NU psychology professor publishes book on negative impacts of beauty standards on women

Madeleine Fernando, Assistant A&E Editor

Psychology Prof. Renee Engeln recently released her first book, “Beauty Sick,” which uses stories of women and girls to explain a cultural obsession with women’s appearances that prevents them from achieving success.

“There is a lot of work to be done in this world, and it doesn’t seem fair to me that we’ve got all these bright women who want to go out there and make a difference (but) so many of them still get stuck spending so much time worrying about how they look,” Engeln said.

Published April 18, the book examines “beauty sickness,” a topic Engeln said she has studied extensively for about 15 years, starting with her first research project in graduate school. The book weaves empirical research with personal accounts from women and girls Engeln conducted in-depth interviews with, she said.

The book is in the genre of “pop science,” and is meant to be science that anyone can understand and appreciate without being a scientist themselves, Engeln said. Writing the book was a “really different” experience compared to writing articles for scientific journals, she said.

“You get to be more informal and make jokes,” she said. “You can have an opinion, you can insert details about yourself that would never belong in scientific writing.”

Structured in three parts, the book explores the origins of the obsession with appearance and explains how it is present in society today, Engeln said. The book also discusses how most of the ways society tries to fight “beauty sickness” aren’t working.

Engeln criticizes many well-intentioned movements featuring campaigns advocating for women’s beauty, saying these messages do more harm than good.

“They say ‘every woman is beautiful’ when I want to say, first, no one believes that and second, you don’t have to be beautiful,” she said. “That should be the important message… You don’t have to be beautiful, it’s not your job to be beautiful.”

Natalie Stern (Weinberg ’16), who worked with Engeln in her lab, said they developed a letter writing intervention where college women were instructed to write compassionate letters to themselves or to their bodies, Stern said.

Stern said she and Engeln found the letters to be effective in improving levels of body satisfaction, adding that the idea of self-compassion is a key part of Engeln’s book.

“The idea of self-compassion resonates in Renee’s book especially because (part of) the book is about how we can treat ourselves with more compassion in the context of beauty sickness,” she said.

Engeln said one of her favorite parts of the book is the last chapter, which features the story of Colleen Daly (Medill ’15), who fought an eating disorder and now dedicates her life to making sure other people don’t face the same experience.

Daly, who has worked with Engeln on research studies, described the book as “heartbreaking” and said the narratives are especially powerful. The book is able to explain complex psychological theory through personal stories, Daly said.

“It’s very hard to sit down and say to someone, ‘Oh let me tell you about the 1997 Fredrickson and Roberts study about objectification,’” she said. “No one wants to listen to that, but instead she says, ‘let me tell you about Sarah, let me tell you about Nellie, let me tell you about Colleen,’ and in doing so, puts a face to these issues that are otherwise ignored as scientific jargon.”

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