At one of the costumed celebrations of the last few weeks I was watching a young girl try to do an art project dressed up like a princess. She wore a cumbersome dress with very long sleeves and a metal tiara that was very sparkly but was the wrong shape for her head. Every time she bent over to work on her project, the tiara slipped off her head and fell over her eyes. It never fell completely off her head because it was too tight and squeezing behind her ears. When she pulled it off chunks of her hair came with it, and as her mother looked horrified at the hair, the child begged to put it back on her head.
As a norm, women often will endure some measure of physical pain to achieve beauty as society has defined it. High heeled shoes that pinch the toes and make the back ache, ripping off unwanted hair with wax and burns from overheating hair styling appliances are just typical run of the mill adult woman problems. Thats not even touching the more drastic chemical peels, plastic surgery and cleanses that Hollywood swears by for the upkeep of their looks.
The world around us is teaching women that fitting a certain standard of beauty will make us happier. We are bombarded by every billboard we pass on the highway and every magazine cover we glance at while waiting online at the grocery store, that what we are currently is not enough. They shout at us : “Get better abs!” “Want shinier hair?” “Lose 4 dress sizes in 4 weeks!” What we hear is, ”Your fat and lazy” “Your hair is dead and drab.” “If I starve myself on a crazy diet I too can achieve an idealized body”. The loudest message is, “the way that I look currently is not up to the standard that society expects of me.” These messages make us feel insecure with our current bodies, and when we look at the smiles of the women on the advertisements with the perfect teeth and bouncy hair, we identify that we want to look and feel that happy. We feel a drive to achieve perfection, because we see that perfection can lead to happiness.
As we have already established, this perfection requires physical pain. The suffering from a burn from a curling iron or that eyebrow twinge the second after plucking, is minimal and tolerable. Women have been conditioned to believe that that moment of pain is worth it, because we will be one step closer to reaching our beauty goals. When we look in the mirror and see the styled hair and shaped brows, we feel beautiful. In that moment, that fleeting pain cognitively is connected to the feeling of happiness we feel when we look in the mirror.
What happens when this concept of “beauty is pain” goes too far? There are many people that lose their lives to fit an unrealistic body ideal. Though it is not the reason why eating disorders begin for some, there are many women (and men) who find themselves lost in the labyrinth of disordered eating. Eventually they get stuck in the obsessive thoughts and behaviors of an eating disorder due to the pressure to be thin. The “beauty is pain” mantra, can make embracing the pain that comes with restricting, binging, or purging, feel worth it.
The ramifications of an eating disorder can have a steep price tag. The body needs food to function so restricting calories is a dangerous endeavor, and purging calories can be vicious to the body, that usually strives to store energy, not force it out. At it’s best, you will find dry skin and hair, brittle nails, low blood pressure, abnormal blood counts, severe acid reflux, mouth sores, infertility and tooth decay. The long list goes on to organ failure, coma, brain damage, and heart attack in more serious cases. Usually the last consequence on the list is death.
What can we do to halt the message of “beauty is pain” getting too far? We can be less yielding about achieving society’s universal ideals, and instead allow room for what makes us individually unique and not treat our uniqueness as an imperfection. Let’s also change the language we use to talk about our bodies from being harsh and critical, to accepting and nurturing. Lastly, we should advocate achieving true happiness that comes from engaging in healthy social connections, self actualization and establishing a loving relationship with ourselves and our maker.