‘I don’t feel pretty’ … Why aren’t positivity movements working?

Many young girls and women today are prone to having strong bouts of insecurity about their looks and how they are perceived by others. They’re also strongly inclined to deriving a dominant part of their identity and self-worth from their physical appearance.

This is largely because of how most women were raised. Starting from a very young age, little girls are inadvertently brainwashed into believing that being “pretty” is their ticket to popularity and social acceptance. As a result, it has become perfectly natural for a young girl to question her attractiveness and develop a lifelong quest for aesthetic perfection that lasts well into her adult life. These sentiments are compounded by the shallow and appearance-focused standards propagated by the media.

Consequently, the pressures of living up to society’s expectations of beauty have become a global widespread epidemic that’s undermining the growth and empowerment of women in both the personal and professional realm. According to a 2014 survey done by Glamour magazine, of 1,000 women aged 18 to 40, women feel worse about their bodies than they did 30 years ago. A staggering 80 percent of women say that looking in the mirror makes them feel bad, and 54 percent are not happy with their body.

Many brave women who tried to counteract these effects over the past century have lent their voices to women’s empowerment movements, bringing about a significant difference in the way women’s value is perceived overall. The first was the National Woman Suffrage Association, which sought legal equality for women and resulted in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote in 1919. The culturally explosive American feminist movement of the 1960s, still known as “women’s lib,” sought gender equality for women in the workplace — something still not fully established to this day — and rejected the objectification of women based on their beauty and sex appeal.

On a smaller, more appearance-focused level, various media campaigns launched by famous beauty brands such as Dove, Cover Girl, and Venus by Gillette, to name a few, have made notable attempts to counteract the disturbing proliferation of messages that objectify women and desecrate their sense of worthiness. As a result, various slogans have gained popularity in the vernacular of girls and women such as:

  • Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.
  • Beauty is only skin deep.
  • Beauty comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes.

These noteworthy initiatives that were taken to uplift women and young girls have, unfortunately, failed at creating a lasting impression on the majority of the female population because they only provided a band-aid solution to the problem. They did not address the deeper and more pervasive psychic wounds. Although women did get the vote and have entered the workforce in record numbers, these major women’s empowerment movements had notable failures. Gender equality has never been achieved, with women still making only 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the women’s liberation movement was vehemently against restrictive clothing and sexual objectification of women. However, today, with the media’s obsession with celebrities, women feel more pressure to fit into cultural norms of beauty and are resorting to ever more extreme measures to do so. Breast and cheek surgeries, butt implants, injections to deaden nerves in the feet so high heels can be worn with ease, permanent makeup tattooed on faces, liposuction to remove offending fat — these are actually presented as empowered choices for women, instead of consequences for the increasingly powerful pressures to conform.

While the aforementioned media campaigns were honorable endeavors undertaken to raise the degree of awareness about this pertinent issue and allow women to be beautiful in their own ways, they did not sufficiently empower women to internalize these messages and shift their way of thinking and being. Deep down, most women are still not convinced of the validity of the “beauty comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes” statement and other cajoling platitudes of the beauty empowerment movements — none of them reflects on the circumstances, values and trends that they witness in the world around them.

In order to address this issue, we need to make a joint effort towards finding long-term solutions that will revolutionize our traditional views on feminine attractiveness. This revolution should address this phenomenon on both an individual and collective level. Dealing with it on an individual level involves making a concerted effort towards bringing about an internal shift within young girls and women, educating them on how they can maintain a strong sense of self-worth and develop an identity that is independent of outward appearances.

The second is to change the entire paradigm of beauty by taking measures to moderate or alter the messages and images propagated by the media and other key influencers in our society so that they align with a healthier ideal of women’s beauty that draws the focus from physical attractiveness to her accomplishments and her character.

We have reached an ideal time in history to create the momentum needed to cause a collective shift when it comes to how we measure our worth and how we judge other people. The old paradigm, which consisted of forming opinions about women based solely on appearances, is antiquated and needs to be done away with. As a civilization, we need to move towards more progressive ways of being and thinking so that we can empower girls and women to feel comfortable in their own skin and fulfill their highest potential.

Seline Shenoy, author of Beauty Redefined, is a podcast host and life coach who focuses on personal empowerment, self-esteem, productivity, and wellness. As the founder of The Dream Catcher, a blog community that encourages people to live their ideal life, Shenoy’s inspirational message has been attracting thousands of people worldwide since 2014. She is a regular contributor to a variety of publications including Forbes, MindBodyGreen, Elite Daily, Project Happiness, and Global Love Project.