Health vs. Beauty
September 9th, 2011

Sometimes we women just don’t do ourselves any favors.

That was the thought that coursed through my mind as I read this article entitled “Do Women Choose Beauty Over Health?”  According to the United States Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, women are inclined to forego exercise on any given day because they don’t want their hair to get sweaty or to have to wash it.

Really?  We need the Surgeon General to tell us that fitness is more important than good hair?  Unfortunately the answer is Yes.

I suppose when you get into the heart of the issue it’s a little more understandable than it sounds on its face.  Dr. Benjamin explained that lots of women (especially African American women such as herself) spend a great deal of time and money achieving a certain hairstyle.  The thought of going to that time and expense again is a big disincentive to exercise.  She also commented that this is particularly true when we are looking for reasons not to work out in the first place.

What breaks my heart about this phenomenon is that it points to how little we actually count health in our estimation of beauty.  When we see a beautiful woman with glowing skin, white teeth, and shiny hair we immediately want to know about her daily personal care routine and what products she uses.  We don’t wonder about whether whole grains and lots of produce are key components of her diet.  We don’t readily consider what she does to keep her stress levels low and get enough sleep.  We don’t ask if exercise is a regular part of her life.  And yet when we get down to it the things that we find most attractive in ourselves and others are typically the byproducts of a healthy lifestyle.

This outlook holds true on the new website YouBeauty which works to inspire women to live healthy lifestyles through the incentives of improved appearances.  However, in spite of its basic premise the site’s CEO commented that the best way to get women to do anything healthy is to tell them it will make them more beautiful – eat broccoli, work up a good sweat, you name it.

I’ve addressed the issue of vanity in a couple of different posts recently (here and here), and I’m not quite sure why it’s resonating with me so much right now.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that at 31 weeks pregnant I’ve had to sacrifice much of my vanity and focus much more heavily on my health.  My baby needs me to be healthy, not beautiful.  What interests me about this is that it’s not at all uncommon for pregnant women to find renewed energy for a healthy lifestyle.  When we are growing another life we take great care of ourselves.  We eat balanced diets.  We are willing to gain weight.  We go organic.  We drink more water and rest more.  We give up caffeine.  These changes and sacrifices are not insignificant.  We do all of these things for our babies, yet we are disinclined to do them for ourselves.

This makes me sad because it means that what effort we go to is always for someone else.  Whether it’s a husband or a job interview or a 20th high school reunion, the fact remains that we are certainly willing to jump through all sorts of hoops for our looks.  But by and large those hoops don’t benefit us.  In a perfect world we would all eat nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day, sleep eight hours each night, exercise for an hour five days a week, and drink 64 ounces of water daily.  We would do these things for ourselves – to live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

I’m not here to say that superficial indulgences aren’t perfectly acceptable from time to time.  (This is the part where I confess that the zippered makeup case in my purse contains at least 20 different seasonally updated shades of lipstick, gloss, and liner at any given time…)  But those indulgences should be the frosting, not the foundation.

Ladies, healthy is beautiful.  If we’re going to go through contortions for our appearances, let’s at least go about it in ways that benefit our health.  I’ll go to the gym if you will.  Deal?

5 Responses to “Health vs. Beauty”

  1. Cathy Says:

    Gosh – that’s a deal I’d like to make. As a perk of my job, I have a beautiful gym onsite. All I need to do is find the time to go. My blocker is that often the times that work are in the middle of the day which means I’d have to do my hair to go back to the office. It’s not so much the effort but the time it takes – I have enough time to work out and get back, but those extra 10 minutes to do my hair just raise the bar high enough to make it a viable excuse. I need to work on that. Maybe I should consider only working out 20 minutes instead of 30 – at least it’s some exercise rather than none. Interesting post – as always!

  2. Ana Says:

    I think the concept that health & beauty are intertwined becomes more obvious as we get older (I think I’m a couple years older than you…). In college I often ate terribly, barely slept, and definitely consumed more alcohol than I should, without much noticeable effects on my figure, skin, or face. Now I can easily see the ill effects of a couple of late nights or a week of dietary indulgence. Healthy habits also boost my confidence and make me FEEL more attractive—definitely feel better about myself if I”m regularly exercising and eating well. So its hard to separate the two in my head

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    There’s so much wisdom in this post, Gale. Yes indeed, we (women) are much better at caring for others (our children, our spouses, our neighbors, our anyone) than for ourselves.

    How do we find a balance?

    Yes, it remains true (decades and decades after the “movement” or various movements) that a woman’s value is assessed at least in (large?) part by her appearance, and thus it is more than vanity, it is survival at the very least on an unconscious level that drives women to be so invested in beauty.

    That, it seems to me, is a significant part of the challenge we face. Not only as we raise daughters, but as we raise the men who will love them – hopefully for who they are more than who they seem to be.

  4. Gale Says:

    BLW – I think that you’re right in that women are evaluated based on appearances more than men are. But my biggest struggle here is not that that is true (that’s a separate issue), but the fact that what we identify as beautiful can often be achieved by taking better of ourselves (via diet, hydration, exercise, and sleep), but instead we seek cosmetic shortcuts instead of solving the root problem and helping ourselves in the process.

  5. Rebecca Says:

    “…indulgences should be the frosting, not the foundation.” So well said! I am definitely on board with making investments in my lifestyle for the long term physical outcomes, but sometimes, there just isn’t enough concealer in the tube to make my dark circles a shade lighter!