The self-esteem soap opera

By Matt Barnum

[img id=”80612″ align=”alignleft”] My room back home is littered with evidence of the self-esteem craze of the 1990s. My annual participatory baseball, basketball, and hockey trophies battle for space, with a couple of sportsmanship awards also lingering among the shiny plastic. Hanging pathetically on the sidelines of my shelves are the few genuinely earned awards—math team medallions, mostly.

Self-esteem was one of those fads—like Pokemon cards—that I assumed had slowly but definitively disappeared, leaving us embarrassed we had ever bought into the mania in the first place. In fact, the self-esteem obsession continues to bear a stronghold over our country.

Last week, it was alleged that Dove’s (the soap brand) ad campaign “Real Beauty” had used retouched images. Everyone knows that ad photos, among others, are edited as a matter of course, so what’s the problem?

Dove’s ad drive, which features a “self-esteem fund,” focuses on the idea that beauty is found not on the outside, but on the inside. Its latest commercial features older, not-always-skinny women sitting naked—artfully arranged, of course, so you can’t see anything—and staring out defiantly. The advertisement features the words “this isn’t anti-age/ this is pro-age.”

I’m sorry, but this is insanity. Who in their right mind is “pro-age?” Everyone wants to hold on to youth, and for good reason. Growing old means wearing thick glasses, or walking with a cane, or losing your memory. It means dying.

And, since Dove raised the question, what is “real beauty,” anyhow? Is it a good personality? A nice smile? A kind heart? What makes these women in the ads have real beauty? Their only defining characteristic is that they’re not young and they’re particularly attractive. But ugly people aren’t always beautiful on the inside, and good-looking people don’t always have bad personalities.

The rationale behind the campaign is benevolent: to help women with body-image issues. Unfortunately, the idea that raising self-esteem will improve life results is not based on fact. After a comprehensive review of studies, four psychologists argued in the January 2005 issue of Scientific American that self-esteem is correlated with very few objective life successes. For example, some studies actually show that “artificially boosting self-esteem may lower subsequent [academic] performance.” Another study shows that while high school students with high self-esteem claim to be popular, there is no association between peer popularity ratings and self-esteem ratings.

This means that a lot of people are going around just thrilled with themselves. In truth, these are people who have no understanding of reality, who are the ones normal people don’t like being around. They’re the ones who filibuster my discussion section because they’re just so pleased with their point, and they think everyone else must be too. (We’re not.) Self-esteem doesn’t make us better people; it just makes us more intolerable.

Yet, there is one important area in life where self-esteem leads to positive results: happiness. These results are intuitive, but significant. One way to be happy is to think well of yourself—whether this is rooted in reality or not.

This raises an interesting question about the nature of a good society, as well as of the individual: Would we rather be self-aware but unhappy or deluded but content?

The real problem with Dove’s campaign, and every other self-esteem initiative, is that they are inherently grounded in delusion. Everyone likes being around people who are attractive—that’s part of our biology—and nothing, especially not a series of ads, is going to change that.

Sure, we can pretend, for the sake of self-esteem and happiness, that the only thing that matters is what’s on the inside—and that does matter, of course—but let’s not forget that we’re just pretending.

Matt Barnum, a Maroon Viewpoints Editor, is a second-year in the College majoring in psychology. His column appears on alternate Fridays.