The “Barbie and Ken Effect”, or why appearances affect our self-esteem so much

“I had a difficult time in school,” Tegan Martin told Australia’s Newcastle Herald in 2016.“I most certainly didn’t have model looks, and I was tangled up in a very draining group of friends in year seven to eight. I went through a stage where I didn’t want to go at all.” As a model in Paris, Martin said she suffered from “a period of extreme body confidence issues.”

For the record, Tegan Martin is a former Miss Australia.

Sadly, though, cases like this are very common. That is, appearances matter–to a varying degree perhaps for different people, but enough to make a splash when it comes to first impressions (and second and third, for this matter), and on another level–to shaping our own sense of self-love and confidence.

But the culprit here is, of course, that the reflection we see in the mirror is often skewed– it’s bent through our individual prisms, and more often than not–it’s unfavorable.

Let’s face it–we live in a world which is obsessed with perfection; where outliers are still being penalised for their foibles–they are excluded from the “cool” circle or even worse–are bullied for simply being different from some made-up artificial “standards.”

An avalanche of research evidences that the looks effect is real–that is, attractive people get more perks in life–more opportunities, higher salaries, are deemed more competent.

But attractiveness is not only limited to our outer shells. It’s an attitude towards the self, the relationship we have with ourselves. Simply put, it has to do plenty with how we see and think about ourselves and much less– with reality.

But why do we so often fail to build an impartial self-image, and end up, instead, with a biased one?  The simple version of what’s a rather complex and perhaps a very lengthy answer is that: the swayers are just way too many.

The fantasies which Hollywood and the romance novels feed us; the influences of the social media; comparisons to the Joneses; and the sometimes not-so-friendly “support” of our inner circle of friends and family—all these often leave their fingerprints all over our self-views. The traces rarely fade away completely.

On a more local ground, one’s personality type also encourages unfavorable self-opinions. If you are a perfectionist, a high achiever, and a type-A individual, with an often-unhealthy ambition and perennial dissatisfaction with your present life, changes are, you are also exceptionally vulnerable to image discontent. Introverts and shy people are no strangers to self-distortions, because of their heightened sensitivity to the external world too.

Skewed self-image, psychologists tell us, frequently traces back to our childhoods—to the excessive criticism or unrealistic expectations—of parents, teachers and peers—which often break more than they repair, discourage than motivate, and lower than raise our self-esteem. The hard push to “to reach one’s full potential” is frequently an open invitation to also nurture excessive defensiveness, narcissism, fierce competitiveness, and nonetheless—delusive self-perceptions. Especially when others’ love, praise and recognition  are built on the fragile foundation of contingencies.

The great American psychologist Carl Rogers[1] called these “conditions of worth”that is, he argued, when approval and parental affection are reliant on the achievement of certain performance or goals, our self-esteem suffers. We are not, in the traditional sense, a “fully functioning person.” [2]

But nothing can quite challenge the influence of what I like to call the Barbie and Ken effect,” or the ubiquitous “guidelines of beauty” we are exposed to every day. In fact, when we think about self-image, we usually allude to physical characteristics, or “body image.” While by no means negligible—actually, come studies place its link to confidence in the 40% to 80% range—it’s only a part of the overall opinion we hold about ourselves.

The body image phenomenon—or how we perceive our bodies and looks—has been in the spotlight for a while now, mostly because of its infamous links to self-esteem and mental wellbeing. Sadly, it’s a rather wide-spread and persistent epidemic too. Studies from the Universities of Stanford and Massachusetts, for instance, have discovered that 70% of women generally feel worse about themselves when looking at fashion magazines. [3]

Other research hits a similar note. At the age of thirteen, 53% of American girls are dissatisfied with their bodies. This number climbs up to 78% by the time they reach seventeen![4] Glamour magazine conducted a similar survey in 2014. The results were equally disturbing—54% of women ages 18 to 40 were unhappy with their bodies, and 80% of them said that just looking in the mirror made them feel bad.[5]

In studies, done by Dove, 9 out of 10 girls want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearances, 72% feel daily pressure to look good, and…only 4% of the women around the world reported that they felt beautiful. [6]Analysis amongst men shows identical results—the weight of appearances is not less important to that group.

The outcomes are far too taxing to be breezily attributed to just excessive vanity and egocentrism. But what scientists now know is that a distorted self-image is due to a certain dis-balance in the brain when processing visual images—a condition called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). [7]

Unfavorable body image is often more than just a mere dissatisfaction with the way we look—it’s a fixation, an obsession with aspects of our bodies we dislike.

It all leaks into a vast array of “outcast” issues, such as obsessive-compulsive and social anxiety disorders, depression, or social isolation. The “quick fixes,” which many resort to, are equally damaging too—excessive plastic surgery, eating disorders, over-exercising, and malnutrition.

An ill-ambition to measure up and live up to artificial “high” standards—such as physical perfection or conditional approval from others—is often a silent but efficient killer. It has many means and tricks up its sleeves to make us feel inferior, to push us in an endless pursuit after the next “norm” of cool or beautiful or successful, and to slowly drive us over the edge of our own sanity.

And what we often grasp—way too late—is that we have let its greedy hands take away from us everything that makes us different, special, unique and worth loving. What’s more—obsessing with our self-image often prevents the world to see the lion heart beating inside a seemingly fragile façade.

.  .  .


[1] Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was an American psychologist, most recognized for his work on the so-called humanistic approach which focuses on studying self-actualization through realizing one’s capabilities and creativity. He is considered the founding father of the psychotherapy research. Of interest to us is his work on the self-concept

[2] Rogers, C. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On Becoming a person: A psychotherapists view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Kilbourne, J. (1999). Can’t buy my love: How advertising changes the way we think and feel. New York: Touchstone Books.

[4] Brumberg, J.J. (1997). The body project: An intimate history of American girls. New York: Random House.

[5] Dreisbach, S. How do you feel about your body? October, 2014. Glamour magazine.

[6] The Real Truth about Beauty: Revisited, 2010/2013.

[7] It’s not clear what causes BDD. Some studies have found hereditability and personality traits such as introversion and over-sensitivity, as well as childhood mistreatment to play a role.

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