Monday, 13 February 2017

Teenagers and appearance: concerns amongst girls, boys, bullies and victims

The latest figures from the Good Childhood Report suggest that 34% of girls and 20% of boys are unhappy with their appearance; the report also suggests that bullying is likely a key contributing factor.

In the scientific literature, it is well documented that appearance concerns are higher amongst teenagers who have been teased about some body or facial feature, and those who are repeatedly teased in a nasty way, i.e., verbally bullied, are at higher risk of body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder. New evidence suggests that it is not only appearance bullying that is damaging to appearance satisfaction, but that any type of victimisation by peers can be detrimental. Bullying typically includes behaviours such as hitting, kicking, name calling, social exclusion and/or the spreading of nasty rumours or lies (either in person or online), which are repeated over time. Receiving this type of abuse from peers can have profound effects on the psychological wellbeing of the victim. 

Working with researchers from the University of Warwick, I have just completed my PhD thesis, which investigated body concerns and self-promotion tactics amongst bullies and victims aged 11-16 years old.  Our results suggests that bullied teens are at high risk of desiring cosmetic surgery and are preoccupied with losing weight (despite being of an average body mass index). This desire to alter appearance seems to partly stem from the psychological distress that results from being victimised. What’s more, although data from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons tell us that the majority (over 90%) of cosmetic procedures are performed on females, and it is typical that females desire to lose weight, this new study found no sex differences; teenage boys who are victimised by peers are just as likely to want to change their appearance through cosmetic surgery, and are as fixated on weight loss, as teenage girls. 

But what about the teenagers who bully their peers? Are they immune from being concerned about their appearance? There is a long held misconception that bullies have a fragile self-esteem and hurt others in order to make themselves feel better. Psychological research shows that this is just not the case. Pure bullies (i.e., those who never get victimised themselves) tend to be psychologically healthy, and are well-known and popular amongst their peers. Surprisingly then, our evidence suggests that, like their victims, bullies are similarly interested in cosmetic surgery and preoccupied with losing weight. The caveat is that unlike bullied teens, this has little to do with psychological distress. In other words, bullies are driven to improve their appearance, despite already feeling good about themselves. This actually makes sense if we think about the reasons why bullies harm others in the first place. From an evolutionary perspective, bullying others is one way to obtain resources and is a mechanism to get to climb the social hierarchy. In addition though, possessing characteristics that are deemed to be desirable, such attractiveness and fitness, can likewise bestow social prestige and desirability upon the beholder. It seems then that bullies are multi-strategic in their quest for dominance – they bully and derogate others, and also attempt to enhance their own attractiveness.

So, although concerns about appearance are widespread amongst teenagers, those who are repeatedly harmed by their peers, and are thus functioning at a sub-optimal level, appear to be at the greatest risk of appearance concerns and appearance change efforts. Perhaps focusing on improving peer relationships may be one successful strategy to improve appearance concerns amongst teens - for victims, at least. 

Kirsty Lee has recently submitted a PhD thesis on Adolescent Bullying and Intrasexual Competition in the Department of Psychology, University of Warwick. The research discussed in this blog is soon to be published; please contact the author at  if you would like to know more. 

Monday, 23 January 2017

Who stops the sweatshops?

I’ve studied my field, body image, for the last 6 years. I have published, presented and gave media interviews about how important a topic it is. I completed my, 90,000 word PhD in it last year.

And since then I have had time to reflect and I’m not sure that what I was doing was right.

I’ll step back. What are we, as body dissatisfaction or beauty impact researchers, hoping to achieve through our research? I believe it is ultimately to make the world a little more just. We know the consequences of unrealistic beauty ideals. We know how people tend to dislike their appearance. We know this impacts our wellbeing, relationships and aspirations in myriad ways. Ultimately we want our research to point out that this is a problem, is suffering, is an injustice and needs remedy (or justice).  
Nancy Fraser (2001) says that justice can only be achieved when both of the following are undone:
1) misrecognition,“[the] institutionalized patterns of cultural value [that] constitute some actors as inferior, excluded, wholly other or simply invisible, hence as less than full partners in social interaction” (p. 24),  
2) or maldistribution, “economic structures, property regimes or labour markets deprive actors of the resources needed for full participation” (p. 27).
I am concerned that the research we produce isn’t helping. That we only focus on misrecognition and this comes at the expense of maldistribution.
More specifically, body dissatisfaction researchers point out that various industries such as the fashion, fitness and toy industries, create unrealistic appearance ideals (e.g., through too thin models or overly muscular action man toys). In turn people compare themselves to these unrealistic ideals and thus experience body dissatisfaction and its myriad impacts.
These industries endemic use of sweatshops in which, in China alone, around 285 million people work, in which workers are paid so myzirely little for so miserable a labour, in which outrage is so weak that even the deaths of 1,100 Rana Plaza sweatshop workers 4 years ago still has not led to safe working conditions, cannot be ignored.
But we do ignore this injustice. And what’s worse is we obscure it by making the following 3 assumptions:
  1. That the fashion, fitness and toy industries only harm through misrecognition
    For example body dissatisfaction campaigner Tess Holliday recently encouraged her 20,000 Instagram followers not to worry about their clothing labels lest they make them feel fat. Inconsistent clothing sizes are frustrating as is fat stigma. However, in her post Holliday included two labels from Torrid and DARE both made in Chinese and Mexican sweatshops, respectively. Not Holliday, her followers nor the extensive media coverage had anything to say about these sweatshop made items.
  1. That these industries only harm those living in the Global North
For example, researchers have surveyed rates of body dissatisfaction in fashion students and models in order to highlight how harmful the fashion industry is. The logic being that these groups of workers face greater injustice because their occupations bring them closer to the industries. It is only these workers who are assumed to be harmed by these industries' injustices. The largest group of workers in these industries, those most affected, the sweatshop workers, are ignored.
  1. That these harms can be undone without any loss of profit
For example there exist many studies that have addressed the fashion businesses directly arguing that using more realistic catwalk models or featuring older women in advertising not only stops people having body dissatisfaction but it also makes people like these businesses more and crucially spend more money with them. Thus these studies are legitimizing these industries. By helping them become more profitable, these industries become more powerful and create more sweatshops.
Many of us are embarrassed by the privilege academia affords us. We can weaponize this. Our universities spend around £10 million on sweatshop electronics per year. We can use this vast purchasing power, along with People and Planet, to negotiate better conditions in these factories. Indeed, I think we must.  

By Glen Jankowski is a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. He is interested in critical-, feminist- and Marxist psychology. He is also a committee member of the Psychology of Women Section and the International Society of Critical Health Psychology.

For more information please see People and Planet’s campaign here:

And to read more on this please see Jankowski, G. S. (2016), Who stops the sweatshops? Our neglect of the injustice of maldistribution, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(11), 580-591. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12272

Thursday, 12 January 2017


Americans’ burgeoning consumption of cosmetic procedures and anti-aging enhancements such as Botox raises important questions about exactly how and to whom these drugs are being marketed. 

Profiting on societal expectations for women’s bodies and faces to remain young and beautiful, Allergan, the pharmaceutical company that owns and manufactures Botox, aggressively markets the drug to the typical American middle-class and middle-age everywoman. This targeted advertising campaign has been extremely successful. Over 90 percent of users are women and almost 60 percent are between the ages of forty and fifty-four. However, small but notable populations of younger women are also turning to this anti-aging “wonder drug.” Botox procedures in the 19-34 demographic have more than doubled in the last decade.  

In fact, more women between the ages of 22 and 40 use Botox than do women over 60.  The principal reason for this is that dermatologists, cosmetic surgeons, journalists, and other beauty “experts” promote the idea that Botox has preventive powers that can prolong the appearance of youth. Because of Botox’s ability to paralyse facial muscles and prohibit facial movement, they argue that regular and early injections can stop wrinkles from forming.  The idea is that no facial movement means that there will be no dynamic wrinkles caused by facial expression. Women in their 20s and 30s are being advised that the best time to start using Botox is when their wrinkles are barely perceptible. These women are using the drug prophylactically in the hopes that they won’t develop the future creases.

However, since Botox only lasts four to six months, early injections only really “prevent” wrinkles if one continues to repeat the procedure every two to three times a year. In my book, Botox Nation (NYU Press) I argue that the widely circulating belief that Botox is preventative is problematic for several reasons - the most concerning of which is that it is being used to encourage relatively young women into enlisting in a lifetime of Botox maintenance and other preventative aesthetics. 

In addition, since Botox’s ability to keep the aging face at bay is so short-lived, I found that it often created a compulsion for repetitive use. The inability to stop using Botox was a sentiment that reverberated throughout my interviews with Botox consumers.   With Botox, users can visit an intoxicating fantasyland where the high of agelessness is an ephemeral state of being. And, just like any other drug, the initial high of Botox only satisfies users for so long.  For example, one woman, Vivienne Mann explained, “It was amazing how quickly it becomes addictive. When you start to see it wear off, it’s just like you immediately need to get it done.”  Another woman, Elizabeth Sana confessed, “When I look in the mirror and I see those lines, I am on my phone with the dermatologist immediately booking my next appointment.” When I asked Elizabeth how often she goes back for injections, she laughingly responded, “I am kind of crack-like about it.” 

It is noteworthy to mention that after multiple attempts at asking Allergan to comment on my study, it was precisely this “crack-like” statement made by a longtime user of their product that finally prompted the pharmaceutical company to comment on my research.  Responding to an article in The Guardian published this weekend about my book, a representative from Allergan told The Daily Mail that “The implication that treatment with Botox could lead to ‘crack-like addiction’ is preposterous and misleading, and trivialises addiction which can have very serious consequences for the people involved.” 

For a moment, I am going to overlook the bizarre paradox of a pharmaceutical giant whose multi-billion dollar enterprise hinges on cultivating drug dependency accusing me, a critical feminist sociologist, of trivializing addiction.  This rather amusing irony notwithstanding, in my book, I make it crystal clear that the term “crack-like” and references to addiction came from Allergan’s own customers. The way participants described their addiction to and dependence on Botox reflected a phenomenological use of these terms, rather than the scientific definition used in substance-abuse treatment. I weave the metaphor of the drug-addicted body throughout my analysis of Botox user’s descriptions of their experiences precisely because it was such a powerful metaphor for the users themselves. It is also a useful heuristic device for thinking about how these women became dependent on the effects of Botox and for capturing the ways the drug dramatically changed their personal identity, their perception of normalcy, and their sense of autonomy. 

Moreover, in keeping with the metaphor of the drug-addicted body, many of the Botox providers with whom I spoke during my five years of research referred to Botox as a gateway drug. Dr. Michael Rosenblum, a plastic surgeon, told me, “I do warn my patients, I am very clear to point out that once you start using Botox, it is a slippery slope; you’re going to want to use Botox again, and as you get older, you’re going to want to experiment with fillers.” Botox users echoed these sentiments.  One woman in her early thirties, Rachel McAvoy, explained, “I love Botox, but the only problem is now the attention is taken away from my forehead, and now I’m starting to notice my parenthesis around my mouth. Like I want fillers here (pointing to nasolabial lines)… Now I’m saving up for Radius injections.”

The fact that young, wrinkle-free women are turning to a potential lifetime of preventative aesthetics speaks volumes about the unattainable appearance demands we place on women, our cultural infatuation with youth, and the sinister pressures we feel to buy our way to self-improvement.  In consumer culture, nothing satisfies our desires to be better, healthier, and more attractive.  As the example of Botox illustrates, the products offered to achieve those goals often only further intensify the pursuit of ever-changing and unattainable standards of youth and beauty. Indeed, the success of the multi-billion-dollar beauty and anti-aging industries depends on inducing feelings of personal inadequacy that render consumer behavior and consumer bodies dependent on their continuation. These industries create a culture of lack that is only quenched through purchasing more, more, more - more products, more Botox, more filler, and ultimately, more surgery.   Understanding how the pharmaceutical industry and physicians use their culturally recognized superior knowledge to influence the demand for Botox advances knowledge about how the “medical-industrial complex” continues to enhance its corporate profits through selling the promise of youth, beauty, and the illusion of control.

Dana Berkowitz is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University.  She is the author of Botox Nation (NYU Press).

Monday, 19 December 2016

Happy Beauty Christmas

We hope you are all enjoying the countdown to the holiday season. If the magazines are to be believed, this means sparkles and metallic when it comes to clothes, make-up, and the increasingly ubiquitous semi-permanent manis (glitter of course!). Glamour’s front cover says “Sparkle: Tons of It”, while Red’s cover advice is for “Berry Lips and Grown-up Glitter”. Preparation is more than surface, and if you follow Cosmo’s advice you start with a pre-party routine – “The Party Prepper Workout” – “to help you nail that dress”.[1] This involves a 14 minute fat-burning circuit of lunges, push-ups and burpees, after which you might be forgiven for feeling that partying on top is a bit much to ask!

An interesting development in beauty at Christmas is the advent of the beauty advent calendar. While beauty calendars have been available for a number of years, until recently they have largely been fairly niche. This year they have exploded – who wants to face chocolate in the morning when you could have a bit of face-pampering instead? They are available to suit all pockets. At the top of the range is Jo Malone, for £280, while Liberty offers, for £165, the “ultimate in Beauty Advent Calendars”.[2] And so popular is this calendar that it sold out early and can be found for up to double its price on Ebay. Alternatively you can, for £150, take up Charlotte Tilbury’s offer to “treat yourself, or a loved-one, to my award-winning treats, throughout the holiday season”.[3] Boots No.7, also sold out, invites you to “indulge yourself this Christmas with a daily dose of beauty”, for just £39.[4] At the cheapest end of the scale there is the ‘Technic Advent Calendar Cube’ which went on sale for £19.99 and is currently available at the reduced price of £12.99.[5]

This proliferation of beauty calendars has not gone unnoticed, and has been commented on in many places; for example, in Cosmo, The Independent, and The Sun. These calendars are clearly beautiful objects, and don’t get us wrong we totally get the attraction (next year, yes please – if you’re reading!). But on a more serious note they remind us that beauty is ubiquitous, and if there are 24 beauty essentials for each calendar, that’s an awful lot of must-haves. The sheer number of beauty products which we think are necessary and we cannot live without is ever increasing. For example, apparently in 2006 our average make-up routine was eight steps and took 17 minutes; it’s now 27 steps and takes 40 mins.[6] Forty minutes a day – from age 15 to 75 – adds up to 14,600 hours which is 608 days over a lifetime. That’s a lot more pamper time than you might think!

Wishing you a luxurious and beautiful Christmas. Thanks to all those who’ve contributed to our blog conversation this year and looking forward to more in 2017. The next post will be in January, when no doubt we’ll be beginning new fitness regimes and detoxing.

With thanks and good wishes
Fiona MacCallum and Heather Widdows

Fiona MacCallum is an Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Warwick.

Heather Widdows is Professor of Global Ethics, Department of Philosophy, University of Birmingham.