Why Our Culture Wants Women to Worry About Their Looks.

Hint: it serves several cunning purposes.

image by Caroline Hernande from Unsplash.com

Being concerned with, to some degree, one’s looks is nearly unavoidable in the culture we live in. We have been conditioned to think about this a lot. Thus, like most other people, I too think about my appearance to some degree. I feel better emotionally when I feel as though I look decent. I like to feel that I look my best. This is normal and, to a certain extent, not necessarily harmful or unhealthy.

But, being worried about one’s looks can easily cross that line into unhealthy preoccupation, concern, or even obsession. It can become a thought process that disrupts or takes away from one’s mental peace, one’s emotional health, and one’s quality of life.

Our culture is one heavily invested in and highly concerned with outer appearances. We place significant emphasis on the outsides of people, with little to no concern with who each of us are on the inside (you know, our character). Today, as a culture, we are immensely focused on being “hot” and gaining status and popularity. We are incredibly concerned with weight, sexiness, looks, size, and body type.

This lookism culture results in a lot of people developing disordered eating patterns, never feeling particularly good in their own skin, and routinely judging prospective friends or romantic partners based mostly on their outside instead of on who they are internally (when of course, how someone looks tells you nothing about the quality of friend or romantic partner they might be).

So this is, in part, a cultural thing and not necessarily specific to gender.

Yet, women are especially pressured and hit over the head with this message. Our media and consumer culture push, in overt and subtle ways, and almost constantly, that women should be very concerned with their looks. That women’s lovability, their value, their desirability, lies in their appearance. That their worth is measured by their weight and “beauty” (meaning, whatever the culture’s current interpretation of beauty might be at that moment).

A lot of women conform and go along with this pressure. It’s hard not to, given the messages that bombard us throughout every single day, in television, magazines, advertising, music lyrics, and even the real world. Beauty gets attention, admiration, and cashes in, so to speak. Whereas people who are not beautiful (especially women, since men can easily get away with being ugly if they are rich, have status, are charming, or wildly intelligent) tend to be overlooked or even ridiculed. We live in a surface-focused society to the max.

Women are told that in order to be seen, to be desired, to be acceptable, to be loved, to be feminine, they must look incredible, no matter the costs to their physical or mental health, their time, or their pocketbooks. (And by “incredible,” this means fitting into a narrow standard that no woman can attain naturally. So, if a woman might hope to attain this, she will have to go to endless lengths of hours in the gym, dieting, makeup purchase and wear, and possibly, at its most extreme, surgery).

As a result of our culture’s toxic pressure toward women, many worry incessantly over their looks, to a degree that it dominates much of their emotional and mental life.

Women carefully craft selfies for optimal validation and feedback, often making them scantily clad and in accordance (as best they can) with our culture’s standards for an ideal physical appearance. They spend hours working out. They develop disordered eating patterns. They spend hundreds of dollars on makeup, creams, and serums. They may even go under the knife.

All in order to fit the look our culture prescribes.

This is heartbreaking. It’s desperation to meet approval, emotional unhealth, conforming, and a sense of emotional insecurity.

So why does our culture want women to worry a lot about how they look?

And even further, why is this a carefully crafted, intentional thing?

It keeps women contained

Women learn to restrict their physical and social movement and instead, invest their energy and resources (time, money, etc) in creating an ultra-feminized, societally accepted, stereotypical appearance in anticipation of the evaluative sexualized gaze they all know they will receive (Bartky, 1990; Dworkin, 1974; Jeffreys, 2005; Young, 1990).

Women are taught to monitor their every movement and their attire carefully in order to portray the precise degree of femininity in order to find themselves accepted and the recipients of attention, approval, and desire.

Further, women wearing short, low-cut dresses are told to avoid bending over at all, and if they must, great care is usually taken to avoid unseemingly displays of breasts or butt. Women must manage their movements with the appearance of grace, which is not a small accomplishment when climbing out of the backseat of a car in a short skirt.

Simultaneously and on the flip side (in a countering message), women are often encouraged to use these moments to show off their bodies even more, in order to garner more attention and desire (aka, self-objectify, or to make themselves into sex objects).

All of this keeps women contained, spiritually, physically, and mentally. It restricts them. It keeps them distracted. It holds them back.

It keeps them poorer (timewise and financially)

Women are urged to invest time, resources, and much energy toward achieving the ideal female look in order to earn the male gaze. So, notice, we become what someone else wants us to be, in order to earn them. Our sexuality, our body, our looks, are not then necessarily for us. They are for an “other.” Women are supposed to strive for, at every turn, a body that is considered most attractive which is ultimately a combination of virtually unattainable and physically incompatible attributes.

This is no accident.

It keeps women scrambling.


Because the current female ideal represents an utmost in unnatural attributes for women’s nature bodies (Orbach, 2010). An ultra-lean figure, a flat stomach, a thin waist, boyish hips, long legs, large breasts, well-defined muscles, and flawless skin. The vast majority of women’s natural bodies do not match this image, meaning that as a result, most women’s bodies will be rendered deficient and in constant need of alteration (essentially, as objects to be honed and ever worked on).

This is what keeps women in the gym for hours a day, spending thousands of dollars on plastic surgery, perpetually dieting, and in a perpetual, never-ending cycle of self-shame. And because current feminine beauty ideals are impossible to achieve without surgical modification, they represent the ultimate physical constriction of women’s bodies.

Thus, women remaining ultra-focused on their looks keeps them poorer in numerous ways.

It keeps them less powerful

Women spend hours on this pursuit of supposed beauty (as defined by some higher power- aka culture), all of which is time that could be used toward achievement, and building one’s education and competence. The result is that men continue to rise while women scramble and grasp with all of this appearance-based stuff, thereby becoming increasingly disempowered over time. Men can focus on other, far more important, interesting things, while women must remain concerned with their bodies and looks if they can ever hope to garner love, attention, approval, or desire (they are told).

Women lead lives of honing, crafting, and molding their looks to meet outer approval, while men actually do far more interesting stuff since they don’t worry about this to nearly such a degree.

This keeps women worried, anxious, and at the whim of men’s approval and desire, as well as, of culture’s approval. It keeps them insecure. It keeps them ever trying to reach the unreachable. All while men remain more unruffled and powerful, with more time on their hands to focus on better things.

It keeps them insecure and ever seeking approval/feeling good enough

If women are told that in order to be taken seriously, in order to be loved, in order to be desired, in order to gain approval, then they must be a certain way, this keeps women anxious, insecure, and clamoring for that approval. It would keep anyone feeling that way, with the immense amount of pressure women get toward this ideal.

Here is the secret though: part of why this toxic value persists is because a lot of women go along with, conform, and buy into it.

If all women pushed back and said, forget it. We are not going to allow society to dictate our appearances. We are not going to let culture deem us unworthy or unloveable because we do not have large breasts or a flat stomach. We are not going to go along with the idea that we are worthless if we are not thin. We are not going to all seek to mold ourselves into a uniform, homogenized, boring, narrow idea of what beauty is and should be. And that our beauty is our primary commodity and worth.

Guess what?

The patriarchy as we know it would fall.

Relations between men and women would change, in wild and wonderful ways.

Women’s lives would improve exponentially, in terms of their mental and physical health, their opportunities, how they use their time and monetary resources.

There would be a far more diverse celebration of beauty throughout the world.

The plastic surgery industry would likely collapse.

Violence towards women would likely decrease.

Women’s health, mental and physical, would improve.

So many awesome things would happen as reverberation and result of all women rejecting this toxic mindset and idea.

(For more on this concept, read The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf. This book is superb. It will change your life and thoughts).

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author. www.brookeenglish.com

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