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Why Are We Teaching Women and Girls That Looks Matter More Than Brains?

Cultural Standards of Beauty Negatively Affect FemalesA number of recent articles in the news got me thinking about this topic: Why is there such a focus on women’s and girl’s looks? Shouldn’t we value more about females than just their appearance?

A recent article in Slate “Why Does Society Value Beauty over Brains?” puts these questions to the test. Brittany Vaughn has a high IQ, but she was always told how pretty she is. Plus, she was always pressured to look pretty, i.e. wear her hair down and put on makeup. But she asks the question what really constitutes “beauty”:

Why makeup and skinny bodies? Why not the larger figures favored by some cultures? Why not obvious muscle? Why not peacock feathers sticking out of our ears (to put a point to the arbitrariness)?

Cultural Standards of Beauty

As Vaughn mentions, it seems that it’s the culture that puts an emphasis on what is “beautiful” and what it means to be “feminine”. An 8-year-old girl, Sunnie Kahle, is currently experiencing this bias. A school in western Virginia wrote to the girl’s parents that she’s “not feminine enough”. Here’s an excerpt of the letter:

We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained indentity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.

Kahle doesn’t fit their “ideal of femininity” because what she likes is considered non-feminine: She likes to wear sneakers and T-shirts, have short hair and play sports.

What Are We Doing to Our Females

These beauty standards are causing young women to worry about how they look from a young age. We teach females that they should be pretty first and smart, athletic, curious, etc. second. Instead of just having fun at young ages, they’re worrying about getting fat, dieting, wearing makeup and even worrying how their boobs look.

Lisa Bloom in her book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World reveals that “15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and 25 percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers.”

Bloom recommends that you don’t start a conversation with a little girl by saying how pretty she is. Instead, ask her what she likes to do, what are her likes/dislikes, or even what she’s reading. Instead of little girls learning that pretty comes first, they may instead start to think that their words, opinions, thoughts and intelligence matter more.

Are we teaching females from a young age that they need to look and act a certain way? What about this notion of asking them about their interests, thoughts or even what they read? I think it’s worth giving a try. How about you?

Rachel Levi, LMFT, CEDS, F- IAEDPFounder/Clinical Director
Shoreline Center for Eating Disorder Treatment
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