A poisonous pursuit

Times Staff Writer

Hungry fashion models, sexed-up tweens and 50-year-old actresses with baby-plump faces. Today’s pursuit of beauty ideals is an all-too-familiar narrative steeped in medical wizardry, sexual objectification and sheer self-deprivation.

And according to a report published last week by the nonprofit women’s organization YWCA, our ceaseless pursuit of perfection is more toxic than ever to American women and girls.

“Beauty at Any Cost,” a brief, punchy lambaste of the beauty and fashion industries, details the emotional and financial dangers of pursuing unrealistic beauty standards. The statistics, compiled from various sources, are worrisome -- if not altogether shocking (we knew things were going downhill when fourth-graders started emulating scantily clad pop stars like Britney Spears).


Some highlights:

* Eighty percent of women say they’re unhappy with their appearance, and 67% of women ages 25 to 45 are trying to shed pounds -- though 53% of them are already at a healthy weight. The report also cited a study in which 69% of the respondents (18 and older) said they were in favor of plastic surgery -- a 7% increase from 2006.

* Forty percent of newly diagnosed cases of eating disorders are in girls 15 to 19 years old, but symptoms can occur as early as kindergarten. Girls who spent the most time and effort on their appearance suffered “the greatest loss of confidence.”

* With the media playing a larger role in our daily lives, young girls are more susceptible to low self-esteem -- based on beauty ideals -- than ever before and are subject to greater harassment. “The use of aggressive bullying between girls has been on the rise since the early 1990s, based on issues such as physical attributes and social status,” states one study. According to another: “Mean girls . . . often don’t grow out of the behavior and they become adult women who exhibit the same behavior.” And we thought trash-talking on the basketball court was bad.

* Americans fork over nearly $7 billion a year on cosmetics, beauty supplies and fragrance, and nearly 11.7 million cosmetic surgical and nonsurgical procedures were performed in 2007 -- an almost 500% increase in such procedures from 1997. One of the many factoids in the report noted that if women put the average amount of money they spent on monthly manicure-pedicures ($50) into an interest-bearing retirement account every year for 10 years, they would have almost $10,000 saved. Easier said than done.

“We felt the problem had reached such a crisis proportion that we needed to speak up and draw a line in the sand that this must stop,” said Nancy Loving, director of communications for YWCA U.S.A., who added that the group will use the report as a jumping-off point for educational programs in its 300 locations in the U.S. “If you’re constantly made to feel inadequate, you’re really quite disabled in terms of being able to achieve in other areas of life -- academic, social and political.”