You’ll Never Measure up

You’ll Never Measure up

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like discuss the horrible impact of the media’s toxic messages about idealized beauty and physical perfection.

First a quick update:

“Psychosurgeries and lobotomies”
Read part three of “Anti-depressants cause deaths, suicides and murder” – the transcript of a lengthy interview and discussion between myself and Dr. Peter Breggin. Did you know Andrea Yates who drowned her five children was on various anti-depressants, one of which was subsequently issued with a warning label about “homicidal ideation”? 

“Letterman, power, opportunity & cheating”

Read the transcript of the radio interview I gave about David Letterman, and, the judge accused of having sex with male inmates in exchange for leniency.

Now, let’s talk about the media’s obsession with physical perfection and beauty, and, its dangerous impact on you and children.

This week, Time magazine reported that France is considering putting warning labels on retouched photos. Many Western countries already have health warnings on tobacco and alcoholic products as well as some genetically modified food products, but this new push by a politician in France is designed to protect people’s mental and emotional health.

French conservative parliamentarian Valérie Boyer is proposing legislation that would make it illegal to publicly distribute doctored photos without the warning “Photograph retouched to modify the physical appearance of a person.” A violation would result in a fine of $55,000.

Valérie Boyer says the widespread use of digital technology to alter images is feeding the public a steady visual stream of falsified people, places and products. The result is an artificial reality that causes people to expect perfection from themselves and the world due to the idealized beauty in photos that gives people false expectations of how the world should look — and how they should look as well. Digitally enhanced photos are used in mass-marketing campaigns for everything from soft drinks, cars, travel and clothing.

Valérie Boyer says “It’s creating parallel worlds: one in which everything in ads and photos is gorgeous, slim, chic and what we aspire to, and our daily reality of imperfection, normality and frustration that we can’t be like those other people who — literally — don’t exist.”

Many of us blindly accept what is fed to us by the media. In other words, we sit down and watch TV, read magazines, surf the internet without thought about what effect these messages have on us and our subsequent happiness and success. This new idealized definition of beauty is coming from marketers and advertisers who wish to create an image of physical perfection that does not exist; even the photo of the supermodel is being retouched or manipulated to be something that is never attainable. And while it is not attainable but it is promoted as something to be desired, people will keep swallowing up the advertised products.

And what are the implications of physical perfection that does not exist?

Ultimately, we conclude that we are not good enough, there is something wrong with us, and, we must do something about it. The result is much greater and more dangerous than simply an endless cycle of buying out of desperation; the result is depression, low self-esteem, self-loathing, inner emptiness, negative body image, fear of self-expression, an inability to form meaningful and satisfying relationships, and anger and frustration. I recall one of the most painful relationships was with a girlfriend who hated her body so much we couldn’t go out clothes shopping because she would cry, become angry and throw a fit as she tried out clothes; she was a model!

But the seeds are sown from a young and vulnerable age: The group that is most negatively affected is the adolescents, who at this age are beginning to form their personal and social identity as well as adjusting to bodily changes. To do this, they look to the world around them, comparing and appraising the world and themselves.

Because of bodily changes, adolescents begin by evaluating, appraising and comparing their physical appearance. In the world of research psychology, this is known as the “appearance culture” – the collection of messages about our external appearance – our looks, body and shape. These messages come from exposure to magazines & advertising, conversations with friends, criticisms from peers and other messages by parents and family.

At this age, adolescents will engage in social comparison:

  1. Self-evaluation – compare themselves to their peers
  2. Self-improvement – try to learn from their peers
  3. Self-enhancement – raise their own sense of self-worth by discounting information not relevant or significant to the self (e.g. He might be muscular but he has no sense of humor)

Boys compare themselves in terms of strength, height and performance relating to sport. Girls are much more vulnerable in terms of body image and appearance.

As adults, we can monitor, filter and control what we feed our minds but children are vastly more vulnerable and need help and support to avoid the hypnotic trap by the media. The first key point is to avoid teaching children that their only value and self-worth is appearance. Of course, that is hard when the mother also thinks her own self-worth is her appearance!

My friend and colleague, Dr Vicki Panaccione is a child-clinical psychologist and Founder of the Better Parenting Institute.  I asked her for some pointers and tips for parents. Here is a condensed summary of what she told me:

  1. Teens who struggle with their body images often grew up defining themselves by their looks, and thus, when then their appearance changes, crisis sets in. When emphasis is placed on how pretty she looks, or how tall and thin she is, etc., then self-image and self-worth develop around these attributes. When these attributes begin to change, or hit awkward phases, then the very essence of who the child is becomes challenged.
  2. Children need to grow up confident in their abilities, skills and talents, not their looks. From the earliest age, parents need to focus on qualities within their children that are not based on outward appearance. If appearance cannot be maintained, inner qualities are still valued.  They can learn to feel good about themselves in spite of how they look. Adolescence is the stage where losing control of their body doesn’t need to mean losing total control of who they are.
  3. Girls watch their mothers, and use them as models for how they should behave and define themselves.  Many mothers put their own needs on the back burner to care for their children but this sends the unspoken message that woman aren’t important and are second class citizens. Mothers need to care for themselves with good habits of eating, sleeping, grooming and exercising.
  4. Engage in mother/daughter activities. Sharing hobbies, interests and activities can help girls feel special and deepen the mother-daughter bond.  Activities not associated with looks or body shape is critical.  Girls need to grow up feeling good about what they can do, and not how they look.
  5. Teens are highly self-critical. Expect this behavior and expect that they will naturally be critical of their body, height, hair, etc
  6. Girls need to be taught that comparisons are futile; everyone is self-conscious and everyone matures at different paces
  7. Teens are highly sensitive to parental criticism. Disapproval of their attire, hair, or even wearing the same clothes two days in a row can damage their self-esteem and self-image; avoid making comments about acne, looking fat in an outfit or unnecessary sarcasm
  8. Recognize and validate strengths, talents and efforts not just results; affirm their progress and achievements
  9. Validate their feelings, don’t minimize them. When children are hurting, parents instinctively want to ‘make it all better.’  Ineffective efforts such as refuting (“You’re not getting fat!”), disproving (“You’ll always be beautiful to me!”) and advising (“Well, if you don’t want zits, why don’t you lay off the chips?”) are often interpreted by children as indications that their parents don’t understand, don’t take the problem seriously, or are even making fun of their child. Teenage girls are going through startling physical changes which create confusion, discomfort, embarrassment, etc. Validate these feelings and you will show them that you understand. Trying to make them believe their feelings are wrong will only alienate them from you.

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.

Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & Clinical Hypnotherapist

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7 replies
  1. Avatar
    julia says:

    I am struggling with two teenagers, my daughter and my son, 16 and 15 respectively, my ex dicided that he can’t be near his children because I filed for divorce 5 years ago and ‘destroyed’ the family after 15 years of nightmares with him including physical abuse to me, so he moved to another state with another woman and does not even send a cent.
    But my struggle is that I don’t know how to infuse self esteem on my son, he is over weigh and very shy, when we are together talking just the two of us he amazes me on how he will talk to me about sex, girls and the things that worry him, but when it comes to those two aspects of him (weigh and shyness) he closes up saying that he is ok the way he is. I know this is not possible, he doesn’t even want to go out or make new friends, it sadens me because I think it’s unhealthy for a boy his age and because I don’t know how to help him on a man’s point of view, I really need some advice on this, he also feels threaten by the media looks and he thinks all girls are shallow because they focus on looks.

    Thank you


    • Avatar
      Patrick Wanis says:

      Dear Julia,
      thank yo for sharing your story and yes, it is a real challenge to raise two children on your own even with the financial support of an ex-husband.
      First, have you explored the legal avenues to get your ex-husband to make the payments?
      Second, it is great that your son is speaking and opening up to you. His weight and shyness are directly connected to negative subconscious emotions – most likely he is very angry at his father and, if your husband abused you that will also affect your son because there will be a part of him that feels helpless and powerless because he couldn’t stop it. It is a natural reaction for a child to want to protect his/her mother.

      There are two suggestions: counseling or therapy for his emotional issues and a male mentor to assist with his development. For the latter, you might research something like ‘big brother.’

      I hope this helps.
      All the best,

  2. Avatar
    Alice Wonderland says:

    First let me say that I agree 100% with your advice for parents of teens. I had a horrible experience being a teen, not for weight issues, but for other reasons, and I can vividly remember what it is like to feel like an outcast at such a vulnerable age.
    That being said, I agree, generally speaking, with the first part of this article, but I would like to propose a devil’s advocate point of view from an adult perspective.
    You have drawn (as apparently many conscious thinkers have) a direct cause and effect scenario: the cause being modified images in the media, and the effect being lower self esteem. I want to share my feelings about those images in the media, and this apparent cause/effect situation.
    I am about to turn 42. I have been married for almost 2 years. Between my slowing metabolism and eating the way newly married people traditionally do, I gained a few pounds over the last few years. Since June of this year, I have found a reserve of determination that I did not know I had, and I have lost almost all of the weight I gained, through sensible diet changes and vigorous exercise.
    Being a reflective person, I have done some self examination of my motives for making such a change. I have concluded that there are 2 primary factors that keep me on this narrow path: Health and Vanity.
    I cannot really tell you which is more important to me, to be completely honest. Of course, the generally more acceptable answer is health. You cannot deny that eating healthy food and exercising is 100% beneficial for anyone, for any reason. You will extend your life, fight disease, and feel happier and more in control.
    But to be completely honest, I cannot deny that the media images have their place in my head. Yes I do want to look like a swimsuit model. There, I said it! I know that for many reasons, that might not ever be possible, even if I was able to afford and willing to go through plastic surgery. However, the point I want to make is, my self esteem, and my awareness of reality, does not make me feel like a total loser if I don’t reach that swimsuit model appearance. I think, why not aim for the highest star, work for it like you mean it, and then be satisfied with the journey? Learn to enjoy the process. I don’t mourn the passing of fried greasy food, pizza, chocolate and ice cream. I enjoy my balanced, healthy diet, and enjoy even more, an occasional ice cream reward. I enjoy the ache in my muscles after a hard workout. I enjoy the way my clothes fit. I am thrilled over each small victory, each pound lost. So what if I don’t have the swimsuit model body. Seeing swimsuit models still does not make me feel bad about myself.
    So after all that, I guess the bottom line for me is this: If you have a strong self image and self esteem, seeing ridiculously thin, large breasted women in the media, should not have much negative impact, even if you do think it would be nice to look like that.

    …OK fire away!

    • Avatar
      Patrick Wanis says:

      Dear Alice in Wonderland,

      thanks for your thoughtful and open response.
      Yes, there is a cause between idealized beauty and low self-esteem, poor self-image (and a myriad of other mental and emotional problems.)
      Your ‘devil’s advocate’ responses are strong. What you miss is that your responses actually support everything that I am saying:

      You said your primary motivation to lose weight, excercise and stop eating junk food was for health! ”
      “You will extend your life, fight disease, and feel happier and more in control.”

      “I think, why not aim for the highest star, work for it like you mean it, and then be satisfied with the journey? Learn to enjoy the process. I don’t mourn the passing of fried greasy food, pizza, chocolate and ice cream. I enjoy my balanced, healthy diet, and enjoy even more, an occasional ice cream reward. I enjoy the ache in my muscles after a hard workout. I enjoy the way my clothes fit. I am thrilled over each small victory, each pound lost. So what if I don’t have the swimsuit model body. Seeing swimsuit models still does not make me feel bad about myself.”

      What you are saying is you enjoy the journey and process over the results. This is a reflection of a balanced approach to trying to be your best versus trying to be perfect! You have learned to focus on enjoying the moment and everything. Many other women do not want to exercise or experience the journey – they want to eat whatever they want, drink, smoke, and never exercise. Then they want a maic pill or a slice of a knife to look perfect.

      Your values seem to be ‘work to achieve your goals.’

      You also summed it up well: “If you have a strong self image and self esteem, seeing ridiculously thin, large breasted women in the media, should not have much negative impact, even if you do think it would be nice to look like that. ”

      I must also add that you probably had a strong upbringing where you were taught to value internal over external – inner qualities over outer appearances. Correct? You don’t really give that much credence to being thin with large breasts. If you did, you would begin the process to try and achieve that!

      Having said all of that, no matter how strong-willed we think we are, we are affected by messages from the media. Read about “thin slicing and other pheonomena in my Success Newsletter: Secrets to persuasion and influence.

      Finally, it seems to me that you enjoy life and prize your marriage and relationship, and generally have a healthy self-esteem and self-image, but, many other women have been deeply damaged by the belief that they are not beautiful enough – that they are ugly and will never measure up. Yes, too many women have concluded their only value and self-worth is their physical beauty! Read my Success Newsletter about what makes a woman ugly.

      All the best,


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