"You're Not Pretty (Enough)": The Media, Low Self Esteem, Porn and Rush Limbaugh

Monday, May 12, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

The subconscious mind is one sneaky bastard.

Advertisers are well aware of this fact, spending obscene amounts of money on ad campaigns devoted to encouraging viewers to buy their products. Even restaurants embrace certain color schemes that subconsciously trigger hunger responses.

All of this pandering is very effective. Our brain is able to trick us into all kinds of things, especially when we don't know what it is we're responding to. 

But, it is more than just a drive to purchase. The way we see our world, and those around us, may change the way we think about ourselves.

Seeing Is Believing

Pornography would be much less fun if the brain simply said, "Hey, that person is not really here!" 

At least I assume that's true. (wink, wink)

Instead, excitement resulting from the perception of a sexually receptive individual leads to human...(ahem)...responsiveness... the same way it would if a centerfold was actually present. 

"You're going to poke an eye out with that thing!"

There is a problem with the porn and the television habits that most Americans have grown accustomed to, and it's not the difficulty of washing tube socks. Repeated exposure to individuals high in marketability may lead us to believe that our environment is more competitive than it actually is. We may not be involved in a beauty pageant, but our brain may see it differently.  

What Am I Worth? The Evolution of Anti-Aging

In The Evolution of Desire, prominent evolutionary psychologist David Buss reports that the issue of marketability (or individual worth) is critical to the understanding of sexual selection, mating opportunity and self esteem shifts1

Buss states that, for males, status and resources--more money and better jobs--mean increased marketability, or higher rank among others in the population. Luckily for them, these tend to increase over time, and their self worth responds in kind. 

You cocky bastards.

For women, marketability progresses differently with age. With a limited time frame for reproduction, female market worth tends to decrease over time, as her reproductive facilities do, regardless of financial status. This is inverse of the male marketability model, which women are sensitive to over the course of relationships. It is no wonder that women are more sensitive to the signs of aging, and thus the target of billions of dollars in ad campaigns for things like wrinkle creams and spanx. 

Be careful with the Spanx too. I hear they can catapault a person clear across town. 

Slingshot undergarments aside, even an individual who subconsciously feels that their market worth is waning is none the worse for it if others of higher marketability do not exist. Likewise, those with higher market value are less likely to leave their current relationships if they don't think that there are greener pastures available. And the amount of fresh meat we think exists is based on what we see.

How Does The Media Cause Low Self Esteem?

Unfortunately, not everyone on television looks like Rush Limbaugh. The environment that we are faced with shows us the top 1% of highly marketable individuals. While our excursions to the grocery store may be more true to form, most people spend more time watching television at the end of the day than they did shopping (though shopping with children can certainly feel like a goddamn eternity). 

Marketability has less to do with the actual environment and more to do with our perception of it. By seeing only the most beautiful young women, we see ourselves as lower in the competitive market. But bombardment of gorgeous, rich males makes us think we may have a chance with at least one of them, if only we could be just a little better. Some nip and tuck and we should be good to go. 

In this way, says Buss, plastic surgery may be seen as a catalyst of female empowerment, a chance to actively engage in renegotiating marketability standing. Studies which show self esteem hikes following these elective surgical procedures seems to confirm this link, though advocating surgery ignores the reasons self worth assessments were lower to begin with. When women are made to feel inferior at every turn based on completely unrealistic notions of beauty and marketability, the resulting suffering should be addressed on a national level as opposed to with individual scalpels.

No woman should ever be made to feel like she is not good enough. Ever. 

Fuck you, America's Next Top Model!

But it may not be as bleak as it seems. Because even though we may lower our internal value and self worth based on the very deliberate tactics of the media, Buss notes that this type of altered reality may undermine womens' self esteem falsely.

That's right. Falsely. And not just because commercials and reality TV are anything but real.

While media pandering leads us to subconsciously assess our worth based on the physical alone, men evolved to crave things that will benefit future offspring besides attractiveness, including intelligence, personality and fidelity. And the perception of those things is often lacking in the media. 

It doesn't take an engaging, sparkling wit to ride a wrecking ball butt-ass naked (though it does look awfully fun). 

Closer To Home: Another Perspective

Researchers Dr. Nicholas Christakis and Dr. James Fowler also believe that self comparison may play a role in our attitudes and behaviors. In their book Connected, they note that the groups we associate with may have both comparison effects (evaluation changes) and influence effects (behavior changes)2.

"I'm so attractive! No one even asked Jane out."(comparison)
"Looks like I don't really have to try. Bring on the Ding Dongs!"(influence)

However, they note that while others may be more attractive, the most important people for self comparison are those within three degrees of influence, or a friend of a friend of a friend. They argue that beyond that, the brain ceases to care as much because those individuals will have little influence on your life. 

Christakis and Fowler's seven degrees to Kevin Bacon: "My friend, whose sister is a writer, who knows a movie agent who....seriously who fucking cares anymore?"

According to Christakis and Fowler, our partner's social network may be the most influential. Even if the world is full of hot ass, we might still be okay if our partner doesn't have any female friends hotter than we perceive ourselves to be.  

And the comparisons work both ways. As Christakis and Fowler note through satirist H.L. Mencken:

"Wealth is 'any income that is at least one hundred dollars more per year than the income of one's wife's sister's husband.'"

While we may not care about what our neighbor's sister's husband's cousin's friend thinks of us, one of the main reasons is that we are unlikely to be exposed to them. What we do expose ourselves to matters more. We can't all watch Rush Limbaugh all day to make ourselves feel better. I'd rather have low self worth than be brain dead. 

Women are more sensitive to our environments than we realize. While we might like to focus on our partner's lack of attractive female friends, if we spend more time in any given day reading Vogue, driving by billboards or watching a supermodel sexually assault a cheeseburger on top of a sportscar, we may find ourselves engaging in more comparison than is healthy. This is especially dangerous given that those comparisons are not based on any semblance of reality.  

I mean, seriously, thigh gap? What in the everloving shit is that?

Reality is more a construct than an absolute, and that construct is based partially on what we see. Try to find a way to create a reality that makes you happy, instead of one that brings you down.   

(Oh, and fuck Rush Limbaugh.)

Related Posts: 


1. http://www.amazon.com/The-Evolution-Of-Desire-Revised/dp/046500802X
2. http://www.amazon.com/Connected-Surprising-Networks-Friends-Everything/dp/0316036137

Topic-Relevant Resources

Exploration of social connection and the way networks shape our lives

The Evolution of Desire
Evolutionary psychology and the history of human mating

Darwinian Psychiatry
Detailed evolutionary explanations of the roots of clinical diagnoses from depression to eating disorders to personality issues.

Sex At Dawn
Exploration of modern relationships from the evolutionary perspective. Everything you ever wanted to know about male penis size.

The Moral Animal
Journalist Robert Wright explores human nature from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition
Anthropology, wit and the evolution of the modern female.