Does New Age Beauty Play A Harmful Role In Low Self-Esteem?

Will we ever live up to the face-tuned images we see on the internet? Spoiler alert, we won't.

We live in an image-obsessed world. From the rise of Instagram to the unprecedented growth of reality TV, society’s beauty standards have soared, rather than merely evolved, in the digital age. Every day, we are bombarded with images of beautiful people; on our devices, through advertising and even on the street, as the people around us thread, inject and dye their way to the “perfect” look.

But how harmful is this new, impossible beauty standard to our mental wellbeing? And will we ever live up to the face-tuned images we see on the internet? The answer, from experts and commentators alike, is a resounding “no”.

My own personal experience with makeup has been complicated at best. I was relatively older than my peers when I first realised that my self-worth could be tied up with what I put on my face. After a well-intentioned, albeit slightly orange makeover executed by one of my classmates, I was sold on the makeup habit I had avoided for so long. Makeup gave me a glimpse at a type of confidence I had never experienced before, and at just 15 years old, I began putting on a full face of makeup for school every day.

Now in my twenties, I find it very difficult to go to work, to an event, or even to the shops without a bit of slap on. It’s not that I feel so insecure that I can’t leave the house without makeup on: I can do it, but I know that if I don’t wear makeup, my overall mood that day will be significantly affected. I would argue that for 21st-century women, wearing makeup actually makes you more productive. When I want to perform my best, I get up earlier than usual and put on my full face before work, eyebrows and all. This gives me the confidence to function as a human being. Unfortunately, this means that 22-year-old me is still basing her self-worth solely on her appearance.

This is the fallacy that beauty culture has created. That we, as women, are not enough as we are. That in order to feel beautiful and worthy, we must subscribe to our society’s idea of how a woman should look, threaded eyebrows and all. Dr. Cliodhna O’Donovan, Chartered Psychologist of the Psychological Society of Ireland, agrees that the link between self-esteem and makeup is a direct result of today’s beauty culture ideals. “Photoshopped, filtered images have become the new ‘normal'”, Cliodhna posits.

“The thing about beauty is that it’s totally socially constructed. So, what is deemed to be beautiful is based on the trends of the time. We’re all trying to achieve something that is not actually achievable.”

In their 2020 YouTube think-piece, ‘Is Beauty Culture Hurting Us?’, US website Vox investigated the effects of beauty influencers and makeup endorsements on women’s self-esteem. Presenter and producer Cleo Abram revealed that although more and more young women are claiming to feel beautiful, at the same time, the vast majority of us are feeling undue pressure to be beautiful. In short, the very same treatments that make us feel pretty and attractive, also pressure us into presenting a consistent image of perfection. This is an impossibility unless you’re a Kardashian with a glam squad that’s readily available to make you over, 24/7.

Cliodhna confirms that seeking beauty treatments such as Botox, eyebrow threading and lip fillers can have equally positive and negative effects. “It’s all about your reasons for doing something,” she reveals. “Why are you investing in these treatments? Is it because they make you feel good about yourself, or is it because looking a certain way is tied in with your sense of self-worth and self-value? Ask yourself: is my self-worth reliant on being validated by other people?”

Influencers and beauty gurus aren’t the only social media users wrestling with this question. For us commons folk, Instagram has become a hotbed of validation addiction. We post on social media to receive ‘likes’ and comments, to feel validated and wanted. These positive affirmations subconsciously reinforce the idea that we matter, that we deserve to exist. It’s when those ‘likes’ fade away, and the comments become critical or negative, that our sense of self-worth can quickly regress to nothing.

Cliodhna advises that as Instagram users, we must make a conscious effort to accept ourselves as we are, independent of social media validation. She argues that many influencers and beauty gurus suffer from anxiety and depression because their careers rely so heavily on being accepted by brands and audiences. For influencers who rely on this validation for their own self-esteem, “the world that they live in is quite empty, there’s no real substance to it,” Cliodhna advises. “This kind of career can be superficial. When you scratch the surface, there’s not a lot there that’s meaningful.”

“If your external self and how you look is so meshed with your self-worth, that’s where the negative impact of advertising and shows like Love Island comes in.” So how can we combat the negative effects of 21st-century beauty culture? Is the solution simply to quit social media altogether? And if we feel that a total boycott of our social media apps is not an option, how can we begin to use Instagram in a more empowering way? “I would recommend reaffirming things that are reality,” Cliodhna advises.

“Unfiltered images remind us that actually, this is what a real person looks like. We must acknowledge that this human on Instagram is seemingly beautiful by all standards, but also, that they have pores. They have cellulite and fine lines and all those things that are part and parcel of what it means to be human. We rarely see that anymore, but it’s there, underneath the perfect, photoshopped image.”

Tailoring our feeds to showcase people who look more like us can also help to combat our appearance. If your feed is full of unrealistic beauty ideals that you can never live up to, pay attention to influencers who are causing you to feel lesser-than, and hit unfollow accordingly. Cliodhna calls these instant self-esteem hits ‘NATs’: negative automatic thoughts. If an influencer’s perfect picture is causing you to instantly feel down, “Ask yourself, why am I looking at this image?” she advises. “Why am I consuming this? I have a choice, and I don’t have to consume these images that are making me feel bad about myself. I am enough as I am.”

Positive affirmations like this simple sentence can have untold benefits on our overall self-esteem. When we stop following people who make us feel bad about ourselves, and start using positive self-talk to reinforce that we are valuable, regardless of how we look, then we can truly grow to love ourselves, stretch-marks, acne, unplucked eyebrows and all.

Words by: Catherine Taylor

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