We live in a time and place where the pursuit of physical perfection is a paramount goal for most people. The amount of money, energy, and time the average person spends on their physical appearance is truly unprecedented. Americans spend about $7 billion on cosmetic products each year, according to a 2008 report by the YWCA. We spend another $1.5 billion on breast augmentation, $1.3 billion on liposuction and almost $1 billion on tummy tucks. As staggering as these numbers are, they are increasingly on the rise. So, what does all of this suggest about who we are as a society? What is really behind our beauty obsession? Are we simply a culture of naïve and duped consumers who believe everything advertisers tell us to believe; that if we buy certain creams and make-up products or diet pills that we will attain instant happiness?
There are many who believe that consumerism has so permeated our culture that most of us are completely unaware of how enslaved we are by it. Others, however, argue that if one has the means then there is nothing wrong with taking extra measures to improve one’s lifestyle and appearance, even if it involves surgery or spending on expensive products. They cite mental health experts who have long purported a definite link between having a healthy self image and being successful and happy. Although those who maintain a positive and healthy self image do tend to be happier and successful, the beauty industry is capitalizing on our vulnerabilities and insecurities by encouraging the over-consumption of beauty products. The truth is, it’s completely possible to achieve a healthy self image without any dependence on external beauty products or placing too much focus on physicality. Unfortunately, in our pursuit of perfection, we’ve created an incessant need to splurge on weekly trips to the tanning, hair, and nail salons or purchase expensive oils, perfumes, and creams. We justify all of this as an expression of self-love and hope that it will rid us of any shame, guilt, and accountability for our excessive behavior. When one’s mantra is, “I love myself and I want to be happy. I deserve to have the finer things in life,” buying designer clothes, shoes, and accessories and living extravagantly is instantly legitimized.
Even if we set aside the financial costs and resign the matter to an individual’s right to choose what he/she wants to do with their own time and money, we must make note of the fact that beauty obsession can have several other serious and negative consequences. Increasingly, young men and women are developing eating disorders, suffering from body dismorphic disorder, and becoming dependent on anti-depressants, stimulants (drugs & alcohol) and other medications. Young Muslims, particularly teenagers, are also suffering from these very serious body image issues. The media is certainly to blame for contributing to these problems by creating unrealistic ideals of beauty. Fashion magazines, billboards, music videos, TV, and film all shape our beauty standards. Young and impressionable teens are often unaware that most of the images in print and on screen have undergone several layers of digital manipulation and do not actually represent a realistic image. Magazines are especially notorious for this, which is why Newsweek recently did an expose on the decades most egregious retouching scandals called “Unattainable Beauty.” For this reason, most waiting rooms in a mental health practice rarely ever provide fashion magazines. We too should limit our own exposure to such material.
Bombarded with these unrealistic images, it makes perfect sense why so many of us are experiencing major issues with our self-esteem and self-confidence. It’s become a normative practice in our society to compare oneself with other people, be they Hollywood stars, friends and family members or even strangers in the gym locker room. And typically we end up walking away overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. This is why, in addition to avoiding lustful thoughts, part of the wisdom of why we’re instructed as Muslims to lower our gaze with others who are dressed immodestly even if they are of the same gender, is to avoid the dangers of covetousness, envy, jealousy, etc.
We must also begin talking about the importance of self-love and appreciation based on internal traits rather than physical traits. This is especially important to do with young girls who are blatantly targeted by advertisers who exploit female beauty and promote these unhealthy ideals. As a society we have to teach our daughters, little sisters, nieces, etc that they are valued for more than their physical attributes. We should empower our young girls to value the inner beauty in themselves and in others while avoiding the “mean girls” culture which promotes competition and status based on outward appearances. Additionally, mothers should be advised to avoid constantly obsessing about their physical imperfections in front of their very impressionable young daughters while at the same time avoiding the overemphasis on the physical attributes of their daughters. Mothers who encourage their daughters to wear make-up at an early age (even play make-up) or spend an excessive amount of time primping and prepping their daughters for school or social functions are inadvertently perpetuating the beauty obsessed cycle. It’s extremely important to take time out every day to praise your daughter’s efforts related to positive social interaction, academic achievements, and general hard work which will teach them to value themselves as a whole person rather than just on physical appearances. As a society, we should also be cognizant of complimenting young girls on more than just how “cute” or “pretty” they are or rewarding them with extra attention over other girls who aren’t as dolled up. We send very mixed messages to young girls and set them up to fall prey to this distorted value system when we solely focus our attention on their clothing, shoes, hair and accessories and give little regard to their achievements and good character.
And this is where as Muslims we can make a change by bringing the focus back to perfecting our character as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reminds us, “God does not judge you according to your bodies and appearances, but He looks into your hearts and observes your deeds.” We can also reject the biases found in so many of our cultures with regards to beauty standards and marriage. Far too many good people are passed up for marriage every single day in our community because they did not have the right skin tone, hair type, or eye color. Making such prejudice value judgments has certainly nothing to do with Islam.
Another unfortunate problem as a result of our beauty obsession is “Lookism,” which is prejudice based on physical appearance and attractiveness. It is an increasing equal-opportunity problem in the workplace, especially targeting women. One study showed that workers who had “below average” looks were paid 9% less than their more attractive counterparts. And those who were “above average” made 5% more than those who were “average” looking. We are clearly perpetuating a very distorted and negative message about self-worth which leads us to further obsess about our appearance. Moreover, the social stratification of our society has created such clear divisions amongst us that for fear of being deemed “unimportant”, “classless”, “outdated,” or worst of all “poor” we obsess about how we look and force ourselves to live beyond our means.
Some of the signs of beauty obsession include:
- Determining your self-worth by your weight and physical appearance
- Obsessively reading fashion magazines & following all of the latest celebrity trends
- Using diet pills, supplements and other diet fads to control your weight
- Smoking and drinking to look more “fashionable” and “trendy”
- Purchasing clothing, make-up, accessories, and other products that you cannot afford just to fit in and be accepted
- Judging others for how they look and giving preferential treatment to people who are more attractive, dress nicer, and have better cars
- Only purchasing brand name items and making certain that people can tell
- Having obsessive thoughts about your features and feeling disgust by anything you deem to be too big, too small, too rough, too narrow, etc.
- Constantly worrying about your appearance when you’re with others & looking at a mirror any chance you can get
If you feel you have a beauty obsession you must begin to peel away at these layers of pretentiousness which our society as a whole has become all too accustomed to. Once you do you will realize that your beauty obsession and your drive for increased material possessions is not about self-love as much as it is about your need for acceptance and status. This preoccupation to please others because you cannot see your own value is really the driving force behind your fixation on physicality and materialism. The remedy to these caustic emotional issues lies in adopting a better standard by which you judge yourself. You have to place value and worth in every aspect of who you are, not just in your material possessions and/or your physical appearances. At the end of the day, your life’s purpose should be more than just amassing wealth and spending it on things to meet the status quo.
To find this higher purpose you should find pleasure outside of the material world and in the spiritual realm. When you learn to preoccupy yourself with attaining God’s pleasure and seeking His acceptance, then you will realize the triviality of vanity, extravagance, and self-indulgence. You will begin to see a reflection of yourself that does not magnify your blemishes and leave you consumed with feelings of inadequacy but rather, you will see the enduring light of faith that purifies and beautifies everything it reflects, inshAllah. Then and only then will you finally come to see your value and understand that true beauty cannot be purchased in a bottle—it must be earned by hard work and the pursuit of His happiness.