esteem. Retrieved July 3, 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/open-gently/201212/plastic-surgery-doesnt-boost-self-esteem
Face the facts. (2013, November 16). Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21589845-what-makes-beautiful-visage-and-why-may-have-been-discovered-accidentally
Fahmy, D. (2009). Beauty at any cost: Helping young women avoid this dangerous trap. Retrieved June 13, 2014, from http://www.allnaturalbeauty.com/
Johnson, K, (2012). Fashion and health: Risky appearance management behaviors. Retrieved June 13, 2014, from http://healthymagazine.com/fashion-and-health-risky-appearance-management-behaviors-2/
Press Association. (2012, July 10). Men Spend Almost As Much As Women On Beauty Products - Surprised? Retrieved June 13, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/10/07/men-spending-almost-much-women-beauty-products-fashion_n_1945960.html
Schlessinger, J., MD. (2012, July 12). Botox causes, symptoms, treatment - Risks of Botox Injections - eMedicineHealth. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.emedicinehealth.com/botox_injections/page6_em.htm
Skin Cancer. Org. Study finds more skin cancer cases due to indoor tanning than lung cancer cases due to smoking. (2014, January 29). Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/tanning
Weight loss desperation: Using unhealthy weight loss methods. (2009, August). Retrieved June 17, 2014, from http://www.weight-loss-center.net/weight-loss-blog/2009/08/weight-loss-desperation/