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The Culture of Misconception and Women’s Perception Regarding Beauty

Updated on May 28, 2013

The Culture of Misconception and Women’s Perception Regarding Beauty

SOAN 225

When tackling the topic “women’s perception of beauty and self-confidence” scholars are faced with various hurdles starting with defining beauty, analyzing and quantifying women’s perception of it, as well as monitoring the effect of such perceptions on one’s confidence. As a result, we define beauty by its simplest form, (partially physical and partially perceived), via referring to philosopher Edmund Burke who concluded “that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses” (1756).

This essay aims to highlight how women’s perception of their own beauty is affected by media and how the prior reflects on their self-confidence. This topic was inspired while taking a look at Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches Campaign which was posted over social networks. The essay aims to shed light over the emergence of what Taylor Chapman calls “a culture of misconception” (2011), the reasons behind holding beauty as an important concept, as well as studies on perception and how the latter reflects on women’s self-confidence and value of oneself.

In “Women in American Media: A Culture of Misperception”, Taylor Chapman articulates the role played by the media as a medium of transfer of both ideas and ideologies. Chapman notices two aspects that require further inspection: the first relates to the shift of ideologies regarding the assessment of beauty and the second illustrates the role of media in this shift in portraying “painfully thin women” which affects women’s perception regarding themselves and those around them.

The article traces the leap made by people’s views regarding celebrities. Initially, celebrities were admired from afar, their lives were a source of admiration for many fans, yet, as Dr. Tornambe of the F.A.C.S states, the latter were aware that the celebrities’ lives were far different from those of average people. Hence, they were not copied, yet “admired from afar” (2012). On the contrary, with the invention of technology, various forms of media and social networks have taken a great leap to bridge the gap between celebrities “above average” and regular people’s lives. This technology emergence allows regular individuals to follow the lives of celebrities via twitter, facebook, and fan pages, among others which gave birth to the rising need to copy and live the prior’s lives by regular people. Another interesting point regarding the shift is that although media targets both genders, women were the most affected by this radical change in beauty standards. This, as Tornambe states, was the reason behind the shift in individual beauty conceptions, one’s perception of worthiness thus, affecting a person’s confidence.

For instance, Bordo in “The Globalization of Eating Disorders” states that the globalization of “body image distortion” has included girls from various age groups, some at ages between 9 and 12 years old to obsess about their figures, losing weight, and remaining in control (2006). Similarly, in her video uploaded on on March 10th 2010, Jean Kilbourne pin points several destructive ideologies regarding femininity. From the beginning of the video, Kilbourne articulates that advertisements “more than products sell values, images, concepts of love, sexuality, success and more importantly normalcy”. Her opening phrase suggests that media has a far greater impact on the younger generations, the development and evolution of ideologies regarding the world around us as well as how we view ourselves. She continues to expand her point by arguing that advertisers aim to “surround the public with images of the ideal female body”. The flawlessness of the models both acquired by extreme dieting and aided by Photoshop is at a level that simply can’t be achieved by regular girls which drives their confidence “into a wall” as they are incapable of competing with the standards created by the mass media. Kilbourne then quotes Sydney Crawford who says “I wish I looked like Sydney Crawford”. The initial statement shows how Photoshop has created images of flawlessness that the models themselves can’t identify with. Yet, one of the most pressing points Kilbourne highlights is the culture in which women are raised and nurtured in. This culture morphs their bodies into objects used for marketing and commercial ends, which as she argues creates the playground for violence against women. She articulates that dehumanization which is “turning the body of the human being is always the first step into justifying violence against that person” (

There is no doubt that the message delivered by Kilbourne has its weight, yet what is of our interest is the reaction of the audience examined via the comments posted beneath the video. Several commenters affirmed the feeling of being forced to accept the ideologies created by the media which they can’t live up to. For instance, Gabby S comments stating that, “while it's very true that men also experience body issues and insecurity, the pressure on them is not anywhere near the scale of what women face. Sexualized, objectified, silenced and patronized, we are told our issues don't matter and women are so often told that we're not good enough. As Tina Fey said, now if you're not 'hot' you're expected to work on it until you are”. Following Gabby’s comment, Alex Bundrick expresses how she was subjected to “Sexual, physical, verbal, and psychological harassment by her “pretty girls who weighed less than 120 pounds”. At a young age, she established that she had to control her weight in order “to look like the popular, pretty girls”. She goes on saying, “I remember vividly at the time believing that people would accept me if I tried to look the way that society portrayed the average woman, the "accepted image." It took me three years to realize that the problem wasn't me; it was them”. Bundrick sums up her comment by stating that not all advertisement caused her discomfort, yet the severity and the frequency of the ads affected how she perceived herself up to an extent that drove her into anorexia as well as attempting suicide twice.

Many might wonder why the ideologies regarding beauty affect our perception regarding our attractiveness, self-worth, and point out that not all women are adversely and negatively affected by the extremely thin images portrayed by media. Indeed, not all women have such negative experiences and as Bundrick states, not all forms of advertisement have led to discomfort. As a result, the sections below explore the significance of beauty in our society post the shift mentioned earlier as well as the variety of reactions towards various forms of media.

Beauty is coined with being good, in control, and high levels of achievement and success, whereas ugliness or being incapable of living up to the beauty standards set is usually coined with evil, being underachieved as well as lacking control. This is evident in Burdock’s comment to Kilbourne’s video who states that “I'll start controlling my weight in order to look like the popular, pretty girls who weigh less than 120 pounds, the ones who did the bulk of the bullying.”. For a simple illustration, a minor examination of Disney’s “Snow-White” shows evident depiction of how beauty is correlated with being good (the protagonist Snow White), whereas being evil is related to cruelty and unattractiveness (the witch). Thus, from a young age we are shown that beauty is correlated with good whereas cruelty is associated with ugliness. Yet, what is more interesting is that body images which is how people view themselves plays an important role in determining one’s worth , success, and level of achievement. M.D (2004) argues that we live in a materialistic world ruled by ideologies of beauty that revolves around flawlessness which makes living up to these standards a problem. She then explores the argument by stating that people in general and women in particular are willing to walk lengthy paths to live up to these standards. The study concludes that the suffering and cost incurred to attain such perfection of appearance ultimately serve the goal of presenting the “ideal body to others”. All in all this drives Naomi Wolf to conclude that “beauty is a currency system like the gold standard” followed by Susan J. Douglas who states that “We can play sports, excel at school, go to college, aspire to – and get – jobs previously reserved for men, be working mothers and so forth. But in exchange, we must obsess about our faces, weight, breast size, clothing brands, about pleasing men and being envied by other women”.

To counterattack this, Dove launched its campaign on May 2013 under the motto “You are more beautiful than you think”. The ad and research study which attracted many viewers illustrate how the shift regarding ideologies of beauty affected women’s own perception of their beauty. It presents the viewer with a forensic artist who develops sketches of women who he had never seen via asking them several questions relating to their looks. Later, the image created by the artist is compared to another created by the help of a stranger describing the same women. As emphasized in the video, all the sketches are done in a manner that prevents both the participants and the artist from making any eye contact in order to prevent influencing the sketches produced. Later on, the woman is walked into the room to view both images. In most of the cases, the sketches produced by talking to the stranger who was asked to describe another woman were more close to the woman’s beauty. What can be inferred based on the ad is that when women describe themselves they tend to undermine their own beauty and perceive themselves as less attractive than what others view them as. At the end of the video, one of the participants elaborates this point further by stating that, “we spend a lot of time as women analyzing and trying to fix the things that are quite right. And we should spend more time appreciating the things that we do like. You are more beautiful than you think”.

As many have argued, not all women who are continuously exposed to extremely thin women will suffer from discomfort due to their inability to match the standards portrayed by such images. As Kathy Wilcox and James D. Laird from Clark University suggest that on such occurrences, two responses are identified. The first is social reproduction/identification, in which an individual adopts a temporary identity of the image she views, thus, resulting in positive emotional ripples rather than feelings of discomfort (2000). This is explained by the fact that the viewer categories herself in the same class as the extremely thin flawless models. The second anticipated reaction would be social comparison. An individual is aware of her own body proportions, where they fall short regarding the ideal bea-uty standards, hence, suffers from discomfort and tends to undermine her own beauty and accomplishments.

As many of the studies suggest, the occurrence of one of the two reactions depends on whether the individual at hand views the stimulus as a personal or a situational cue. Personal cues combined with extremely thin body images result in social comparison as the view places her body on a scale against the ideologies represented by the images of thin women. Wood sums up the argument relating this type of people by concluding the inevitability of devaluation of one’s beauty and achievements (1989). On the other hand, when a viewer relates the images as social cues (independent of his own body properties), she is less likely to have conflicting feelings, and a brief sense of pleasure is expected as a result of identification. For illustration, a study conducted by Wilcox and Laird took a sample of 41female participants who were divided into 2 groups of N=21 and N=20 and exposed to extremely thin and normal sized models’ photographs respectively. The reaction of both sets where assessed by monitoring three categories: self-esteem, body esteem, as well as the feelings of the participants. The measure of self-confidence was assessed through a couple of statements where the individual was asked to rate, whereas body esteem was viewed through reflections on one’s own weight, physical condition and sexual attraction. As a final parameter, feelings were recorded as well.

As for the second factor discussed in the model, the cue response groups were identified by allowing participants to rate certain emotions, thus assigning the them to the “personal cue” category if they felt happier when smiling and angrier when frowning. The personal cue group resulted with 19 participants whereas the situational subgroup resulted in 21 participants. Statistically, only the “awareness of the participant’s body weight” within the body esteem category showed significant correlation between the type of response cues and the images the participants were exposed to. Wilcox and Laird concluded that participants who relied less on personal cues when viewing the extremely thin pictures showed higher confidence regarding their weight contrary to others who relied more on personal cues. For instance, a personal response-reliant participant articulates the effect of viewing such images by stating that she became aware of her inferiority as feelings of jealousy and inadequacy set in (Wilcox and Laird, 2000).

As a conclusion, we examined the shift in the ideologies regarding beauty, the reasons why beauty has been given great attention recently as a result affecting women’s perception of their own beauty and ultimately their confidence. The study supplied by Wilcox and Laird suggests that not all women express discomfort and negative emotions when continuously bombarded with images of thin women. In fact personal or situational cues play a significant role in determining the emergence of social comparison or identification, the latter set determines the final effect of such events.



Dove Real Beauty Sketches aims at showing how women perceive their own beauty via utilizing a forensic artist who draws pictures of them based on descriptions supplied by the subject as well as another stranger. The ad articulates its research’s results by saying “you are more beautiful that you think you are”.

Jean Kilbourne, through her series of lectures “Killing Us Slowly” aims to show how media affects what standards we hold for beauty as well as raise awareness regarding the dehumanization of the female body.


Bordo, S. (2006) The Globalization of eating disorders. In Z. Sinno, R. Rantisii, G.Zeineddine, N. Honein, J. Najjar ,Shades of Gray. (Eds) Shades of Gray (2nd edition)( pp 320 -324). Edinburgh gate, harlow; pearson education limited.

Dunn, S. (2010), Examining the Effects of Popular Children’s Media on Young Girls’ Body Image. Retrieved 01, 2012, from

D., M. (2003) "Body Image: A Clouded Reality,"Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge: Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 9. Retrieved from,

Women in American Media: A Culture of Misconception retrieved from

Tornambe, R. Be Realistic! How Technology Affects Your Perception of Beauty, retrieved from,


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    • profile image

      Evan Smiley 

      4 years ago

      Thank you for doing research and creating this hub. I think it's such an important topic and you did a beautiful job. I hadn't ever seen that Dove ad! It is so touching! We can never see how beautiful we are.

      I think along with media influence is also social influence. We are taught not to be boastful or proud, so we humble ourselves to a point of insecurity. But there was a quote by C.S. Lewis "Humility isn't thinking less of yourself. It's thinking of yourself less."


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