Content by Sara Dalrymple, RSW MSW BA Psych., BANA Clinical Therapist
Unfair to Compare
Have you ever compared yourself to another individual and ended up not feeling very good about yourself thereafter? Have you ever looked at someone else and thought, “If only I looked like them, my life would be different, all my problems would be solved, and I would be happy”? If you can relate, it may be that you are making unfair comparisons.
Most people compare themselves to others in many different contexts – Am I raising my kids right? Am I in a healthy relationship? Am I where I should be in my career for this age? Am I taller, shorter, as fashionable?
Although most comparisons tend not to be helpful – as they may often lead you to feel negatively about yourself, or distract you from focusing on more productive things – they are still a relatively “normal” behavior.
But what happens when your comparisons disrupt your functioning, impair your sense of self-worth, or cause you to make drastic changes or efforts towards an “ideal standard”? In cases such as these, it may be best to begin thinking critically about the way in which you compare. We’re here to help! Here are some things to think about when it comes to your appearance-related comparison-making.
In many cases of comparison making, you may not realize that you have already set yourself up to feel negatively. Typically when we compare, we may be envious of someone else – and in order to have envy, you may have identified an area in which you are self-conscious, or feel you are lacking/falling short. By making a comparison, you may be simultaneously and subconsciously communicating to yourself that you are inadequate. By this point, you have already made a decision that the individual you are comparing to is better than you in some capacity; no matter how you approach the comparison, you will likely not come out favorably.
For example: say you are comparing yourself to another individual based on who has a nicer car. You select a person who has a nicer car than you have, and then you make the comparison. Of course, the outcome will be that this person has a nicer car than you have, because that is the basis in which you have selected them.
How can you combat this? Well, if you are to make comparisons, keep them open-ended. In our example, you could have compared cars without any specific criteria. Rather than deciding to compare on which is nicer, you could merely compare them. What are the differences? Similarities? Pros and cons of each? It’s not a race or a competition, but rather a curiosity.
Who are you comparing yourself to, and how did you select them? Do you think there may be any bias in the way in which you have selected them? Are you comparing based on objective facts, or based on your values or cultural preferences? Do you think this person represents a large percentage of the population, or could they be an exception? Are you comparing only to certain ages, genders, or body types? Where are you (in terms of location) when you are comparing?
Often times when making comparisons, you may select people who you perceive to meet an ideal of some kind. Maybe they are your goal weight; maybe they have the sense of fashion you wish you had; maybe they’re fit and toned like fitness icons; maybe they have the curves the media praises.
In order to think critically about who you are comparing to, it is important to ask yourself what percentage of the general population meets the “ideal standard of beauty”? It is likely that the people you are comparing to only represent a very small portion of the population. If you’re only looking at certain age categories, styles, genders, or body types, it may be helpful to open up your selection to include everyone – not just certain subgroups. Not everyone is lean, tone, 21, youthful, and a fashionista.
What may be even more likely is that you could be overlooking or ignoring everyone else – making these “ideal” people seem much more common than they really are. Don’t believe us? Try the activity below to put it to the test. You may also be in a location that does not offer a variety of different and unique people to compare to. For example, if you’re at a gym, it is likely that many more people there meet your ideal standard because it is a niche environment.
Activity: Instead of comparing yourself to those you deem attractive, compare yourself to every third person you pass on the street/come in contact with (the mall is a good place to do this, as it offers a range of people). You will see there is a wide range of body types and appearances that exist – ones you may have overlooked in the past.
If you are going to compare to an individual you deem attractive, try to evaluate them under the same lens you evaluate yourself. You may have a tendency to be self-critical, or to only pay attention to your flaws and “problem areas”. When comparing, are you only paying attention to the person’s positive attributes? If so, try looking for their flaws (quietly and to yourself; we do not encourage bullying), just like you do with yourself. You will find that everyone – yes, EVERYONE – has flaws if you look for them.
Also try to consider other aspects of their life outside of appearance; are you assuming they are happy, successful, in a great relationship, have a great personality, and so on just because they are physically attractive?
A lot of the time, unseen characteristics can change a person’s attractiveness. This is important to think about when comparing; just because someone is physically appealing does not mean they have it all or are considered attractive across-the-board. Have you ever met someone you were not initially attracted to, but got to know them better and found them more and more attractive? There is a lot more to attractiveness than what meets the eye – pun intended.
The media has a way of guiding us towards certain standards for beauty and body-types. But how representative are these images? We pit ourselves against individuals in the media because they seem so “perfect”, but are they actually?
First and foremost, it is important to remember that the media is very selective with who they flaunt. Typically, the most “attractive” people are selected from audition groups to be in commercials, magazines, TV shows, etc. Once selected, these individuals have an entire beauty team making sure they look as flawless as possible. Airbrushing, makeup artists, hair stylists, fashion gurus – all plucking and prying away at the “unacceptable flaws”. Do you think this person looks that way in their day-to-day life? Did Beyoncé actually “wake up like this”?
It doesn’t stop there. Once the media images are developed, they are edited. Heavily. Lengthening the neck, blurring the pores and cellulite, enhancing the eyes, shrinking the waist. The list goes on and on. Not even the “attractive” individual they selected looks like this in real life.
Activity: grab yourself a magazine and a red sharpie. Go through the magazine and circle any edits you may see, and areas you believe were likely manipulated. You may be surprised to find that the magazine is all marked up with red by the end of it.
AND STILL, once these images have been edited, the best of the best are selected to post and advertise. There may be hundreds of images and clips that were taken, and only a very small handful has made it through to the judges.
Lastly, the most important thing to remember when it comes to the media is people only post what they want you to see. What you’re seeing is the result of a very careful and selective filtration process. The majority of individuals won’t share that unflattering image; won’t post about their distressing body image; won’t let you have online access to their flaws so long as they can help it.
In summary, it is important to keep the above considerations in mind if you are going to engage in comparison making. A lot of bias, selectivity, and manipulation is involved in the comparison-making process. Do what you can to challenge your comparisons in order to prevent them from impeding on your self-worth. No matter the societal ideal, you are always worthy and beautiful.