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Changing the Game by Challenging the Name: Using Art Therapy to Explore Societal Beauty Standards

During the holiday season, it seems like advertisements are amplified by one-hundred percent. For many adults, this likely results in some eye-rolls, and maybe muting the channel. However, for kids and teens, who are desperately trying to form an identity and fit in with the world, these ads can become everything. During this developmental stage, their brains are telling them to assimilate, or to fit in, and become a member of a group or society. This makes their strive for individuality lessen, and the power of these advertisements, promoting societal beauty standards, increase ten-fold. I often work with parents who are fully understanding of this notion, but grapple with finding ways to compel it- short of throwing their phone in the lake and moving off grid. It is unrealistic to strive to hide these advertisements and ideals from this generation, though that does not mean we are left powerless to watch it take over.

As a therapist (and human being), I deal with feelings all day. Nothing is more validating than when a fact, statistic, or historical truth can shine light on why we may be feeling a certain way, and that we are not alone in that. When I do this intervention with teens- we start with some exploration on the history of women’s razors in America. I find it to be one of the most clear-cut and obvious versions of how ad campaigns can create shifts in beliefs, shame, guilt, and of course, revenue. Bustle has a great piece on it here if you’re interested in the full story- ( ). To give you the spark-notes version: King Cam Gillette was desperate to sell more razors in 1915- which until that time had been a purely male, facial hair centered, market. Gillette wanted to double his clientele by convincing women to buy his razors, but at that time, there were not any expectations or pressures regarding armpit, leg, and arm hair. That same year, he created ad campaigns for his “Milady Decollete Razor For Women”- and intentionally used terms like “your embarrassing personal problem” when referring to women’s body hair. He knew that order to sell products, he must fit a need or solve a problem, and it was most lucrative to manufacture both the problem and need his products could fix. Other razor brands joined in, fueling the flame, and within 5 years, by the 1920’s, female body hair was regarded as unsanitary, unladylike, and shameful. Fast-forward 100 years, and we are still fed similar rhetoric. Knowledge is power, and teen’s response to learning this history is often anger, followed by relief.

For the art therapy exercise, I focus on the word “beauty” or “beautiful”. This is a great place to explore because of the subjectivity of the word. I’ll first start with words and questions that have very clear, pre-defined answers, such as “how many legs do I have?” or “how tall are you?”. These questions have an answer that is provable and objective across the board. Then we explore how “what is beautiful in this room?” could have 100 difference answers from 100 different people. This means that we get the power in defining that word based on our own experiences. Just as how the “beauty” industry has defined it themselves for hundreds of years- based on their goals and experiences.

I give the teens a couple of different magazines to cut from, glue, scissors, and one 12”x18” sheet of paper, which they will fold it half. After opening it back up, we’d then spend a while on the left side as they create a collage using magazine cut-outs about how society defines “beauty”. We’d explore images on that side, often being able to point out contradictions in the beauty industry (be skinny but be curvy, go all natural but with perfect makeup, work out and be strong but not muscular, etc), and that can lead to discussions further who is benefitting from these unreachable, often impossible, societal beauty standards. For the second half of their image, I invite them to create a collage of what they would like their definition of beautiful to be, based on their values, friends, and things that bring them joy. This can lead to great discussions about how to continually challenge words and ideas that they may not agree with, as well as not feel guilty about still wanting to participate in some of them. The goal of this activity is not to eliminate all beauty regimes, self-care rituals, or things that may make us feel good about ourselves from our lives. The goal is to use our knowledge and strength to know why we may be making this decision, and feel confident it is for ourselves, and not anyone else. Additionally, by redefining our version of beauty, it provides an opportunity to redefine our definition of ugly and take away that word’s power over teens who may not meet some of those impossible ideals.

I have included the picture above of my own collage from this intervention. It is best to have many magazines so that you get a variety of advertisements and stories with images to choose from. My favorite part about this is it is a physical way to process the information that kids and teenagers are taking in daily through social media and television. Just as we have shifted from print to online resources- the advertisers have followed. Having the space to learn about this and discuss it- puts the power in the teens hands to redefine their version of “beautiful”. This could be a great activity for parents to do with your teens together- how did your pressures and beauty standards differ from the ones they are getting today? This could also work as a great group or class project- due to a lot of the work being done through the art making itself. The better understanding your teen has on the power of words, societal pressures, and how they impact us, the more they can feel empowered to choose the parts of the “norms” they don’t feel inclined to follow. They hopefully even find comfort and confidence in those choices- that they were able to make for themselves.

**If you or your teenager is dealing with significant distress due to societal pressures, please seek professional counselors and/or art therapists to engage in activities such as this. The differentiation I always like to make is that kids and families are often engaging in art as therapy activities on their own for enjoyment of the moment and exploration, versus how an art therapist may use this as a clinical intervention as a road map for setting goals and treatment planning.

By: Elise Roche, LAPC, ATR-BC


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