Sources of Self-Esteem in Children, Part 1: Society's Infatuation with Beauty

Dr. James Dobson

Why are feelings of inadequacy and inferiority so prevalent among people of all ages at this time?

The current epidemic of self-doubt has resulted from a totally unjust and unnecessary system of evaluating human worth now prevalent in our society. Not everyone is seen as worthy; not everyone is accepted. Instead, we reserve our praise and admiration for a select few who have been blessed from birth with the characteristics we value most highly. It is a vicious system, and we, as parents, must counterbalance its impact.

It seems that human worth in our society is carefully reserved for those who meet certain rigid specifications. The beautiful people are born with it; those who are highly intelligent are likely to find approval; superstar athletes are usually respected. But no one is considered valuable just because he is! Social acceptability is awarded rather carefully, making certain to exclude those who are unqualified.

The most highly respected and valued attribute in our culture is physical attractiveness. Those who happen to have it are often honored and even feared; those who do not may be disrespected and rejected through no fault of their own. Though it seems incredibly unfair, this measure of human worth is evident from the earliest moments of life, when an attractive infant is considered more valuable than a homely one. For this reason, it is not uncommon for a mother to be very depressed shortly after the birth of her first baby. She knew that most newborns are rather ungamely, but she hadn't expected such a disaster! In fact, she had severely hoped to give birth to a grinning, winking, blinking six-week-old Gerber baby, having four front teeth and rosy, pink cheeks. Instead, they hand her a red, toothless, bald, prune-faced, screaming little creature whom she often wants to send back. You see, the personal worth of that one-day-old infant is actually doubted by his parents.

As the child grows, his value as a person will be assessed not only by his parents, but also by those outside his home. Beauty contests offering scholarships and prizes for gorgeous babies are now common, as if the attractive child didn't already have enough advantages awaiting him in life. This distorted system of evaluating human worth can be seen in a thousand examples. A tragic incident occurred in Chicago when eight student nurses were viciously murdered. The following day, a commentator was discussing the violent event on the radio, and he said, "The thing that makes this tragedy much worse is that all eight of these girls were so attractive!" In other words, the girls were more valuable human beings because of their beauty, making their loss more tragic. If one accepts that statement, then the opposite is also true: the murders would have been less tragic if homely girls were involved. The conclusion, as written by George Orwell, is inescapable: "All [people] are equal, but some [people] are more equal than others."

From the earliest experience of life, a child begins to learn the social importance of physical beauty. The values of his society cannot be kept from his little ears, and many adults do not even try to conceal their bias. A little child is born with an irrepressible inclination to question his own worth; it is as "natural" as his urge to walk and talk. At first, it is a primitive assessment of his place in the home. It is not uncommon for a pre-kindergartener to conclude that he is terribly ugly, incredibly dumb, unloved, unneeded, foolish, or strange.

These early feelings of inadequacy may remain relatively tranquil and subdued during the elementary school years. They lurk just below the conscious mind and are never far from awareness. But the child with the greatest self-doubts constantly "accumulates" evidence of his inferiority during these middle years. Each failure is recorded in vivid detail. Every unkind remark is inscribed in his memory. Rejection and ridicule scratch and nick his delicate ego all through the "quiet" years. Then it happens! He enters adolescence and his world explodes from within. All of the accumulated evidence is resurrected and propelled into his conscious mind with volcanic forcefulness. He will deal with that experience for the rest of his life. 

This tremendous emphasis on physical attractiveness is a by-product of the sexual revolution going on around us. Our society has been erotically supercharged since the mid-sixties when the traditional moral standard and restraints began to collapse. Television, radio, magazines, movies, billboards, literature and clothing all reflect this unparalleled fascination with sensuality of various sorts. Now obviously, when sex becomes all-important in a society, as we are witnessing, then each person's sex appeal and charm take on new social significance. Simply stated, the more steamed up a culture becomes over sex, the more it will reward beauty and punish ugliness.

It is my view that increased sensuality in American is generating a higher incidence of emotional casualties among people who are intensely aware of their inability to compete in the flirtatious game. If beauty represents the necessary currency (the gold coin of worth), then they're undeniably bankrupt. And sadly, the most vulnerable victims of this foolish measure of human worth are the little children who are too young to understand, too immature to compensate, and too crushed to fight back.

They can hardly miss it in the world around them. It's a dull child who fails to notice that the ugly do not win Miss America contests; the ugly do not become cheerleaders; the ugly seldom star in movies; the ugly may not get married; the ugly have fewer friends; the ugly are less desirable! We are incredibly effective in teaching very young children the importance of personal beauty. All children learn it shortly after babyhood! We could do no better if our best educators convened to design a fool proof instructional system.

Unfortunately, teachers are products of the same society which molds the values and attitudes of everyone else. They are often repelled by the physically unattractive child and drawn to the cutie. Evidence seems to include that academic grades given to students are influenced by the attractiveness of the child.

Beauty in our society is power, and power can be dangerous in immature hands. The measurement of worth on a scale of beauty is wrong, often damaging both the "haves" and the "have-nots."

Part 2: Is I.Q. a Predictor of Success?  >>

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