Coming from different aspects of the beauty continuum as we do, we’ve both had a longstanding interest in beauty and the perception of beauty and how they can impact how people feel about themselves and one another. Two of the biggest things to impact teens’ psyches are weight/body issues and acne, so we decided it would be interesting to conduct an image-based study quantifying exactly how acne can alter others’ perception of teens. The study coincided with National Acne Awareness Month, and the results were very interesting.
Working with the American Acne & Rosacea Society (AARS), we asked thousands of teens and adults to offer their first impressions of teens based only on photos of their face. One face was without acne and one had been digitally enhanced with acne. The results showed that teens with acne are more likely than teens without acne to be perceived as shy (39% vs. 27%), nerdy (31% vs. 17%), and lonely (23% vs. 13%). Perhaps not surprisingly, the opposite also proved true: teens without acne were more commonly perceived as self-confident (42% vs. 25%), happy (50% vs. 35%), and leaders vs. followers (49% vs. 29%).
We were expecting the results of the study to show that having acne would be difficult for teens, which it does, but what we both found most distressing was the extent to which acne can really skew the way society perceives teens. We live in a very visual society and based on the survey results, people do make snap judgments about teens with acne. The results illustrate the fact that unfortunately, acne does play a role in how teens are viewed by both their peers and adults. So, what starts as a purely medical condition can have emotional and psychological implications for young people who are often already dealing with social, sexual and cultural chaos.
Our colleague Dr. Diane Berson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Dermatology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a founding board member of AARS said, “What surprised me most about the survey was confirming the length teens will go to improve their acne and what they are willing to sacrifice.” According to the study, if they could have clearer skin, 59% of teens would go cold turkey on Facebook for one year, 30% would give up dating for 12 months, 13% would take their mom or dad to the prom (now that’s a sacrifice), and 11% would be OK with seeing their grade point average drop. That’s testament to the desperation with which teens view acne and its role as a kind of marker of social stigma—a modern-day Scarlet Letter, if you will.
To us, this indicates a strong and urgent need to connect with teens about what acne is and who develops it so that we can bust the myths surrounding it and foster greater self-esteem in those unfortunate enough to develop it. Human beings of any age have a hard enough separating appearance from intelligence and moral character. How much more difficult must it be for youths who are in the process of slowly (and sometimes painfully) discovering who they are and developing own their body image? By teaching teens that acne is a disease, not a verdict, perhaps we can help foster greater understanding and kindness while making one of the obstacles on the path to adulthood a little easier to climb.
It’s always nice to know that the theories we put into our book, The Beauty Prescription, actually make sense in the real world. In one of the chapters, called Beauty 911, we talk at great length about taking care of your inner and outer beauty in times of stressful transition: death, divorce, job loss, etc. During such times, it’s easy to let your beauty go, to neglect your health, to succumb to anger and sadness, and to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Our advice was to be mindful of these truths and to take steps to preserve your physical health and appearance as well as your emotional equipoise, because when you can keep control over something while everything else around you is spinning out of control, you feel better. And you are better.
A woman we know named Ann (we have changed her name to protect the not-so-innocent) has become our personal poster child for the principles of Beauty 911 because of something that happened to her a couple of weeks back in Miami. Ann has been going through a terribly traumatic divorce, the kind of personal betrayal that is emotionally shattering. For many weeks, she was depressed and couldn’t stop crying. Life as she knew it had been upended by the dissolution of her marriage. Frankly, we were worried about her. She’s a strong, smart lady with tremendous inner and outer beauty, and to see her thrown for such a disabling loop was a reminder that every one of us is just a phone call or a test result from having our existence cast to the four winds.
Fast forward to a few weekends ago, when everything seemed to change. Ann had started to get her sense of self back, get her feet back under her and find some of the fire we knew well. She had stopped being a victim and was beginning to morph into a fighter. It was good to see. To blow off some steam, she went out on a Saturday night with some friends to some nightclubs in Miami’s wild South Beach district. Now, if you know anything about South Beach, you know that it’s like Mardi Gras year-round. This is a place where the plainest women become objects of fierce sexual attention from gorgeous men, and Ann is hardly plain. She had decided for the evening (and here’s where the principle of Beauty 911 comes in) to adopt a new identity—to give her divorcing self a night off and cut loose as someone else for a while. So she introduced herself as Asia D’Cuba and had a great time.
About midnight, “Asia” tired of the scene and headed for the street. But as she stood there she was having trouble fastening her sweater. She didn’t see a huge white Mercedes pull up, but a deep voice from the darkened car said, “Can I help you with that?” Ann, tickled by the attention, leaned forward provocatively and a huge, dark-skinned hand came out of the window, fastened her sweater clasp, then moved to her breast. That was more than she had bargained for, and she jumped back. The voice and hand, it turned out, belonged to a professional football player about 25 years old (who shall also remain nameless) and who Ann knew had just signed a multi-million dollar contract. He invited her to check out his car, but she politely declined. After all, there are only so many things a middle-aged woman under an assumed name will do on a Saturday night!
Still, Ann was secretly thrilled. She, a fortysomething soon-to-be divorcee who had been feeling old and unattractive, had been hit on by a twentysomething NFL stud! We thought it was hysterically funny and really sweet, and wonderful for her growing self-esteem. We also think it’s a perfect example of Beauty 911 in action. Ann took herself out of a comfort zone that had become depressing, took a risk, found her playful side, and rediscovered her self-confidence. All these things combined to make her atttractive enough to capture the attention of a rich young man who could have picked up on any woman in South Beach. Crisis? What crisis? The only person we feel sorry for now is Ann’s soon-to-be-ex.
Sometimes, pop culture and science meet in ways that are pretty ridiculous. The latest example is the renewed attention being given to a study conducted in 2005 by doctors Leif Nelson and Evan Morrison and published in the February 2005 Psychological Science (the abstract of the study can be found here). The study says that in essence, when economic times are hard—or in what the researchers called “times of resource scarcity”—men prefer women who are heavier by a whopping two or three pounds. So ladies, the strategy is clear: hit the Hometown Buffet near you every night for a week, then hang out at the unemployment office and you’re sure to meet that future Mr. Right…or Mr. Sort-of-OK.
All kidding aside, is this science? It seems like the worst kind of pop sociology to us—data applied liberally to a barely-known aspect of human behavior and then broad stroke conclusions drawn. But Dr. Terry Pettijohn II has a theory about what might be at work here. He’s a psychologist who has done research in the same vein and his opinion is that when men are flush, they are attracted more to women who are childlike: slender, willowy, nubile. But when times get rough, men become more like women, who are hard-wired to gravitate toward strong men who can be good providers for them and their offspring. Pettijohn thinks that a few extra pounds make a woman seem sturdier, tougher, more able to survive hard times. Translation: when money is short and jobs are insecure, men want a woman whom they don’t have to “take care of.”
So what does this mean? That the recession is going to be a boom time for women with normal bodies of all shapes and sizes and the decline of the size-zero waif? Probably not. Studies like this inevitably overreach, and this one is probably no exception. We suspect something else may be at work here: low self-esteem on the part of economically depressed men. We live in a culture where men in particular are defined by what they do for a living and how they provide for their loved ones. After all, men can’t make babies. Instead, they build, create, innovate and invent (women do those things, too, but bear with us). When they are unemployed or in dire career straits, men feel less attractive because society tells them they are less desirable. So they unconsciously set their sights lower, figuring a truly “hot” woman wouldn’t be attracted to them because perhaps their financial desperation is written on their faces, their slumped shoulders, and their worn shoes.
That makes as much sense to us as any theory and ties in perfectly with our beliefs about Inner Beauty: when you feel confident, you are beautiful to yourself and others. With so many millions of men and women feeling powerless in this terrible economy, it’s going to be a challenge for this generation to find their own inner beauty and self-esteem…and it’s better if they ignore questionable pop-culture science like this.
It’s not often that we give shout-outs to other websites, but we’ve simply got to do it for this one: AdiosBarbie.com. It’s a site for women of all body types who want to love their bodies and thumb their noses at the “size zero is beautiful” obsessions of pop culture. Created by editors Ophira Edut and Pia Guerrero, who collaborated on the book Body Outlaws: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity, the site is all about healthy body image, debunking disrespectful and objectifying media images of women, and promoting community and sharing of personal stories about dealing with everything from self-esteem issues to eating disorders.
We love the message and spirit of this site. After all, in The Beauty Prescription, we devoted part of a chapter to talking about the negative power of Barbie to foster realistic stereotypes of women. Basically, a team of Canadian researchers applied Barbie’s proportions to a real woman and determined that if she was flesh, Barbie would have a colon so small that she would die of malnutrition. So much for Ken, Skipper, that cool Corvette and all the other accessories. They don’t help much if you’re so thin you’re dead.
That’s the importance of websites like Adios Barbie. They seed the soil of our popular mindset with the idea that it’s good to be different, confident and daring—and bad to obsess over every single ounce while despising your reflection in the mirror. Part magazine, part blog, part social network, part store and all saucy resource, this is a web resource that we can’t recommend too highly.
In The Beauty Prescription, we talk about the Dove ad campaign called Real Beauty that ran in 2007, showing how beautiful real women with curves and gray hair and non-model figures can be when they’re not made to be embarrassed about themselves. We loved this campaign and know lots of women who did, but it turns out that wasn’t the end of the story. Dove and its parent company, Unilever, have also been building something called the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, which intends to reach out to 5 million young women around the world by 2010. The goal is one we couldn’t support more enthusiastically: to help free young women from self-limiting beauty stereotypes that lead to low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, eating disorders and a generally negative self-image. So far, the program has reached more than 2 million young women around the globe and continues to raise money for its efforts.
This is exactly the kind of thing we support in our book, our medical careers and our private lives. We both have daughters, and we shudder to think of them growing up burdened by the same expectations of a perfect face and body that we’ve seen scar many of our patients. To combat this, Dove is doing things like creating online-only short films (one of which won two awards at Cannes) and partnering with organizations like the Girl Scouts to produce nearly 2,700 self-esteem building and educational events in the U.S., U.K. and around the world. Concerned moms can go to the Fund’s website and find all sorts of tools they can use with their own girls.
This is a cause not just worth supporting but worth emulating. It’s wonderful to see a corporation focus on using its influence to improve the lives of the people who it hopes will buy their products. Sure, they are doing it with a profit motive and trying to win hearts and minds, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Dove could have just done a public service announcement and called it a day, but they didn’t. They’re using their resources to make a positive difference, and for that they deserve to be lauded and supported.