Life & Culture

Rachel Vellenga | A researched look into our culture’s obsession with women’s appearances | Books

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that all women in our culture are familiar with the expectation that women need to be attractive.

We’re meant to be skinny and young and put on makeup.

Renee Engeln’s “Beauty Sick” supports this innate knowledge with the author’s research. While you’ve likely already thought about some of the topics they discuss, other sections offer some surprising ways to combat this cultural poison.

She sprinkles the book with interviews with women from a variety of viewpoints. Some of these women embark on a journey of self-acceptance while some fully accept their appearance, but they are all insightful. Some suffered from eating disorders, others had families who judged harshly on their appearance.

The women interviewed are a range of ages, genders, and body types. They usually discuss the first time they became aware of societal pressures to look a certain way, often when they were young, and how this changed their feelings about themselves.

These interviews prevent writers from getting bogged down in search results and provide a more in-depth look at the topic.

The media appears strongly in the book. Americans are bombarded daily with reminders of unattainable beauty goals for women, and they definitely affect our feelings about our bodies.

Ninety percent of plastic surgery is performed on women. Ninety percent of eating disorders suffer from women. Less than 3 percent of American women are underweight, but 33 percent of female television characters are underweight. More than 80 percent of printed models are underweight, and 20 percent of models are so underweight that they meet the anorexia criterion.

Such images of very unusual women’s bodies are presented as a rule. Watching these photos, even by those women who are fully aware of how perverted they are, makes women feel bad about their bodies.

According to Englen’s research, the only effective way to combat these feelings is to limit your exposure to these outliers from women’s bodies.

One inspiring study she conducted asked women to write a letter to their body as an unconditional best friend. Many share these kind and inspiring messages from women who express their appreciation for all that their bodies do and have done and encourage themselves to be less harsh about their appearance.

Women were tested after this exercise, and, unsurprisingly, it had a positive effect on how they felt about their bodies.

Another suggestion I made was to reduce internal negative talk about your body and not engage in talking about other women’s bodies.

There is a famous scene in the movie “Mean Girls” where the girls stand around a mirror complaining about the little things they don’t like about how they look. Sadly, it’s a sight many women can relate to.

So, if you need a research-based cheerleader on the path to learning about and combating the disease of culturally enhanced beauty firsthand…this book will help!

Rachel Velinga is the Youth Services Librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She loves reading (surprise!), working with families and international travel, and is handy with scissors and construction paper.


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