I hope that you have never had to experience cancer, either yourself or alongside a family member. If you have, you know it is all-encompassing. It dominates the patient’s life and the lives of loved ones, too.
All conversations seem to be about the patient’s struggles and treatments. Given the life-or-death possibilities of a cancer diagnosis, that level of focus is understandable and expected.
Unfortunately, it seems this chase for beauty can become like a mental cancer we bring upon ourselves. Many of the patients who have come to me experience their perceived flaws in the same all-consuming way, which, of course, is not mentally healthy.
They feel compelled to check each flaw in the mirror dozens of times or more every day. They try to conceal it with makeup or clothing. They socially isolate themselves to keep the flaw (or their compulsive checking behavior) a secret.
The Statistics of Ugly
For 2 to 3% of the general population, this obsession devolves into a mental illness called Body Dysmorphic Disorder. That percentage is more than double (7 to 8%) among people who are seen for plastic surgery.
When someone comes to me who seems really focused in an unhealthy way on a beauty problem, I ask them to take a step back to check their perceptions.
For example, when a patient is desiring a revision procedure on an already acceptable and harmonious anatomy, it carries a higher risk/benefit ratio, and I have to remind them:
Right now your nose (or whatever it is) bothers YOU – it doesn’t bother anyone else. .
When you walk into a store or arrive at a party, nobody else notices it. They see a beautiful wonderful person with an aura and energy ready to socialize. Or simply put, they just notice that you walked in.
But if you continue down this path of revision surgery in pursuit of so-called perfection, and something goes wrong, or it ends up looking fake or botched, you’ll walk through the door and EVERYONE will be bothered by your nose.
The Perception of Ugly
It’s all about perceptions. The reality is that if you think you look ugly, you are very likely the only person who shares your perception. And those who might agree with you do so because they have been influenced by the perceptions of others.
There is a toxic self-deprecating culture that has permeated our society to feel less valued in our perceptions of ourselves instead of feeling more valued in our perceptions.
Unfortunately, feeling ugly, or even less than beautiful, has far-reaching effects that go beyond feeling unhappy when we look in a mirror. Self-esteem expert Meaghan Ramsey revealed some truly staggering statistics from her research into body image in young girls:
60 percent of girls choose not to participate in activities because they think they don’t look good enough; 31 percent withdraw from classroom debate so as not to draw attention to themselves if they believe they look bad; 20 percent skip class altogether when they feel unattractive, and research shows that girls who think they’re fat get lower grades on tests than those who don’t worry about this.
Those numbers are staggering! That means well over half of all girls change their life behavior significantly because they have a false perception of themselves. Almost a third of them choose not to exercise their voices to avoid attention because they do not perceive themselves as being beautiful.
And one in every five girls actually walks away from education opportunities because they perceive themselves as being less than attractive. These perceptions even affect their ability to think. That is both amazing and deeply disturbing!
From a young age, we are all conditioned by our environment and a number of voices (that we will unpack later) to pursue an ideal body image, encompassing everything from head to toe. That doesn’t mean there actually is an ideal body or appearance, just perceptions and opinions on what is best.
It is easy to generalize that younger adults would be the most confident in their appearance, as they tend to have the most coveted features. It would also be easy to assume college-educated people would have better control over their perceptions given the extent of their education.
However, consider the following:
- Women are most likely to report being dissatisfied with how their bodies look (83% vs. 74% of men). Did you get that? 83% of women are dissatisfied with how their bodies look, so if you are one of them, you are not alone.
- Younger adults are more likely to be dissatisfied with how their bodies look (86% of those ages 18-34 vs. 75% of those 55+)
- College graduates are more likely to be dissatisfied with how their bodies look (82% vs. 75% of those with no college degree).
- Over 75% of adults would be willing to give up something they enjoy or care deeply about to magically obtain their “perfect body.”
- 85% of women and 79% of girls skip important activities due to body dissatisfaction.
- In South Africa, 64% of people feel comfortable in their own bodies. In the U.S., only 24% feel comfortable in their own bodies (ranked 9 out of 13 countries studied). In Japan, a mere 8% feel comfortable in their own bodies.
- Only 11% of girls around the world are comfortable describing themselves as beautiful. That number goes down as they age, to where only 4% of women around the world actually consider themselves beautiful.
- Ironically, 80% of women agree that every woman has something about her that is beautiful. Compare that with the numbers about self-perception above, and it is easy to see that women struggle to see their own beauty but can appreciate the beauty in others (more on this to come).
- More than half of women globally (54%) agree that when it comes to how they look, they are their own worst beauty critic.
Ugly: A Worldwide Pandemic
Statistically speaking, body image issues are far more pervasive around the globe than any disease, including cancer. Does that surprise you? It seems that, as divided as the world often appears to be, there is something that unites us all—struggling with our perceptions of our own ugliness.
On one hand, that is shocking and sad; on the other hand, it may make you feel better knowing you are not the only one who struggles to see yourself as beautiful. The good news is that when you learn to recognize the voices that shape your perceptions of yourself, you can filter them effectively and finally give yourself permission to enjoy being you.
No one is immune from these distorted perceptions.
Celebrities Feel Ugly Too
For example, Jennifer Aniston, generally considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood—named People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Woman of the Year twice!—says, “I’ve never thought of myself that way [as being beautiful]. I didn’t grow up being perceived that way, and I’ve certainly had many moments in my life where I didn’t feel good enough or pretty enough or anything enough, where I felt horrible about myself.”
Jennifer Lopez says, “It’s hard to avoid comparing yourself to others, and I’ve definitely been guilty of it myself. I remember thinking I wasn’t thin enough because I had curves.”
Beyonce says, “After the birth of my first child, I believed in the things society said about how my body should look. I put pressure on myself to lose all the baby weight in three months, and scheduled a small tour to assure I would do it. Looking back, that was crazy.”
And it’s not only women who struggle! Ryan Reynolds, dubbed one of People Magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive says, “I feel like an overweight, pimply-faced kid a lot of the time.”
Likewise, Zac Efron says his first thought when he sees himself on screen is, “My head is huge.”
Everyone shares in the struggle to want to feel beautiful yet fear they are only different shades of ugly.
Katharine Phillips, “Prevalence of BDD”, accessed February, 18, 2022, https://bdd.iocdf.org/professionals/prevalence/#:~:text=Body%20Dysmorphic%20Disorder%20affects%201.7,about%201%20in%2050%20people
Minda Zetlin. “Want Your Daughters to Grow Up Successful and Happy? Help Them Stop Doing This 1 Thing.” February 20, 2017, https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/want-to-raise-high-achieving-daughters-help-them-stop-doing-this.html.
“Body Image: List of Fact, Figures, and Statistics”, Beauty School Directory, accessed February 18, 2022, https://www.beautyschoolsdirectory.com/blog/body-image-statistics.