The relationship between bodily appearance and self-esteem is universal and permanent. In recent decades, however, this relationship has had an accelerating impact on young women, pubescent girls and children even younger.
Anorexia and bulimia are two extreme products of cultures that marry unbalanced consumption and celebrity idolization. Some girls and young women who see nothing but ugliness in themselves and captivating beauty all around have the potential to commit long-term violence against their bodies. Starving oneself in order to obtain a personal ideal of thinness and regularly inducing vomiting to prevent weight gain are sadly logical acts if one's self-esteem is too closely attached to one's appearance.
The appeal of breast enlargement is another example of expensive (and sometimes dangerous) surgical procedures feeding off unreasonable feelings of inadequacy. And Taiwan shares a regional variation of such bodily discomfort: The feeling among some women that eyes without double-fold eyelids should be surgically "corrected" to make them beautiful.
But damage from low self-esteem is not limited to these extreme cases. Research around the world -- including a survey released in Taiwan yesterday -- points to large numbers of girls everywhere and of all backgrounds suffering self-esteem problems to the extent that their education may suffer.
One of the most worrying findings in the international survey conducted by the Dove Self Esteem Fund was the large number of girls who thought their appearance influenced their grades and the way that teachers related to them.
There are some childish cruelties that the most interventionist state cannot eradicate -- bullying and other mistreatment in the playground on the basis of appearance are among them. But on the basis of these results, the Ministry of Education would do well to consider ramping up personal development curriculums and teacher training to help those who are "too fat," "too skinny," "too short" or "too tall" from suffering unnecessarily at the hands of their peers and tactless staff.
How radical should such ramping up be? Given that Taiwanese teachers are in the main more conservative than their counterparts in the West, it is difficult to see them openly criticizing parental standards of beauty that hurt children, or launching attacks on the more obvious corporate exploitation of prejudice against unusual body shapes.
Yet it is disappointing that no one at the press conference announcing yesterday's survey results asked the organizers for their take on the connection between improving self-esteem and purchasing cosmetics. The Dove Self Esteem Fund -- part of the Unilever corporation -- seems designed to further the interests of a firm that potentially benefits from women feeling poorly about their appearance. It does this by delinking the desirability of its products from myths about beauty, which is quite reasonable.
But at least one reporter might have asked why girls should not be encouraged to actively detach their self-worth from commercial products of any nature. If the Dove Self Esteem Fund has good intentions -- and there is nothing to suggest that it does not -- it would encourage girls to do just that.
One key question remains. This society demands that women spend significant amounts of money on cosmetics and beautifying products. Why then does it take so little responsibility for those who, through sheer misfortune and youthful vulnerability, suffer for not living up to its "standards" of beauty?