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Good self-esteem is something that everyone wants, most people have, and yet most people think that others lack. I’ve often spoken with women who tell me that while they are comfortable with themselves and don’t buy into “the beauty myth,” they are certain that they are the exception rather than the rule: most other women, I’m told, are not satisfied with their looks. This is assumed to be common knowledge, not a claim to be checked.

There was even a lengthy posting and thread on the Skepchicks Forum about the topic. It started with the following post: “Many girls and women suffer from low self-esteem.” Many excellent posters followed, with various ideas on whom to blame for women’s low self-esteem. Culprits included fashion magazines, the modeling industry, men, the cosmetics industry, consumerism, and so on.

As we’re (mostly) skeptics here, I’d like to invoke Hyman’s Categorical Imperative in the discussion. Ray’s dictum states, roughly, that before trying to explain a phenomenon, one should make sure there’s something to explain. For example, before spending time trying to investigate or explain a UFO or Bigfoot sighting, make sure the sighting is valid and not a hoax; examine the assumptions.

Hyman’s Categorical Imperative is also useful in other areas; for example, before spending lots of time and energy discussing the various reasons why girls and women have low self-esteem, one should make sure the premise is valid. Is it true that many or most women suffer from low self-esteem? (Obviously some people, both men and women, suffer from body image issues; the question is not if it exists at all, but instead if it’s common.) The answer may surprise you.

Awareness about self-esteem was highlighted at Superbowl XL, when soap maker Dove aired a spot from its “Campaign for Real Beauty” advertising effort aimed at debunking stereotypes about beauty. The ad featured close-ups of several young girls with captions like, “Thinks she’s ugly,” “Wishes she were blonde,” and “Afraid she’s fat.” The inspiring images, set to the Cyndi Lauper song “True Colors,” encouraged young women to feel good about themselves.

The $2.5 million commercial addressed the common concern that most women (and girls in particular) suffer from low self-esteem. Bridget Jones’s Diary, the best-seller-turned-film, followed one young woman’s continual, doomed quest for self-improvement, mostly obsessing about her weight and her thighs. Elle magazine stated that the novel reflects a lifestyle that is “universal and horrifyingly familiar” to women. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, the best-seller about teenage girls, claims that “[r]esearch shows that virtually all women are ashamed of their bodies.” Katie Couric even declared, “‘I hate my body’ was the destructive mantra of the 1990s.”

Yet these blanket claims are hard to reconcile with the facts. In contrast to conventional wisdom (and unlike Bridget Jones), polls and surveys find most Americans generally happy with themselves. In 1998 USA Weekend conducted one of the largest surveys ever taken of American youth. Titled, “Teens and Self-Image,” it surveyed over a quarter of a million students (more than half of them female) in grades 6 to 12. Among the results: 93 percent of teens feel good about themselves.

A 1999 Gallup poll found that 54 percent of respondents described themselves as average in looks, while 42 percent described themselves as above average. Only 3 percent said they were below average in attractiveness. (Of course, statistically, the average person should be average in looks, and it should come as no surprise that few people describe themselves as at the extremes of either “beautiful” or “ugly.”)

In 2000, the British Medical Association issued a report titled, “Eating Disorders, Body Image, and the Media” that concluded, “The majority of young women (88 percent) say they are of average or above average self-confidence, with only 12 percent saying they’re not very confident.” When girls were asked what makes them most attractive, half chose not appearance but instead personality; body shape was rated at only 8 percent. These girls knew that they are more attractive for who they are than how they look.

Despite the popular myths, the vast majority of women are quite satisfied with their looks. In fact, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty’s own 2004 survey, “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report,” found that only ten percent of women were “somewhat or very dissatisfied” with their beauty. The Dove Web site contains factoids like, “92 percent of girls want to change at least one aspect of their appearance,” yet the question is so general as to be meaningless: If asked, virtually everyone could probably find at least one aspect of their appearance they would like to change; that doesn’t necessarily indicate the low self-esteem Dove suggests.

The Report is available at http://www.campaignforrealbeauty.com/inside_campaign.asp; if you are interested in this topic I encourage you to read the full report instead of just the factoids and summaries Dove highlights. You’ll find that Dove downplays the overall positive results of the survey and focuses on the idea that women are unhappy with their looks. The reason that Dove would emphasize the negative (and exaggerate the self-esteem problem) in its Real Beauty Campaign is not hard to see: their ads are positioning Dove as a socially responsible and empowering brand. They need to be seen championing girls’ self esteem and women’s body issues, and they can’t do that if it’s widely known or accepted that most girls and women don’t have the self-esteem issues to begin with.

The idea that America’s teen girls are ashamed of their bodies will likely come as a surprise to millions of parents who have seen their daughters wearing less and less each year since the late 1990s. One would expect that young women with poor body image would try to hide their bodies with baggy clothes, but exactly the opposite trend has occurred. Hip-hugging, belly-baring, low-rise jeans cling to the curves of millions of teenagers who are supposedly so ashamed of their bodies. The trend, often dubbed “The Britney Effect,” is supposedly caused by young women following hypersexualized trendsetting pop idols. (Of course, young women dressing provocatively isn’t exactly a recent trend; hot pants and Madonna’s sexy looks helped define their respective generations.) Most people try to hide or compensate for attributes that they are ashamed of. Short men wear lifts to appear taller, for example, or women wear black clothes or vertical stripes for a more slimming look. It’s unclear why young women who are so ashamed of, and disturbed by, their bodies go out of their way to publicly expose and emphasize those bodies.

This is not to ignore the minority of girls who are unhappy with their appearance; as the Dove commercial correctly points out, “every girl deserves to feel good about herself.” Obviously, few people are completely satisfied with every aspect of their appearance. It is natural—and beneficial—to be dissatisfied with ourselves in some ways.

As a media critic, I applaud efforts by Dove and others to instill good body image and healthy self-esteem, but as a skeptic and critical thinker I must point out that their battle has largely been won. Most girls and women do feel good about themselves—and that’s good news for everyone. We can stop looking for people to blame.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and author of three books. He is hard at work writing about why smart women are sexy.


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