Stop telling your friends they’re beau­ti­ful

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - HEIDI STEVENS

You might be fa­mil­iar with the Bechdel test.

It’s a stan­dard cre­ated by artist Ali­son Bechdel to mea­sure whether works of fic­tion (movies, usu­ally) ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent women. The test asks three ques­tions: Are there at least two women present? Do the women speak to each other? Do they speak to each other about some­thing other than a man?

Re­nee En­geln would like to add a fourth ques­tion to Bechdel’s test: Are the women talk­ing about some­thing other than how they look?

And she’d like to ap­ply it to real life.

En­geln’s new book, “Beauty Sick: How the Cul­tural Ob­ses­sion with Ap­pear­ance Hurts Girls and Women” (Harper), ex­plores the ways we re­mind women — young and old — that the most im­por­tant thing they can be is beau­ti­ful.

“Then we pum­mel them with a stan­dard of beauty they will never meet,” En­geln, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at North­west­ern Univer­sity, writes. “Af­ter that, when they worry about beauty, we call them su­per­fi­cial.” Sound fa­mil­iar? It should. Beauty sick­ness spreads far and wide, and it has stark con­se­quences — from eat­ing dis­or­ders to de­pres­sion to dreams de­ferred.

“Beauty sick­ness mat­ters in part be­cause it hurts,” En­geln writes. “But even more im­por­tant, it mat­ters be­cause it’s hard to change the world when you’re so busy try­ing to change your body, your skin, your hair and your clothes. It’s dif­fi­cult to en­gage with the state of the econ­omy, the state of pol­i­tics or the state of our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem if you’re too busy wor­ry­ing about the state of your muf­fin top, the state of your cel­lulite or the state of your makeup.” Preach. It’s a par­tic­u­larly in­sid­i­ous con­di­tion be­cause even if a woman man­ages to es­cape in­fec­tion and not worry much about her looks, so­ci­ety will re­mind her — over and over and over — that she should worry about them a whole lot more. (Full dis­clo­sure: my hair hate mail saga makes an ap­pear­ance in Chap­ter 1.)

Which just re­in­forces the idea that girls and women don’t have much to of­fer the world, out­side of win­dow dress­ing.

Even ef­forts os­ten­si­bly aimed at ex­pand­ing our nar­row def­i­ni­tions of beauty — Dove’s Real Beauty ad cam­paign, those You Are Beau­ti­ful signs and stick­ers peo­ple post

anony­mously — sim­ply serve as re­minders to think about your looks, even if you were deep in thought about cli­mate change or so­lu­tions to home­less­ness.

“I know they’re com­ing from a good place,” En­geln told me. “But girls and women don’t need any ad­di­tional re­minders to focus on our ap­pear­ance. I don’t want to be beau­ti­ful, and I don’t want to think about hav­ing to be beau­ti­ful.”

Since writing the book, En­geln said, she’s stopped talk­ing to girls and women about their looks — and hers.

“I’ve re­ally tried to sti­fle any­thing about ap­pear­ance, even if it’s some­thing nice,” she said. “A lot of peo­ple dis­agree with this ap­proach. They say, ‘A com­pli­ment is a com­pli­ment.’ But it helps me think about ap­pear­ance less, which I like.

“It also helps me focus on what my body does in­stead of how it looks,” she con­tin­ued. “It helps me think about ex­er­cise as a type of care for my body, as a way to get stronger, as a way to stick around on this planet longer and do more of the things I want to do.”

At the same time, En­geln wants to be care­ful not to scold or si­lence women for the way we talk to one an­other.

“Women get shut down enough in this cul­ture,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s too sham­ing to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about how I look. What else do you want to talk about?’”

Ap­pear­ance, she writes, is a quick and easy topic for bond­ing with other women. But it shouldn’t be the only one.

“Ap­pear­ance-driven con­ver­sa­tions force ev­ery woman in hear­ing dis­tance to think about her own ap­pear­ance,” she writes. “Help the women you spend time with es­cape the in­ter­nal mir­ror by en­cour­ag­ing con­ver­sa­tions about other top­ics.”

It’s not the only way to cure beauty sick­ness, but it’s a start.

“Even though it’s a cul­tural prob­lem, the eas­i­est be­hav­iours to change are our own be­cause we have so much more con­trol over those,” she said.

“Peo­ple say to me, ‘We should fight the me­dia!’ Ab­so­lutely we should. But we should also stop say­ing aw­ful things about our own bod­ies in front of our daugh­ters. And we can do that today. Right away, we can change our con­ver­sa­tions.”

And put our­selves on the path to heal­ing.

“Just as a thou­sand tiny cuts from a beauty-sick cul­ture can break a girl or woman down, a thou­sand small steps to­ward some­thing bet­ter can build girls and women up,” she writes.

“We can make mean­ing­ful cul­tural change by tak­ing steps in our own lives to lessen the focus on women’s ap­pear­ance and by en­cour­ag­ing oth­ers to do the same.”

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