It’s undeniable that women have come far in the Western world. From not being able to vote less than a hundred years ago to reaching some of the highest offices in the land, we know that our value extends beyond how we look and our traditional roles of wife and mother. Yet, despite this, anxiety over appearance among young women is near universal. It absorbs a huge amount of our collective energy – not to mention cash. So in a world where we are still expected to look perfect at all times, how can we reject appearance pressure?
We’re at an interesting moment of societal progress where women can (within reason) live how they choose and pursue their own goals, but are still affected by lingering sexism. A big part of this is the subtle but relentless pressure on women to look a certain way, and this contradiction is neatly illustrated by a recent clothing advert. While brands should be applauded for increasing inclusivity (simply featuring an older woman and more culturally diverse range of models is a big step forward), there’s still an unspoken message.
This message is that while it’s OK to shave your head, grow armpit hair, or simply get older, you must always look pretty, stylish and aspirational while doing it. Considering 98% of American girls feel immense pressure from external sources to look a certain way, and nearly as many wanting to change something about the way they look, this message is ubiquitous and has a clear influence on female self-esteem.
There aren’t many young women who haven’t spent an unnecessary amount of time worrying about how they look, affected by years of advertising, media messages and the new pressures of social media. This worry can be so entrenched it seems like part of our personalities, but there are things you can do to unpick appearance anxiety.
Take up a Hobby That Boosts Your Confidence
Or – even just focus more on an existing hobby that has nothing to do with how you look. Making things, sports, drawing, cooking – they are all about what your brain and body can do, not about what that body may look like. Meditation is another brilliant option if you find yourself becoming anxious about how you look. Anxious thoughts and stress are lessened if you meditate every day, and it offers a good place from which to build your self esteem. A Harvard study has shown that meditation reduces the size of stress centres in our brains, from which all our worrying thoughts originate.
Make Choices for Yourself, Not Other People
The actions we take when we worry about how we look aren’t bad in themselves. Make-up and fashion are great opportunities for fun and self expression, exercise is vital to our wellbeing, and a healthy diet is the most sensible choice. The problem comes when they are a source of stress, and things you do out of a sense of obligation. For example, there’s a difference between using make up because you love the artistry of it, compared with feeling like you can’t pop to the shops without applying foundation.
The same is true of exercise. If you’d rather go for a long walk rather than “bust belly fat”, or hate the gym but would love to join a climbing club, pick what comes naturally to you. And if you decide that you’d rather crash out in front of the TV for a couple of hours, that’s nothing to feel guilty about. Analyzing your intentions and working out whether the things you do are self-motivated or something you feel you should be doing is a good way to become more true to yourself.
If you don’t usually leave the house without enacting a beauty routine, the first few times of not bothering will probably stoke anxiety and make you feel self-conscious. However, with time, it will get easier, and the fact that people think much less about how you look than you do will start to become clear. The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to look lovely the whole time for the benefit of strangers. What does it matter if your hair’s a mess while picking up a takeaway coffee? You don’t owe the people (who it’s likely you’ll never see again) in that shop a perfectly coiffed appearance. As Erin McKean said, “prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.”
Take Pride in Your Individuality
When you are in a good mood, make a list of all the things you like about yourself (and the things other people often say they like about you) and keep it to hand in the moments where you get bogged down in negativity. There’s an overhanging idea that the key to happiness is being beautiful, and that love and life naturally follow once you’ve achieved this state. British comedian Phoebe Waller-Bridge remarked that her twenties were spent thinking that “as long as you were skinny and hot first, then you were allowed to get on with the rest of your life.”
It’s difficult to untangle thoughts like these, but finding the source of any appearance anxiety you may have is one a way to tackle it. The truth is that self-acceptance and enjoying your own individuality is much more conducive to happiness than shifting that stubborn five pounds. Societal standards are so high (with Photoshop creating pore less skin, impractical body shapes and an inhuman lack of expression lines) that trying to reach them is a pointless and impossible task.
We all have the right to enjoy ourselves and live contentedly, no matter what we look like. While we can’t expect to always be entirely free from self doubt, for the majority of the time there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be happy with ourselves, rejecting the appearance pressure that adds unnecessary stress to our lives.