Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why Are Studies Giving Misleading Data About Women's Preferences?

The gross amount of coverage of the royal wedding notwithstanding, most readers here are American women. Still, this British study's findings about the importance of looks over health probably ring true on this side of the pond as well. The headlines resulting from the study read like, "Women Spend More on Beauty Than Health," "Women Choose Beauty Over Health," "Women Care About Their Looks More Than Health to the Tune of £108 a Year," and so on. The bloody horror of it all!

But one look at the type of questions being asked in the survey reveals that this is a classic case of faulty studies making headlines that make the ladies seem a tad vacant. The study found that an average of £336 was spent on cosmetic items, but £228 was being spent on vitamins and gym memberships. Vitamins and gym memberships: Yes, the only way to be healthy! Sure, it's not like Britain allows its citizens loads of opportunities for wintertime sports, but still: People can walk, hike, do yoga, go dancing, and do all sorts of things that are probably healthier than going to the gym because they're incorporated into one's lifestyle. (As for vitamins, when I duly presented my physician with a list of the supplements I was taking, she suppressed a laugh. "You're young, you're healthy, you're eating a balanced diet, you don't have any major health problems," she said. "You can save your money.")

 If you type "women" and "health" into a royalty-free image engine, this is what you get.

There's more: "Six in ten would rather live their life to the full and ‘embrace life’s excesses’ rather than worry about ‘being squeaky clean,'" the study bemoans--which, to me, indicates that these 6 in 10 are okay having that slice of chocolate cake instead of restricting themselves in order to be "squeaky clean," seems like a good thing. But in the context of the study, this is lumped in with evidence of how health matters less than beauty. Am I misreading? (To be sure, the study also had the prerequisite upsetting statistics—which are no less upsetting for how common they are—disordered eating is rampant in the name of beauty.)

I guess I've just started becoming more skeptical of the idea that most women just really hate the way we look. What I've found pretty quickly in the interviews I've been doing is that, yes, a lot of women have negative issues with their appearance, and those issues are far-reaching and immensely complex. But part of that complexity is those beams of confidence and not quite knowing what to do with those moments or phases. I think back to myself at 13 and the way I secretly embraced my utterly dorky looks, and I realize that even though my greatest doubts came after that time, there's also a strong core I have within me that is totally okay with how I look--and that has been true of every woman I've interviewed so far, even if they've engaged in negative behaviors when that belief has faltered. I don't examine those times much because, hey, I'm feeling fine! But if you primed me with a questionnaire about beauty, health, purchasing power, and what I would do to fit into size 4 jeans, the negative part of me would know to creep out and write in her answers on my behalf. Because that part of me knows it's needier than the breezy, carefree part, so she speaks louder when she's around. I'm guessing that's what was at play with these 3,000 women too--not that we don't have a long way to go, baby, but I don't think we need to be as grim as some headlines would have it either.

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