American media has had a long love affair with capturing and promoting images of feminine beauty. While trends in beauty have shifted along with fashion through the decades, one thing remains constant: American women want to keep up. I’ll refer to this pursuit of beauty as ‘The Kim Kardashian Effect’ as a way to describe America’s obsession with beauty. Reality television star Kim Kardashian’s prolific business empire is built predominately around her image. She has successfully leveraged her physical beauty and lifestyle as a means to achieve super stardom and wealth, all possible because millions of people continue to give her their positive (or negative) attention. Tina Fey wittily captures American women’s struggle with increasingly unachievable standards of beauty in her recent autobiography, Bossypants:
“I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes”.
Are American women and men preoccupied with beauty?
Camille Anna Paglia American author, teacher, social critic, and self-described dissident feminist has noted “We should not have to apologize for reveling in beauty. Beauty is an eternal human value”. Scientific evolutionary research supports the idea that physical symmetry, science’s definition of beauty, is preferred by human and animals because it is equated with a strong immune system. Thus, beauty is indicative of more robust genes, improving the likelihood that an individual’s offspring will survive. This evolutionary theory is supported by research showing that standards of attractiveness are often similar across a wide range of human cultures. So while humans are intrinsically invested in seeking beauty in others and appearing beautiful, how do we strike a healthy balance in how much attention we give to our physical appearance?
At what point does our pursuit of beauty become pathological?
It’s not hard to name the litany of celebrities who’ve made both subtle and dramatic changes to their physical appearance to improve, enhance, preserve, and in some cases overhaul their looks. Celebrities have access and means to hire world-renowned physicians, trainers, dieticians and stylists who, for better or worse, create results that leave lasting impressions on us. Is there a healthy balance of appearance-driven behaviors? From basic hygienic habits, to hair extensions and facial injections, to lengthy daily exercise routines designed to give us celebrity-worthy physiques, how much is too much?
Generally speaking, mental health experts define a given pattern/set of behaviors as ‘pathological’ when those behaviors:
- deviate markedly from the expectations of the individual’s cultural surroundings
- are inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of settings/situations
- lead to clinically significant distress in a person’s life, i.e. financial, social, occupational or other important areas of functioning
At what point does someone meet the criteria for the psychological disorder, ‘Body Dysmorphic Disorder‘?
Mental health experts define Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) as a
- preoccupation with an imagined defect in appearance
- If a slight physical anomaly is present, the person’s concern is markedly excessive
- This preoccupation causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, and is not better accounted for by another mental disorder (such as dissatisfaction with body size in Anorexia Nervosa).
What types of treatment work best for people displaying symptoms of BDD?
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)- The goal of this treatment is to reduce an individual’s negative thoughts (and associated feelings and behaviors) about their appearance. Patients with BDD hold deeply negative thoughts about their appearance. CBT (using exposure and response prevention) can also effectively treat compulsive rituals that people develop out of anxiety about their appearance. These rituals can include checking themselves in the mirror, seeking reassurance from others, camouflaging the area of concern with cosmetics, clothing or tanning, and planning for surgeries to correct areas of concern. The goal is to “teach clients to challenge the validity and importance of their distorted thoughts about their bodies,” said Tom Corboy, M.F.T., director of theOCD Center of Los Angeles. Patients learn to “restructure their negative thought patterns to be more realistic,” said Sari Fine Shepphird, Ph.D, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist who specializes in BDD and eating disorders.
- Medication- Research studies demonstrate SSRIs can be effective in helping people manage BDD. These antidepressants—which include Prozac, Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, Zoloft, Anafranil and Luvox—are also commonly prescribed for depression, OCD and social anxiety disorder, all of which share similarities with BDD.
is another great resource for additional information on managing this disorUnderstanding Body Dysmorphic Disorder: An Essential Guide, Katharine Phillips, M.D., a leading expert on BDD and director of The Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Body Image Program at Butler Hospital in Providence, R.I. This is a great resource for additional information on managing this disorder.
This article was produced by Dr. Christina Villarreal, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Oakland, CA. For professional inquiries, please visit her website at www.drchristinavillarreal.com