Do 'Ugly Duckling' Stories About Beauty Harm Women?

To understand why the "beauty is malleable" message may be harmful, it is important to understand what psychologists already know about malleable traits more generally. For example, consider this question: Do you think that traits like intelligence are something people are generally born with?
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In the classic children's story "The Ugly Duckling," a homely looking "duckling" is mocked by his fellow barnyard animals because of his unattractive appearance. However, much to the surprise of himself and others, the duckling grows into the most beautiful bird of all: a swan. The message communicated by this beloved story is simple: Beauty is malleable. Just because someone is born unattractive does not mean they cannot grow up to be beautiful like a swan. But this "beauty is malleable" message does not just exist between the pages of a children's book. Marketing campaigns like Maybelline's famous, "Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline," encourage women to reject the idea of inherent beauty and instead focus on what women can do to improve their beauty. This message that less attractive girls can become beautiful is also commonly seen in movies (She's All That, Never Been Kissed) and celebrity magazine interviews with the likes of Eva Longoria (Allure, 2006), Beyoncé (Glamour, 2009), and Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Harper's Bazaar UK, 2011). But is the "beauty is malleable" message a healthy one? A new series of studies conducted in my lab suggests it is not and in fact may harm girls and young women.

To understand why the "beauty is malleable" message may be harmful, it is important to understand what psychologists already know about malleable traits more generally. For example, consider this question: Do you think that traits like intelligence are something people are generally born with? You are born either smart or dumb and there isn't much you can do to change that? Or instead do you think such traits change over one's lifetime and that just because you are not born smart doesn't mean through education and effort you can become smart? According to research by Carol Dweck and colleagues, if you adopt the first perspective and believe traits are fixed and change little over the lifespan, you are considered an "entity" individual. But if you adopt the second perspective and believe traits are malleable and can change, then you are an "incremental" individual. Why does any of this matter? Well, it turns out that because of their differing beliefs about trait malleability, entity and incremental people respond very differently. The more someone believes traits are malleable, the more they adopt a "growth mindset," which means they are more likely to adopt goals to improve this trait, to exert effort toward the trait domain, and to persist in this domain despite failure. For this reason, children who believe intelligence is malleable have better grades and are less likely to abandon their academic studies than children who believe intelligence is fixed. Because if you are an entity student, what is the point of doing your homework or studying if you believe there is little you can do to increase your intelligence?

So a wealth of research consistently shows that malleable beliefs are good and fixed beliefs are bad. But what happens when we apply this same logic to the domain of physical beauty? The problem here is that in modern society, beauty is an overly idealized and largely unattainable goal for most women. With enough effort and persistence, nearly anyone can earn good grades in school. But no amount of effort or persistence can turn the typical woman into the photoshopped, unrealistically perfect beauty images they see every day in advertisements, movies and magazines. Given this, maybe the message that beauty is malleable and can be improved upon leads women to focus too much effort and attention on this unattainable beauty goal.

To explore this possibility, my colleagues and I conducted several studies that were recently published in the journal Social Cognition. For instance, in one study we had people read a story that either highlighted (1) how beauty is malleable and changes significantly over the lifespan, (2), how beauty is fixed and doesn't change much over the lifespan, or (3) a neutral story that had nothing to do with beauty. We found that women who read the "beauty is malleable" story later reported more anxiety about their appearance, were more likely to base their sense of self-worth on their appearance, and were more interested in getting plastic surgery than women who read the other two stories. Thus, the more these women thought they could improve their appearance, the more concerned and obsessed they became, even to the point of considering plastic surgery! Interestingly, men who read these same stories did not show an increase in these appearance concerns, likely because the beauty standards for women are far more idealized and unattainable than they are for men.

These results suggest that stories and movies that communicate a message of malleable beauty may in fact set women up for future appearance issues. For women who buy into this message, beauty is an ever-receding mirage. The more they work to achieve the idealized beauty standard, the more it slips from their grasp.

So armed with this knowledge, what can we do to combat society's message that beauty is malleable? It may seem counterintuitive to convince young girls there is not much they can do to improve their beauty, but anecdotal evidence suggests just such a message may be beneficial. In 2013, Victoria's Secret model Cameron Russell made headlines when she stated her beauty was not based on hard work but on the fact that she had "won a genetic lottery" and that "there is very little that we can do to transform how we look." Many women reacted to this message by stating it was inspirational and empowering. So the less we emphasize the malleability of beauty, maybe the more likely it is that girls and young women will turn their attention and efforts to more healthy pursuits.

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