When Lizzie Velasquez was in high school, she found a video of herself on the internet: “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” the eight-second clip called her. It attracted thousands of comments - some of them suggesting she “do the world a favour” by killing herself.
Instead, the now 25-year-old became a motivational speaker. Last year, she presented a TED talk about her experiences. Viewed by millions of people around the world, its core question was: what defines you?
As a result of an extremely rare syndrome preventing her from gaining weight and building muscle, Lizzie’s appearance deviates significantly from the norm.
After being ridiculed online, her public refusal to allow the way she looks to define her went viral. Today, she is a minor celebrity and the author of two books.
Considering the image-obsessed age we live in, it’s hardly surprising Lizzie’s message has found such resonance. While people have always been concerned about the way they look, the rise of mass media in the last century has made it possible to spread messages about beauty at far greater speeds and to a much larger audience than before. Photoshopped stunners with whitened smiles look down on us from billboards, perfectly-groomed celebrities gaze gleefully out of the pages of magazines.
Our natural selves don’t stand a chance.
An estimated 50 to 70 percent of students in Western societies feel dissatisfied with some aspect of their appearance. According to a recent study in the UK, young girls are twice as likely as boys to worry about the way they look.
Concerns that looks could hold you back appear to be well-founded: the UK-based Social Issues Research Center claims that good-looking people are more likely to be successful in job interviews and receive higher salaries. In court cases, attractive individuals stand a better chance of being cleared of crimes.
Research by the British psychologist Alan Sander indicates that even new-born babies pay more attention to attractive faces. And other experiments have shown that older infants consider attractive adults more desirable playmates.
None of this seems very fair, does it? If evolutionary biologists are right that we’re hard-wired to judge by appearance, what hope have those of us who are considered unfortunate in our looks?
Plenty, say an increasing number of people who are part of an organized backlash against contemporary definitions of appearance and success.
One man determined to change the way we see ourselves is Svein Nossum. He’s the principal of the Moellhagen school in Norway and says concerns about appearance are a huge problem for students.
In his experience, the pressure on adolescents to look good can be “exhausting,” with some struggling to leave the house in the morning because of worries about how they look.
Nossum coordinates the “Mirror” project - an initiative funded by the European Union which aims to educate both teachers and students about the consequences of negative body image. He’s currently devising a teachers’ handbook, that will highlight some of the issues students face because of their appearance.
“Research has shown that students are treated differently based on their looks. We want to make teachers aware of these biases so they can overcome them.”
Nossum also advocates the introduction of “appearance studies” as a subject in schools. But what could students expect to learn in such a class?
“We would place appearance in a historical perspective and outline how beauty ideals have changed over time,” he says. “For example, we would ask students to describe how an ideal boy or girl would have looked 100 years ago. We would teach them that self-esteem need not be linked with appearance.”
The principle behind positive image education is that learning to feel better about the way we look is a more effective route to success than altering our actual appearance.
Changing the way we see ourselves
So while babies may respond to conventional notions of beauty, it’s possible that any later success enjoyed by attractive people can also be attributed to how others react to their higher self-esteem, rather than their good looks.
Perhaps good-looking people do better in life because on average they regard themselves in a better light. Maybe they perform better at school, in work and before a court because they have been conditioned to believe that looking good makes them a better person.
Changing the way we see ourselves is a collaborative project for which the wheels are already in motion.
In the last year, several prominent figures have taken to social media to highlight examples of how their appearance has been distorted by the media. 17 year-old singer Lorde posted two photographs of herself on Twitter - one of which had been manipulated by a publication to correct blemishes in her skin.
In a similar effort to combat unrealistic perceptions of beauty, actress and feminist activist Emma Watson posted a photograph of her make-up bag with the comment “I did NOT wake up like this!”
Television shows like “Girls” have also contributed to changing perceptions by presenting strong main characters who do not conform to standard ideals of beauty.
Back in the United States, Lizzie Velasquez has just wrapped up filming “The Lizzie Project,” a documentary describing her “triumphant journey to the other side of bullying”.
Once called the “Ugliest woman in the world,” Lizzie Velasquez is now described as one of the most inspiring.