In a world that cares more about maximizing outer value at all costs, mindfulness can seem almost an act of rebellion. Leen Al Said delves into why society should be focusing its collective attention towards the vital inputs of self-care – especially when it comes to self-image among youth.
There’s a line that exists between the ‘bare minimum’ and ‘not caring’ when it comes to how seriously we take our own well-being and mental health, with varying degrees of perspective and execution.
One person’s bare minimum could be a quick swipe of lip balm and mascara; while, for another it could be a complex full face of makeup; for others still a hot shower and spritz of perfume could be enough to see them through the day.
The standards of conformative beauty have been cemented in history, magazines and, more recently, online. Up until the 20th-century, makeup was used as a means to differentiate class and wealth; while now, it’s been made easily accessible to the masses due to the surge of advertorial content pushed out by cosmetic industries, then validated on social media through celebrities, or an old friend from high school who just posted a Snapchat of an eyeshadow palette she bought.
Alla Kholmogorova, the Dean of Faculty for Counseling and Clinical Psychology at the Moscow State University of Psychology and Education conducted two experiments in which she and her team studied the consequences of promoting unhealthy beauty standards on the mental health of young people in the era of the information revolution.
Kholmogorova’s research team developed an experiment called ‘Choose a Doll’ in which a group of pre-school age girls were asked to select between five dolls – four of them being white-skinned, blonde Barbie dolls, and the fifth a doll with the same height as the others, but with an ‘average’-sized body and face. The task was to choose a doll out of the pile and rank them from best to worst. Of the 23 children who participated, 16 chose the ‘average’ doll last only because she was the only doll left.
In another study, Kholmogorova’s research team hypothesized that young adults from metropolitan cities had higher levels of dissatisfaction with their body image than young adults from provincial cities. Three hundred young adults ages 18 to 23 were studied and split into four groups – men and women who live in metropolitan Russian cities (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), and young men and women from provincial Russian towns (Saransk and Murmansk).
Using the Physical Appearance Perfectionism Scale (PAPS), a measure with two scales – ‘Worry About Imperfection’ and ‘Hope For Perfection’ with statements such as ‘I am not satisfied with my appearance’ and ‘I hope that I look attractive’ – are ranked by the subjects. The results of their research supported their hypothesis: young adults from the metropolitan cities were generally less satisfied with their physical appearance and weight compared to their peers from the provincial towns.
The team concluded that physical perfectionism and body dissatisfaction among young people are closely linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety. The data also confirmed that unrealistic beauty standards have a strong influence on the ideals of children in pre-school age.
In comparison, Annika S. K. Forssen, a researcher in family medicine in the Department of Public Health in Sweden conducted an experiment exploring how a group of elderly women maintained physical and mental well-being by creating humour, beauty, and cultural activities. Twenty Swedish women, ages 63 to 83, were interviewed on what enabled them to feel well and healthy, even though some were ill with disease.
These women explained the different methods in which they found comfort and joy in their day-to-day lives. Making jokes with their workmates made their low-status jobs easier, while gardening and beautifying their homes gave them pleasure. Sewing and making articles of clothing for loved ones was regarded as worthwhile because of the appreciation showed to them by their families. Forssen’s team’s research concluded that humour, beauty, and culture were used as a means for survival by these women – they knew what they needed in order to stay ‘healthy’. Simple acts such as going outside to enjoy nature or meeting a friend should be given their importance.
This focus on ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ makes everyday life turn from tolerable to enjoyable. Our desire and need as people to find humour, beauty, and culture must be understood and respected in order to grow and learn from the actions brought out by our emotions, and to find beauty in acts of kindness towards one’s self instead of how one’s physical attractiveness defines their life. And the earlier in life we begin instilling these values in our children, kinder, more caring societies have room to be nurtured.