The sacrifice of beauty

Stop what you're doing for a moment, and consider everything that can happen in a year. You might land a new job, achieve a promotion, get engaged or married, make new friends, move to a dream location or perhaps get a new pet. You might finally grow your hair out of that awkward I-got-a-pixie-cut-that-I-immediately-regretted incident. Maybe you'll resolve a conflict that's been dragging out.

In any case, twelve months can bring many things, good and bad. It's the possibility of greatness that we all look forward to, the idea that things will probably get better, that we can grow and change into the people we dream of being. These thoughts immediately came to my mind when I came across a study which concluded that among women18 to 65 at British universities,
some 16% said they would swap one year of their life for their ideal body and 10% were willing to trade between two and five years. In addition, almost one in three would be willing to die younger in exchange for the ‘ideal’ figure. The finding is all the more shocking because almost all of those polled were in the normal weight range – or even underweight.

According to the study conducted by eating disorder charity the Succeed Foundation, 2% of women polled were willing to forgo up to a  decade, and 1% saying they'd give up at least 21 years younger in exchange for a slimmer shape. Overall, 30% of the 320 women questioned said they would be willing to make a trade. But it wasn't just years women were willing to sacrifice. Seven per cent would give up spending time with their family, 9% their friends and 7% would give up their health to achieve their 'ideal' shape.

In the 19th century, women used whitening agents with lead oxide to appear striking. In ancient China, the four-inch bound "lotus foot" was considered the sign of perfect beauty. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the wealthy used belladonna eye drops to dilate their pupils, generating an "attractive" doe-like appearance. Today, some women are undergoing cosmetic limb-lengthening surgery, an extraordinarily painful procedure costing upwards of $200,000. Limb lengthening involves surgically breaking the shin and femur bones, and gradually pulling them apart over the course of a year with a gruesome system of metal rods and pins. Patients are confined to a wheelchair, undergo intensive physical therapy, and risk bone infection, avascular necrosis (bone death) and destruction of cartilage. Just 40% of patients achieve desired results: a mere two to three inches gained in height.

Sacrifice and beauty seem to go hand in hand. Whether we're pouring hot wax onto our neither regions to remove hair, or starving ourselves to lose a few pounds, or pushing ourselves to exhaustion at the gym, the unspoken message is that we must sacrifice to achieve our physical ideal, whatever that is. How we chose to sacrifice depends on many things - the specific cultural norms of our geographic location; our ethnicity; even our religious beliefs. Beauty standards are striated even within the same socioeconomic class and geographic location. Because of these concurrent concepts of attractiveness, our cultural criteria for good looks is nearly impossible to define. As a result, how we determine the value of sacrifice for beauty can widely differ.

There's also the ways in which we emotionally sacrifice for attractiveness. In my past, I've given up relationships with friends (to avoid eating with them,)  recreational activities (particularly those involving the need to wear a swim suit,) and intimacy within my relationships (such as the avoidance of sex due to low body image.) My battle with anorexia led me to prioritize losing weight over academic achievement, relationships, and nearly everything else.

I believe it's important for us to be aware of the sacrifices we make to attain beauty. Most of them are done with little thought, as they're so integrated into the norms of our subcultures. But without mindfulness, we might end up making sacrifices that deeply subtract from the joy and happiness we deserve to have.

Now I ask you: What sacrifices do you make for beauty? How would you define the cultural standard of beauty where you live? (Some locals value tanning, Botox, teeth whitening; others a more athletic standard; still more a curvaceous silhouette.) Do you give much thought as to the things you give up to attain attractiveness? Would you trade a year (or more) of your life for a slimmer, more 'ideal' shape? Are you surprised by the results of this study?


  1. You know, my answer might be surprising given what I write about, but I actually would give up a year of my life to just not have to think about this stuff any more! It may be depressing, but I've already sacrificed more than a year of my life, I'm sure, between the calorie counts and makeup applications and eyebrow threading--and I'm a pretty low-maintenance person (I think). I'd rather just make a magic deal, lop off a year at the end, and go on my merry, effin gorgeous, way. (But if it were more that I'd trade a year of my life and then just have to do the work anyway, forget it! I'm lazy.)

  2. Limb-lengthening is overwhelmingly done by men. Typically they have to be 5.2 and under. They go through intense psychological testing just like you would for a sex change.

    As for the rest. I exercise a lot. I have done minor plastic surgery. I will more than likely do major plastic surgery. I give up time with my family to work out, go shopping, get my know stuff that makes me look and feel good. Do I do it because of societal pressure, who knows maybe a little. But then I also don't beat people to a bloody pulp because of societal pressure. I realize none of this really is the same as emotional sacrifice because of issues with your body image. But if that happens, you need professional help. Stopping any of those activities is not going to make you suddenly emotionally healthy. You'll find something else to grasp onto. Your kids, keeping up with the neighbors. Heck even blogging and obsessing over comments, lack of comments, sacrificing time to be on blogger....I could go on forever. That needs therapy.

    Does this post enrage me and make me want to be defensive? Not even a little bit, just pointing out my facts and actually the facts for a lot of women. I also don't feel like 16% of any set of women represents the average woman. 30% is a very vague statement. Willing to trade a candy bar to lose a pound? Sure, why not. Does it make me part of the 30% now?

  3. I just wanted to say that this is quite possibly the most beautiful, well-written, and thought-provoking blog post I have ever read.

    Keep up the good work! That's why I come here every day.

  4. I know don't have what most people consider the "Ideal Body" nor what is the cultural standard of beauty in Dallas but I would never trade my years of my life to achieve it. Most dieters don't realize, however, that it's exactly what they are doing. A lot diets lead to brain cell starvation and nutrient restrictions.

    I'm not above my own bouts with self-image but I prize my health and comfort more. I never really understood suffering for beauty, though I've come to accept it as a social norm, because it put women in the position of masochists (and frankly I'm not into pain).

    But I'm not surprised by the results of this study (nor the ones you presented in your anti-age blog post) because we've been conditioned to pray at the temple of beauty and youth.

  5. Wow. The results of this study are shockingly sad. I can't imagine giving up years of my life for a "perfect" body or particularly sacrificing time with my family and friends?! I feel as though I hardly have enough time with them as it is. I embrace a natural-as-possible, simple beauty routine and love it. Whatever happened to aging gracefully?

  6. Oh my god limb lengthening sounds completely horrific! Why would anyone do that for the possibility of 2-3 inches?!

    Women can be our own worst enemies.

  7. I have certainly spent a lot of time working out. I know there are health benefits to being healthy - but it is certainly also to stay in good shape to be attractive. I would not give up any years of my life. Time spent working out may add up to years of my life - but I was still alive during that time. It is sad how much pressure there is for people to be attractive. I will try to compliment my future children, and other children I see, on their personality, behavior, and intelligence rather than their looks. I'm not really sure what else I can do to help change things for the better.

    This was a very interesting post ;).

  8. Elissa. I like your posts. So interesting, so thought-provoking...

  9. Wow, I have to admit, the results of this study are shocking! I'm wondering though just how old the women were who said they would trade some of their life-time for the perfect body. I would assume that those were the younger women - I'm 19 myself and I believe that for my generation time hasn't (although it should!) such a significance yet. In the perspective of hopefully having so many more years of life ahead, I can definitely comprehend why one year would seem so insignificant for some. That doesn't mean that I condone this line of thinking - but that could be a reason for this choice.

    Now, I don't see anything wrong with wanting to get in the best possible shape that one could attain - I see striving to live a balanced and healthy lifestyle as a great goal, but mainly because that lifestyle is meant to make your life more happy and will hopefully increase your lifespan. Starving oneself and overexercising though are certainly not helping with either - quite the opposite actually.

    Anyways, great thought-provoking post!
    xoxo Melanie

  10. I wasn't surprised by the results. Our society bombards us with the ideal pursuit of beauty and happiness, I guess for centuries now. It is confrontational to read that people would give years of their life to have this ideal. We are so much more than our bodies. What about our mind and our hearts? Where is that importance?

  11. My grandmother spent the last three years of her life in nursing homes and hospitals, often too weak to feed herself or even watch television. I would give up those years of my life for a *chocolate bar* - even a "fun size" one. It's not hard for me to give up, say, the last year of my life. Not *this* year - this year I'm young and I'm doing things, but the last year when everything is pretty much wound down anyway? Easy to give that away. And that may very well be what these women are thinking. Would I give up that period 80-85 for a body I'd get to enjoy ages 30-80? HECK YEAH. Would I give up the next five years, skip to 35, to have the perfect body the rest of my life? Probably not. So it kind of depends on where those years are coming from...

  12. That's a really sad statistic. I guess another way to look at the cliche "No pain, no beauty" is sacrifice. I never thought about it like that but it's true. I thankfully don't think I've sacrificed hanging out with friends or doing certain activities but I have done a bikini wax ;)


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