Who Wore It Best?

by Dr. Sara Schwartz Gluck, PhD, LCSW

“You look great in that dress! Sooo skinny!”

I’m sure you’ve heard that type of comment in any situation where 2 or more women are present. The ultimate compliment- so skinny! When I hear this, it’s usually tinged with just a little bit of envy, like a green sliver peeking through the cloud of admiration. I call it the “jealous compliment.” Weird thing, comparing ourselves to the people around us. Without even realizing it, we scan the room and decide how to feel about ourselves based on how everyone else looks on the outside.

Social psychologists have a name for this. In the 1954, Leon Festinger called it the social comparison theory. According to him, it’s human nature to base our own self worth on how the people around us are doing. Hence, the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Way back then, Festinger laid out his idea of exactly how this happens: We look at the people around us. If they are worse off than us (weaker, poorer, less attractive) we are cool with that. If they are better than us (smarter, faster, stronger) we either: Find a way to match up to them (spending more time at work to earn more income) OR find a reason to dismiss them (oh they’re only wealthy because they cheat on their taxes).

The strange exception to this rule is women and body image. When we compare ourselves to unrealistic beauty ideals that we see in magazines or in person, we keep trying to meet those ideals, even if deep down we know it’s impossible. Think about the millions of dollars we spend on makeup, plastic surgery, Botox, and diet products each year, in an effort to make ourselves thinner and more model-like. It’s beyond what seems rational.

My theory is that Festinger could never have predicted this, because he lived before the age of streaming Internet and color screen TVs. There would have been no way for him to imagine exactly how harmful those influences would be. Many of us are numb to the subtle messages we watch and see each day, and we don’t even begin to realize that they are slowly seeping into our minds. The good citizens of Nadroga, Fiji, were completely naïve to our American media in 1995. That’s when the first television sets were brought into the region. Some researchers (Becker, Burwell, Herzog, Hamburg, & Gilman, 2002) took a look at what happened next, and it was frightening. Before the introduction of TV, the native Fijians thought that robust and curvy women were beautiful, and they saw no need for dieting. The rate of bulimia? Zero. Three years later, most of the population had TVs, and 74% of the people surveyed said they felt “too big or fat” at least some of the time. And 11.3% of those said they vomited in order to lose weight. A total of 77% of those who were surveyed stated that television had influenced their body image, and many articulated that they wanted to look more like Western television characters.

1995- BEFORE TV 1998- AFTER TV
Robust body types valued

Bulimia rate- 0%

Body Dissatisfaction: Low

Thin body types valued

Bulimia rate: 11.3%

Body dissatisfaction rate: 74%

While we can’t always control the images that flash before our eyes, what we can control is whether we choose to let the media and advertisers tell us which characteristics are attractive. And we can help our friends, family, and our children by calling attention to things other than how they look on the outside. Next time you feel like commenting on someone’s dress size, try looking a little bit deeper, and saying something that is truly meaningful.

“You look radiant with joy!”
“You seem so confident right now.”
“Your smile just lights up this room!”

Let’s give ourselves a break from the cycle of comparison, and relax in our skin, cellulite and all.


Sara Schwartz-Gluck is Clinical Director at the Five Towns Wellness Center, located in Cedarhurst, NY. At The Five Towns Wellness Center we created a safe, private place to treat an individual’s needs with the specific care necessary to help conquer obstacles to health and happiness. FTWC was established in order to provide comprehensive psychological care to children and families while treating problems such as anxiety, depression, trauma, domestic violence, ADHD, oppositional behavior, and developmental disorders. We provide therapy and tools for living that children and adults can use to better cope with life’s challenges such as divorce, illness, and loss. Our goal is to help our clients develop practical skills and inner strength so they may live their best possible reality.   If you or your child is struggling call us for a phone consultation.  There is no need to feel alone.  At FTWC, we are always here for you.


Self-Perception Among Young Women Relative To Exposure To Sexualizing Visual Media

by Dr. Sara Schwartz Gluck, Phd, LCSW

Popular American media such as TV, movies, and music videos often affects the way people see themselves and the world around them.  This study looked at the ways in which women are shown on screen, and how that affected a group of Orthodox Jewish young women. The media often makes it seem like in order for women to be beautiful, they need to be very thin  and perfect.  Many researchers have studied college-aged women, and have found that when  women watch American media, they are more likely to have low self-esteem and to be  unhappy with the way they look (Aubrey, Hopper, & Mbure, 2011; Wright, 2009). 

On the  other hand, girls who grow up in the Orthodox Jewish culture often learn that it is best to be  modest by covering their bodies so that they would be noticed for their minds and hearts  rather than how they look (Andrews, 2011).  Some Orthodox Jews even choose not to watch any non-Jewish media at all.  These differences between Jewish teachings and American  media mean that American Jewish women might learn completely opposite things from the  media than what they learn from Jewish books. 

This study of 155 single, Orthodox Jewish  young women included people from colleges, seminaries, and public areas in the state of NY.   The study participants included some who reported that they watched a lot of American  media, and others who reported never having watched any non-Jewish media in their entire  lives.  All of the participants were asked to complete a survey about their beliefs and  behaviors but were not exposed to any  media during this study.

After all of the surveys  were analyzed, there were some interesting results that were found.  When participants  watched higher levels of media, this was associated with lower levels of general self worth  and lower levels of body confidence.  Those who reported higher levels of religiosity were  less likely to watch American media and more likely to have higher general levels of self  worth.  This was the first time that Orthodox Jewish girls and popular media were looked at by a psychological researcher.

To review Dr. Gluck’s full research paper, download here

I Can’t Fight These Feelings Anymore

by Sara Schwartz Gluck, LCSW

So you might think that because I am a clinical psychotherapist, I think you need to “be in touch with your feelings” in order to reach mental well-being. That would be a reasonable, but false assumption. In fact, the pain, sadness and fear I see each day have given me some perspective radically different from what you may expect.

Sigmund Freud was the first to identify “Defense Mechanisms,” which are our minds’ way of coping with stress by blocking it out on some level. Some of those defenses include, denial, rationalization, dissociation, repression, and splitting. In my office, defense mechanisms look like arms folded across ones’ chest, saying “I don’t know” in response to questions, or lots of chatter about any topics other than the reason for the session. When kids and teens are defended in session, its often because they are not in therapy by choice, rather they are brought in by frustrated parents. Their defenses might look like eye rolling, small vicious tugs, nearly invisible kicks toward their parents, or the silent treatment. 

I think of defenses as shields that we hold to protect ourselves from experiencing and feeling pain. Those of us who have been hurt might have donned full suits of armor in the form of multiple defense mechanisms. We might use denial, projection, suppression, and humor to anesthetize ourselves against that which is too overwhelming for our psyches to process. And that’s ok. That’s how we have survived rejection, abuse, trauma, neglect, loss, or betrayal. The defenses are what have allowed us to wake up each morning and live some semblance of normal life.

It’s important that we honor our resistance to talking about certain topics, and to feeling certain emotions. When we honor our defenses we are acknowledging that they have served a purpose and helped us get by. And then, when we feel stronger and safer in our lives, that’s when it is time to question the need for blocking out parts of our experiences. By listening to our inner voices, we can tune in to our needs and recognize when our defenses no longer work for us. For example, the defense mechanism called repression may have worked for a 5 year old whose parents weren’t present, as it allowed the child to push the pain aside and learn to cope with the hard reality. However, when that 5 year old grows into a 25 year old who is in a committed relationship, repression may hinder his ability to express his feelings to his loved one. And when defenses stop working for us, it is time to take a step back and decide whether we want to try a new way of thinking.

Remember, those parts of us that aren’t ready to face reality are valuable parts which have served to protect us. Let’s honor and embrace that about ourselves. And then, let’s be honest about when it is time to make a change.