A Harvard study found unrealistic beauty ideals cost the US economy $800 billion a year. Here's how.
- A new report finds unrealistic body ideals cost the US economy over $8 million annually.
- Body hate and discrimination can lead to societal expenses like depression treatment and missed work.
At age seven, Ashton Garrison was already worried about death. Her doctor put the concept in her head. "He said, 'Fat kids become fat adults, and then they die," Garrison, now 14, told Insider.
Other trusted adults stressed the connection between weight and death, too. Garrison said one weight-loss camp leader told her and other campers a detailed story about a young woman who died by suicide due to, the story went, her body size.
Garrison found no relief in her peers, who bullied her for her bigger body — and big personality. "That added to the pain," she said. Garrison said she wished she could cut away her fat with scissors and begged her mom for liposuction.
Young people like Garrison, a high school freshman in Hazel Park, Michigan, aren't just personally affected by appearance-based hate and discrimination — the economy is too, a report out Tuesday reveals.
The study, from the Dove Self-Esteem Project in collaboration with the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and others, found that over $800 billion dollars is lost each year due to body dissatisfaction and appearance-related discrimination.
More specifically, body image issues can lead to poor productivity at work, for example, and healthcare costs like to treat eating disorders and depression, the report says.
"What many people don't realize is that there's any cost to this, because often people just think of beauty as ephemeral or a superficial kind of concern," Dr. S. Bryn Austin, founding director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED) at Harvard and Boston Children's Hospital, told Insider. People think it's "not really something that could have such a lasting effect that it could impact our economy."
But in reality, Austin said, the costs total "more than what we see the cost is for distracted driving or underage drinking by youth."
The report found we lose $501 annually in appearance-based discrimination alone
To conduct the report, Austin and economists at Deloitte Access Economics, along with an expert advisory panel, gathered the research literature on both body dissatisfaction (a severe and constant feeling about your looks) and appearance-based discrimination based on body size and skin shade.
Then, they conducted economic analyses to estimate the costs to the economy using the same methods researchers use to predict other costs, like that of gun violence.
The team found that body dissatisfaction costs $301 billion annually — enough to cover college tuition, fees, room and board for 2.9 million girls annually, according to the report.
"If someone is suffering body dissatisfaction severe enough to be showing up in our calculations, they may have a higher risk of developing depression or anxiety or an eating disorder," which can be expensive to treat, Austin said.
The report also found that appearance-based discrimination costs the US $501 billion annually — enough to cover two-thirds of the nation's out-of-pocket healthcare costs, the report said.
"People are not being hired if they're applying for jobs and seen as living in a larger body. People are not being hired with darker skin shades. They may be hired, but given lower pay," Austin said.
Kids with darker skin too receive harsher discipline, which "decreases the chances that they will graduate, that decreases chances they'll go on to higher education," she added. "And this has a negative cascading effect, not just on that individual and their family, but also to workplaces and to our society as a whole."
Austin said laws against weight and hair discrimination can help protect against these losses, and that the country needs to continue to "chip away at the insidious effects of diet culture," for example by banning the sale of weight-loss pills to kids.
Garrison said more visibility of bigger Black bodies has improved her mental health
Garrison said she's dealt with depression and an eating disorder related to how others perceive her body and popular culture messaging about who's worthy of happiness and love.
In movies, people who look like her are "either an ugly stepsister or a funny fat best friend" or a woman whose "relationship may be broken apart because of weight gain," Garrison said. "You see that all over the place and you ask yourself, 'Well, why do I have to go through a lot of sadness just to find some romance in my life?' That just doesn't seem fair."
But Garrison said she's built confidence over the years in part thanks to a more compassionate doctor who's helping her improve her relationship with food, her mom's support, and the increasing visibility of all body sizes, colors, abilities, and hair styles.
When she first watched Lizzo's "Truth Hurts" video, Garrison said, "I was just overjoyed that I saw someone big and Black, dancing and singing around." She said seeing more Black role models of all body shapes have "made a very huge impact on me and my personality, and I realized what I can actually do and offer to this world."
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