Psychology professor hosts ‘beauty sickness’ TED Talk


Screenshot of TedxTalks

Psychology Prof. Renee Engeln delivers a TED Talk at the University of Connecticut on Sept. 21. Engeln discussed her major focus of study, “beauty sickness,” and how it prevents women’s involvement in global engagement.

Steven Montero, Sports Editor

Don’t tell little girls they look pretty.

This is one solution to “beauty sickness” that psychology Prof. Renee Engeln spoke about at her TED Talk on Monday at the University of Connecticut.

Beauty sickness is the constant worry over outside appearances and a compulsion to perfect the body and how it is viewed by others, she said, adding that body size and weight are the most important parts of physical beauty for women and that this obsession hinders other activities.

Engeln clarified in her talk that she does not want people to tell little girls they look ugly, either. She recommended complimenting other positive qualities such as being smart, persistent, generous and hardworking. Reaffirming these characteristics will help to avoid the epidemic of beauty sickness among young women, she said.

She said she sees this sickness at Northwestern and recognizes its effects. In the past, sororities at NU have invited her to discuss body image.

“There are a lot of women here who struggle with those issues, and to some extent, they’re kind of embarrassed about it,” she told The Daily on Thursday. “(Some think) ‘I’m a Northwestern student. I’m smart, I’m talented, I’m working hard. Why am I still worrying so much about how I look?’ There’s really a conversation here that’s worth having.”

Engeln said she started research on this topic during her graduate studies. Her female students’ concerns over image and size inspired her to investigate women’s fixation with beauty.

She said females are exposed to false images of beauty in the media more than ever. The three main messages broadcasted are that beauty is the most powerful thing a women can have, only supermodels and celebrities can reach such a level, and an implied punch that “you don’t look like this.”

Engeln emphasized that beauty is a natural thing people look for around them. However, she argued, a woman cannot consistently monitor her appearance and engage with her environment.

“There are a lot of problems in the world,” she said. “We need women to be involved in helping to solve those problems. The more obsessed we are with our own appearance, the less energy, the fewer resources, we have for solving problems.”

Although she admitted men can suffer from this illness as well, she said women spend more time and money on it. She added that women are at a 10 times greater risk of anorexia and bulimia.

“Women are much more likely to hate their bodies,” she said in her talk.

The pursuit of flat abs, clear skin, toned arms and a great smile are not inherently bad, she said. Wanting to achieve beauty is not the issue, but when this is the only goal, problems arise.

“I got a lot of reactions afterwards from the young women in the audience,” Engeln said. “There are a lot of young women who are waiting to hear a message like that. They’re struggling with these issues, and they haven’t found a way to articulate it.”

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