By Heidi Stevens
You might be familiar with the Bechdel test.
It’s a standard created by artist Alison Bechdel to measure whether works of fiction (movies, usually) accurately represent women. The test asks three questions: Are there at least two women present? Do the women speak to each other? Do they speak to each other about something other than a man?
Renee Engeln would like to add a fourth question to Bechdel’s test: Are the women talking about something other than how they look?
And she’d like to apply it to real life.
Engeln’s new book, “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women” (Harper), explores the ways we remind women, young and old, that the most important thing they can be is beautiful.
“Then we pummel them with a standard of beauty they will never meet,” Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, writes. “After that, when they worry about beauty, we call them superficial.”
Sound familiar? It should. Beauty sickness spreads far and wide, and it has stark consequences, from eating disorders to depression to dreams deferred.
“Beauty sickness matters in part because it hurts,” Engeln writes. “But even more important, it matters because it’s hard to change the world when you’re so busy trying to change your body, your skin, your hair and your clothes. It’s difficult to engage with the state of the economy, the state of politics or the state of our education system if you’re too busy worrying about the state of your muffin top, the state of your cellulite or the state of your makeup.”
It’s a particularly insidious condition because even if a woman manages to escape infection and not worry much about her looks, society will remind her, over and over and over, that she should worry about them a whole lot more. (Full disclosure: My hair hate mail saga makes an appearance in Chapter 1.)
Which just reinforces the idea that girls and women don’t have much to offer the world, outside of window dressing.
Even efforts ostensibly aimed at expanding our narrow definitions of beauty, Dove’s Real Beauty ad campaign, those You Are Beautiful signs and stickers people post anonymously, simply serve as reminders to think about your looks, even if you were deep in thought about climate change or solutions to homelessness.
“I know they’re coming from a good place,” Engeln told me. “But girls and women don’t need any additional reminders to focus on our appearance. I don’t want to be beautiful, and I don’t want to think about having to be beautiful.”
Since writing the book, Engeln said, she’s stopped talking to girls and women about their looks, and hers.
“I’ve really tried to stifle anything about appearance, even if it’s something nice,” she said. “A lot of people disagree with this approach. They say, ‘A compliment is a compliment.’ But it helps me think about appearance less, which I like.
“It also helps me focus on what my body does instead of how it looks,” she continued. “It helps me think about exercise as a type of care for my body, as a way to get stronger, as a way to stick around on this planet longer and do more of the things I want to do.”
At the same time, Engeln wants to be careful not to scold or silence women for the way we talk to one another.
“Women get shut down enough in this culture,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s too shaming to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about how I look. What else do you want to talk about?'”
Appearance, she writes, is a quick and easy topic for bonding with other women. But it shouldn’t be the only one.
“Appearance-driven conversations force every woman in hearing distance to think about her own appearance,” she writes. “Help the women you spend time with escape the internal mirror by encouraging conversations about other topics.”
It’s not the only way to cure beauty sickness, but it’s a start.
“Even though it’s a cultural problem, the easiest behaviors to change are our own because we have so much more control over those,” she said. “People say to me, ‘We should fight the media!’ Absolutely we should. But we should also stop saying awful things about our own bodies in front of our daughters. And we can do that today. Right away, we can change our conversations.”
And put ourselves on the path to healing.
“Just as a thousand tiny cuts from a beauty-sick culture can break a girl or woman down, a thousand small steps toward something better can build girls and women up,” she writes.
“We can make meaningful cultural change by taking steps in our own lives to lessen the focus on women’s appearance and by encouraging others to do the same.”