Are we obsessed with appearances?

Sometimes it seems like everywhere we turn nowadays, people are being judged for what they look like and the image they present to the world, rather than who they are and what they've achieved. Celebrity musicians, Hollywood starlets, reality TV show stars and even politicians are judged on their appearances, and it's a worrying trend. With the rise of social media and the 'selfie', are we breeding a generation of shallow, narcissistic young people who are obsessed with appearances? We thought we'd dig a little deeper...

The 'selfie'

The 'selfie' has become the ultimate 21st symbol of vanity – for those who don't know, it's when you take a picture of yourself, usually with the front camera on your smartphone. It's a growing trend on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and has even been used in fundraising campaigns for charity. We used to just look in the mirror to see what we looked like; now it seems like a whole generation of young men and women are seeking regular reassurance about their looks, with dangerous consequences for our mental health. Behavioural psychologist Donna Dawson shares her thoughts on the matter in a recent Telegraph article, “We are more vain because we're taking more selfies and we're under more pressure to do it because everyone else is. We're living our lives in this other dimension, online. I think the whole idea of a selfie shows we no longer need to just look in a mirror – we need a double reassurance.”

From the #nomakeup selfie to the #nofilter images all over instagram, it's easy to see why taking selfies could become addictive – we want others to comment (positively) on our appearance, making us feel good about ourselves. But is this actually feeding our insecurities and creating body image issues? Some people believe so. We need to love ourselves and feel confident in our own skin; that comes from within, not from comments left on a social media photograph online.

Dr Terri Apter believes social media has caused a cultural shift in the way we focus on appearances. (1) In the 1940's, we were concerned more about reputation; today, it's all about image. She says, “We've always been preoccupied with how people see us, but now that we live in an online world, it's easier to focus on the looks side of things.”

It might not be vanity but it's still a problem

In fact, we're not vain, we're simply narcissistic; we have the need to be admired by others. We're filled with self doubt, constantly looking over our shoulder. Editing Facebook images or adding filters to our instagram photos in order to portray a flawless version of ourselves to others, which then makes someone else feel they have to do the same. We're missing out on the here and now and feeding our own insecurities as we do so. Scientists at Oxford University believe that Twitter and Facebook are 'creating a vain generation of self-obsessed people.' (2)

A generation of yummies

We're used to seeing selfies of beautiful celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Nicky Hilton online, but it seems women aren't the only ones focusing too much on their looks. In March of this year, The Guardian (3) focused on 'yummies' – a generation of young, urban males obsessed with health, grooming and their appearance. Whilst 'metrosexuals' have been around for a while, this new movement is definitely more mainstream and includes the majority of men in their 20's and early 30's. It could be that men nowadays are marrying later, leaving them single and independent for longer, with more disposable income to spend on grooming and their looks. Or it could be that social media and peer pressure are to blame.

A worldwide issue

All this obsession with image has led to a very real, worrying trend for plastic surgery in very young women (and men.) In a survey carried out in 2005, 40% of 2,000 teenagers surveyed revealed they had considered some form of plastic surgery (4), and since then, that number has grown five-fold.

Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS Medical Director, expressed his concerns after releasing worrying statistics in 2013. His report revealed that 63% of girls aged 11 to 16 admitted they felt pressure to lose weight and look like celebrities. Even more alarming, over 40% of girls aged seven to 10 also felt pressurised to be perfect.

In the USA, the situation is just as bad, despite stricter rules in the cosmetic surgery industry. In 2012, 236,356 cosmetic procedures were carried out on girls and boys aged 13 to 19. Surgery to address issues with body image and self confidence may have become more common than therapy.

In countries across the world, young people are undergoing (often dangerous) plastic surgery to boost their confidence and get their ideal look. Did you know that one in five women in South Korea has had some kind of cosmetic procedure? (5) Compared to one in 20 women in the USA, that's a pretty shocking statistic. In South Korea, beauty is equated with economic and professional success. Many blame this on the rise of 'K-Pop' culture, where Caucasian features and a youthful appearance have become considered the norm. Beauty is a nationwide obsession in South Korea, and it's not just the major cities where people feel pressured to look good - even rural areas hundreds of miles from cities such as Seoul have felt the impact. 17-year old girls across the country regularly undergo cosmetic procedures such as eyelid surgery or nose jobs.

What does it all mean?

Reading statistics about our obsession with looks is all very well, but what impact is this having on our health? In order to be completely healthy, we need physical, mental and spiritual health. Yet comparing ourselves to others means we're not embracing natural diversity and the fact we're all unique; constantly striving to be something you're not is setting yourself up to be unhappy.

We believe 'health is an experience, not an appearance', and constantly browsing photographs of supermodels and celebrities online, or even flicking through your skinny friend's (heavily-edited) instagram photos can damage your self-esteem and body image. The only view of yourself you need is the one you get when you look in the mirror.

Focusing too much on appearance has led to a rise in eating disorders as women and men put themselves on increasingly strict low carb diets or high protein diets (6). It's not just adults who are affected either, children as young as five are being admitted to hospital. Most of those affected are girls or women striving to recreate the 'perfect' body they've seen in magazines and on TV. In reality, the images we see are photoshopped and edited to within an inch of their lives; not even the model looks that good!

Protect your mental health

It's not just our physical health that's suffering though, and an obsession with appearance can impact on your mental health too. Psychiatrists have linked development of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a condition where people become obsessed with a perceived flaw in their appearance (that doesn't exist), to social media.(7) Psychiatrist David Veal says, “Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with BDD since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites.”

What seems like a harmless habit now; spending a couple of hours finding the perfect angle for your selfie or the right profile picture for Facebook, can build up over time, making you increasingly self-conscious. Experts believe that the more we use social media, the greater our lack of confidence may become. You may spend increasing amounts of time focusing on your hair, your skin or your facial features, seeing flaws where none exist.

Happiness shouldn't be based on how you look; you're far more than the sum of your parts. Neither should it be based on how many 'likes' your profile picture gets. Building real self-esteem and self confidence may be more of a challenge; it take more time and effort than posting an edited selfie online - but it ensures genuine happiness and improves mental health. We need to spend less time focusing on what's on the outside, and more on looking within, to improve ourselves and our mental and physical health.

READ THIS NEXT: Is Facebook harming your happiness?

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Author By Paula Beaton
Date On 9th Oct 2014 at 15:15

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