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Beauty Sickness – Do You Have It?

Renee Engeln speaks on "Beauty Sickness" for TEDx.
Renee Engeln speaks on “Beauty Sickness” for TEDx.

A colleague recently sent me a YouTube video called “An Epidemic of Beauty Sickness.”

To be honest, my first thought was, “Ugh. Another useless rant about our cultural addiction to thinness.”

But, given that this is the year I decided to embark on a full-scale about-face in how I accept (or don’t) my own body shape and size, I kept her email to watch….later.

“Later” came today.

For the record, I am so glad I saved the link – so glad my colleague thought to send it my way – so grateful to the researcher (Renee Engeln) who braved the disdain of her own colleagues to pursue her research in this area.

I have discovered in Renee a kindred spirit – a no talk, all action, balls-to-the-wall, let’s call it like we see it kinda gal.

In 15 minutes (courtesy of TEDx), Renee outlines the issue, how it harms us, the choices we have, practical steps to make those choices, and the potential (positive) outcome if we do.

She does touch on the underlying influence of biology (for more on this, I highly recommend Jennifer Verdolin’s amazing book, Wild Connection) but doesn’t let it weigh her (or us) down.

She acknowledges the influence of our current culture – the fixation we (meaning “the media”) seem to have on all things “thin” – but doesn’t let any of us off the hook because of it.

She even admits that beauty can be a form of power – a currency of sorts to get real or perceived needs met – but confronts the ephemeral nature of such power head-on.

What I learned from watching “Beauty Sickness” is that I do have it.

I do struggle still – yes, even after all these double-digit years of sustained eating disorders recovery – to put down the mirror that stands between me and my ability to experience and ENJOY my life, my relationships, my possibilities, in the moments they are unfolding.

I still struggle at times to be present from the inside-out, as me, rather than living my daily life as if I am an unknown (and often quite judgmental) outside observer who is dissecting my body part by part, weighing my worth, so to speak.

I still struggle at times to feel beautiful – or even pretty – or even passable – in my own skin.

My body still often feels as much burden as blessing, despite the fact that nearly all parts of it continue to work surprisingly well and without complaint (and I am now in my mid-40’s).

And as I get older and my body continues to round and curve, I struggle to simply shed what doesn’t fit, select new things, and continue steadfastly forward on my life’s mission, which is to hold and share joy with myself and others in all moments and in every possible way in the time I have left.

On that note, one of my favorite things to do when I watch YouTube videos is to read the viewer comments.

Typically I find that about 1/3 of viewers who comment miss the point entirely, 1/3 of viewers talk about anything but what they just watched, and 1/3 write to share their agreement with the video’s content.

However, viewers of this video pretty much proved Renee’s point by shooting her down in every conceivable way. From questioning her statistics to judging the folks who are affected by what she studies, most comments seemed intent on judging, shaming, or simply sidelining “beauty sickness” as a passé topic with no resolution.

I found this most interesting – because in fact, her talk is the exact opposite.

Renee isn’t just rehashing old news about this issue – this sick obsession so many of us have with changing or perfecting every inch of our outer skin, or else – she is calling for ACTION.

She is showcasing the personal responsibility we each bear for the quality of life we lead….and folks who don’t like to be reminded of personal responsibility will quite naturally shoot the messenger instead.

When I listen to Renee speak, I hear a woman – a mentor – who refuses to let me whine about what ails me and holds me accountable to “be the change I wish to see in the world.”

Some commentators seemed to feel like there is no real way to change our fixation on beauty as the only viable feminine currency. Like Renee, I refuse to believe that.

I may struggle to stay centered in my worth beneath my skin, but it is an almighty struggle I get up and undertake again and again, day after day after day.

I don’t care how hard it is to change my own mind about where my true worth lies, how long it takes, how much work I have to do, or even if I ever achieve it.

I simply won’t stop. Ever.

I am not going to stop striving for freedom from beauty sickness, because the quality of life I want to live requires it.

I so admire Renee for calling us out – for calling ME out – for reminding each of us that it is up to us to change, day by day, struggle by struggle, choice by choice.

I already do many of the things she suggests – such as not purchasing and reading magazines that lower my self-esteem..

I also try to find other ways to praise my young niece and nephews – ways that do not focus on their appearance but dig deep to highlight their beautiful minds and hearts.

Most importantly, I just say no to each “revolutionary” new body alteration technique that crosses my desk – both because my body deserves better, and because all around me I see loving friends, couples, families, mentoring partnerships – which continue and deepen despite the perfectly imperfect bodies each of these persons inhabits.

So long as there is one other being on this planet with me who is able to live, laugh, love (others AND themselves), and leave a positive legacy without altering their physical form in any way, I too will continue to strive for the same.

Epidemics like beauty sickness may rage, they may affect many people, but they will never claim us all. Some small but tirelessly hard-working percentage of us will find a way to develop immunity, whether by strengthening body, mind, heart, or all of the above, and we will outlast the disease and then use what we’ve learned to develop its cure.

I want to be part of this. I want to be part of the solution – the antidote – the cure – to beauty sickness.

And I can only do so by first curing the disease within myself.

Today’s Takeaway: After watching the video, do you think you may suffer from “beauty sickness?” (BTW, this can apply to both females and males equally!) What – if anything – in Renee’s talk resonates with you? Can you think of some ways you can start right away to become part of the solution, part of the team who is developing the cure?




Beauty Sickness – Do You Have It?

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2014). Beauty Sickness – Do You Have It?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 1 Oct 2014
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