Why women suffer from a distorted self-image

It’s been a while since I wrote the last time about the subject “Blind spot” here on iPersonic. That subject occurred to me yesterday for very personal reasons. As happens occasionally to all of us, yesterday I had obviously gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. With a few things very much on my mind I had not slept all that well. So, while brushing my teeth and already in a mousy mood, I dismayed to be “confronted” by my reflection in the mirror above the sink. Bags under the eyes, clearly lots more wrinkles than yesterday and then that strange new liver spot right next to my nose – could that possibly be the forerunner of senile freckles? And then I made the dumbest strategic mistake any woman can possibly commit in a situation such as this – I stepped on the scale! That pretty much did it for the day. I was tempted to go right back to bed. My already lousy mood hit bottom and established itself there for good.

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Down in the mouth I started the computer and wondered whether that mood would even permit me to accomplish anything that would make sense or whether I better forget about that day going in. Half heartedly surfing on Facebook I happened upon the video “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” posted there by a (female) journalist.


The scenario is easily and quickly explained and in the final essence naturally turns out to be a (and once again) really good advertisement by Dove: In it the company addresses the fact that most women are the most severe critics of their very own appearance. Participating in a variety of surveys only 4% of all women worldwide describe themselves as “beautiful” while all others have something to carp about: too fat, too skinny, too tall, too little chest, too much chest, hair too thin, eyes too small . . . you name it. While those around them don’t even notice these imagined blemishes, or even if they do consider them one heck of a lot less significant than the interviewed woman did. But then trying to change our minds in this respect has very little chance of success – on that ear all of us appear to be totally deaf. We look into the mirror and all we see is that imaginary large nose and nothing else. Or that additional wrinkle. Or that strange small brand new liver spot . . . phenomena that already begins with puberty at the latest and usually much earlier. Then one already snivels into the towel: „Impossible to go to the party with that giant pimple on my forehead!“ while the own mother blankly watches and asks: “Pimple? Which pimple?”

In order to illustrate this extreme discrepancy in the matters of appearance between the self – and external perception especially among women the Dove company presents a clever setting: A composite sketch artist is hired and placed in a room. Then a number of women are sent into the room, albeit in an area separated with a curtain – he is able to talk to them but cannot see them and vice versa they can’t either. To enable him to “profile” them, in order to create a composite sketch just as it would be done by drawing the image of a witness at the police station, the women are now supposed to describe their own face to him in as much detail as possible. They do this conscientiously and the artist literally converts their instructions. “My chin protrudes quite a bit, especially when I smile . . . “ – “my mother told me that I had a big jaw …” – “I have a fat, rounded face . . .” – “the older I‘ve gotten, the more freckles I‘ve gotten . . .”

And now comes the second part: Here the women also have to describe a face to the artist, but this time not their own but that of one of another women in the room participating in the experiment. The descriptions turn out to be totally different: “She was thin, so you can see her cheek bones. And her chin was a nice, thin chin.” – „She had nice eyes. They lit up when she spoke.“ - “She had nice eyes; very nice blue eyes” – “A cute nose.” At the conclusion of the experiment the artist now had drawn two images of each participating women: one according to her own instructions and another one according to the description of an otherwise complete stranger. Now both pictures were displayed next to each other and presented to the women.

I bet you can guess at the difference between the two pictures correctly! The drawings created according to the descriptions of those who did not know the subjects always turn out a lot more attractive than those created by the artist according to the information provided by the person about herself. But not only that – if one would be to choose among the pictures, that which would most realistically represent the subject (one that would provide the higher hit ratio on the occasion of a dragnet investigation) one would invariably have to choose the sketch resulting from the information provided by those who had never met that person before! In the sketches created according to the information provided by herself, an outsider would often have trouble recognizing the original model – on the other hand no problem with the images created according to the information by the observers.

This phenomena is everything but new – especially where women are concerned it is well known that in many respects generally they tend (and that includes their appearance) to assess themselves much too critically and negatively. According to a 2001 study by the University of Glasgow they also have an up to ten times more frequently impaired body image than men. In extreme cases this becomes obvious with patients suffering from eating disorders (anorexia) which is an indicator that the persons concerned suffers from a totally distorted perception of their own body (where their physical appearance is concerned). For instance, when they are asked to choose one that best reflects their personal figure from a variety of silhouettes, they are invariably going to pick a much too voluminous silhouette. But even with healthy women a realistic assessment is unfortunately rather the exception than the rule – in the case of a corresponding experiment most of us would probably choose a silhouette at least one size too large. As early as 1987 a study by Cash & Brown already demonstrated that women almost always overestimate their body’s girth and size. Since then this has not gotten any better, but rather more ominous. Most women consider a normal figure as too heavy (while men who are frequently actually overweight frequently don’t even give it a thought, as was also demonstrated by the above mentioned study from Glasgow). This only involves issues concerning weight and figure but when looking into the mirror, we unfortunately treat our other physical attributes just as unkindly and cruel.

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Obviously this strange discrepancy between that which we see in the mirror and that which others see when they look at us is not per chance. For one, the society in which we live overemphasizes beauty and being slim and propagates it more and more as a “doable” ideal. TV programs such as “Germany’s Next Top Model” and others already create in the heads of pre-pubescent girls a very clear and convincing image how a woman must look in order to be liked, successful and attractive. When formerly beauty was just God’s gift, given to some and not to everybody, these programs also convey the perception that getting as closely to the ideal as possible is entirely up to us of. If one does not fit into size Zero, then clearly because one is just too undisciplined. (or, to quote Heidi Klum: “If you eat four donuts a week plus too much cake and bread and if your body as well as your skin suffers from it, then I must tell you that this is not the right job for you.”) Now four donuts a week are already too much . . .

And that is only the beginning. After all, the female body offers so many possibilities to feel unattractive, not “perfect” and not conforming to standards. The media continuously clobber us with photo shopped glossies telling us how we should look – and could look if we would only finally clean up our act, forget about the donuts and just make enough of an effort. Thin, drab hair? The wrong coiffeur, incorrect shampoo, wrong hairdryer technique? – sorry, you are out! Patchy skin, even with (disgustingly) visible PORES? Incorrect peeling, wrong crème, incorrect diet, wrong make-up – sorry you are also out! And that is how it continues . . . all the way to our most intimate body parts. For years and with average annual growth rates of up to 30%, the demand for aesthetically justified labiaplasty increases by leaps and bounds in almost all industrial nations. The medical psychologist and – sociologist Elmar Bräler soberly commented this trend via Wikipedia: “Tighter bathing suits plus the strong media presence of nudity contribute to the evolution of aesthetic norms in these areas. Particularly where it concerns intimate shaving by women it becomes obvious that the external female genitalia’s new visibility now also leads to the evolution of new beauty standards in this area: Created for the first time is the evolving universally valid – for a wide population strata accepted female intimacy aesthetic. An up to now primarily considered a sphere of personal privacy part of the body – the pudendal area – becomes subject to a design imperative.” – “Universally acceptable” . . . “valid” . . . “design imperative” . . . Gosh, George Orwell, how harmless are your “1984” phantasies against this background of today . . .

Although they were willing and able to ignore that pimple that almost kept us from attending that party at 15, I suspect that in this respect our mothers where not always all that helpful either. With their usually well-intentioned efforts to help us in matters of “winsomeness” occasionally and possibly out of mere thoughtlessness saddled us with one or the other hangup. This is demonstrated by one of the women’s description in the video: “My mother told me I had a big jaw . . .” With me it wasn’t the jaw, my mother always had to find fault with my teeth, she considered them to be too uneven. In any case, when I was young and every time a camera appeared on the scene she was sure to hiss in my direction: “Close your mouth!” – as a good girl I immediately did so and always smiled with my lips closed. Something that I internalized to the point that I even looked serious on my wedding photos - a fact that leads to the suspicion that this is the documentation of an arranged marriage. I was already in my early thirties when I needed passport photos and the photographer who was taking them spontaneously said to me: “You do have a truly beautiful smile!” I looked at the lady thunderstruck. It had never occurred to me that a happy smiling face could render a couple of irregular teeth totally insignificant. On the pictures she had taken, I could see for myself that the woman was correct. My mother had meant well – and at the same time had done me a disservice with it; probably just as the mother of the woman with the alleged “big jaw”.

Therefore where our appearance is concerned no wonder that we women live with a blind spot potentially of the size akin to that of the pacific. Most of us spend the entire time with an inner list of deficiencies regarding our appearance that is painstakingly amended day-by-day and year-by-year during our entire life. And when an outsider says something nice to us – or God forbid – even comes up with a real compliment, we deprecatingly shake our head and immediately dismiss it as incorrect because it doesn’t fit with our self perception – instead of every time just asking ourselves whether something is all wrong with our self perception and always permitting ourselves to feel bad.

Anyway, I was deeply moved watching the faces of the women in the Dove spot as they were contemplating and comparing the two sketches next to each other - the one where they had described themselves and the other one where a total stranger had been “in charge”. I observed lots of different emotions: surprise, wonder, disbelief, a brief, joyous sparkle – and then with almost all of them tears. Tears caused by the realization how wrongly they saw themselves and how badly they had been treating themselves. How much of an injustice all of us do to ourselves in that way. I doubt that there are many women for whom the result of this experiment would have been any different – certainly not for me. And that although God only knows, I have already dealt with these subjects for years and as a psychologist am well aware about the mechanisms of medial manipulation. Nevertheless, there are simply still entirely too many of “those days” or at least moments like yesterday in my life. In spite of it all when I look into the mirror and the list of deficiencies rattle in my head, I still permit the design imperative to flash through my mind entirely all too often. A woman concluded at the conclusion of the spot: “We spend a lot of time as woman analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren‘t quite right and should spend more time appreciating the things we do like.” There is not really anything to be added. Anyway, to be on the safe side, the spots’ bottom line – “you are more beautiful than you think!” – is hanging on my bathroom mirror! For the next one of “those days” . . .

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