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Social Cognition, Vol. 32, No. 5, 2014, pp. 466–483



the ugLy duckLINg effect: exaMININg fIxed VerSuS MaLLeabLe beLIefS about beauty

Melissa Burkley, Edward Burkley, S. Paul Stermer, Angela Andrade, Angela C. Bell, and Jessica Curtis Oklahoma State University

Storybook tales, movies, and beauty magazines often communicate the message that beauty is malleable. Malleable beliefs are generally found to be beneficial, but this is not the case in the beauty domain. Across two studies, we found that the “beauty is malleable” belief puts women (but not men) at risk for harmful appearance concerns, such as basing their self- worth on physical attractiveness, increased appearance anxiety, and in- creased interest in cosmetic surgery. These results were found when beauty beliefs were measured (Study 1) and manipulated (Study 2). Thus, the mes- sage that beauty is malleable has a potentially harmful effect on women’s lives. This work also suggests that the typical finding that malleable beliefs are beneficial may reverse when the domain in question has unattainable standards.

In the classic fairy tale The Ugly Duckling, a homely looking “duckling” is mocked by his fellow barnyard animals because of his unattractive appearance (Andersen, 1844). However, much to the surprise of himself and others, the duckling grows into the most beautiful bird of all: a swan. The message communicated by this beloved story is simple: Beauty is malleable. Just because someone is born unat- tractive does not mean they cannot grow up to be beautiful like a swan. But this “beauty is malleable” message does not just exist between the pages of a children’s book. Marketing campaigns like Maybelline’s famous, “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline,” encourage women to reject the idea of inher- ent beauty and instead focus on what women can do to improve their beauty. This message that less attractive girls can become beautiful is also commonly seen in movies (She’s All That, Never Been Kissed) and celebrity magazine interviews with

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Melissa Burkley, Department of Psychology, 116 North Murray, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078; E-mail: melissa.

© 2014 Guilford Publications, Inc.


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the likes of Eva Longoria (Allure, 2006), Beyoncé (Glamour, 2009), and Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (Harper’s Bazaar UK, 2011). But is the “beauty is malleable” message a healthy one? The present studies were designed to examine this question.


In modern society, women are constantly bombarded with images of idealized beauty that emphasize youth, thinness, and White features (Brownell, 1991; Fred- rickson & Roberts, 1997); however, only a small percentage of women actually meet this beauty ideal (Thompson & Stice, 2001). To make matters worse, the ma- jority of media images involve photoshopping, retouching, and body reshaping. So for nearly all women, the beauty ideal represents an unattainable standard (Brownell, 1991; Cusumano & Thompson, 1997; Wolf, 2002). Several theories have emerged to explore the negative outcomes that occur when women are exposed to unattainable beauty images. According to cultiva- tion theory (Schooler, Ward, Merriwether, & Caruthers, 2004; Tiggemann, 2003), the more people view these unattainable beauty images, the more they will come to adopt this unrealistic standard of beauty as reality. Similarly, self-objectifica- tion theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) asserts such images socialize women to view themselves as a physical object which in turn leads to a greater emphasis on their physical appearance. Work guided by these theoretical perspectives has found that greater attention, effort, and anxiety in regards to one’s physical ap- pearance is associated with a number of negative body image outcomes, including impaired physical and mental capabilities (Fredrickson & Harrison, 2005; Fred- rickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998), body shame (Fredrickson et al., 1998; Tiggemann & Slater, 2001), desire for cosmetic surgery (Markey & Markey, 2009), depression (Tolman, Impett, Tracy, & Michael, 2006), and eating disorder symptomatology (Becker, 2004). Overall, this body of work indicates that the more women focus on their physical appearance and feel they are falling short of the beauty ideal, the more they suffer from maladaptive appearance concerns. But the media does more than present women with unattainable beauty stan- dards. In many cases, it also tells women there is something they can do to reach these standards. Beauty magazines and cosmetic companies promote the idea that beauty is flexible, suggesting that if women purchase the right beauty prod- ucts or cosmetic procedures, they can come close to attaining this idealized im- age (Brownell, 1991; Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999). For example, 83% of young women regularly read fashion and beauty magazines (Thompson et al., 1999) and their main motivation for doing so is to gain informa- tion on how to improve their appearance (Tiggemann, 2003). Thus, it may be that women’s beliefs about whether they can do something to change their beauty to be closer to the ideal may be just as important in predicting negative outcomes as the idealized images themselves.


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Outside of the beauty realm, people’s beliefs about whether a particular trait is changeable or not have received a great deal of empirical attention. According to Dweck and colleagues, people with an entity perspective assume traits are fixed and stable whereas people with an incremental perspective assume traits are mal- leable and changeable (e.g., Dweck, 1999; Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Across a number of different domains, researchers have demon- strated that incremental theorists are more likely to adopt goals to increase and improve their ability, put forth more effort toward the ability domain, and persist on the domain despite negative performance feedback (for reviews, see Burnette, O’Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, & Finkel, 2013; Dweck et al., 1995). Put simply, the belief that a trait is malleable leads people to work harder at improving the trait,

especially in the face of failure feedback (e.g., Burkley, Parker, Stermer, & Burkley,


Nearly all research on implicit theories indicates that adopting a malleable per- spective results in good outcomes, including less performance anxiety (Burns & Isbell, 2007; Plaks & Stecher, 2007) and better motivation and performance (Black- well, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Burkley et al., 2010; Dweck, 1999). However, this work has largely studied traits that are attainable, such as academic test per- formance. Clearly, increased attention and effort toward improving one’s grades

is beneficial because it means people will work harder in school and will be less

likely to abandon their academic studies (Dweck, 1999; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). But when the same pattern of attention and behavior is used to achieve an unat-

tainable beauty standard, the outcomes may be less beneficial. Thus, it may be that

a malleable perspective is neither inherently harmful nor beneficial; the key may

be whether the performance standard in question is one that is attainable. Several areas of research are suggestive that malleable views may produce nega- tive outcomes when directed toward an unattainable domain like beauty. First, literature on general perceptions of control is informative. Many theorists assert humans have a fundamental need to act autonomously and have a sense of control over their own lives (Deci & Ryan, 2012; Langer, 1975; Rotter, 1954). These per- ceptions of autonomous control (even illusory perceptions) are perceived as psy- chologically beneficial because they encourage people to persistently pursue their goals even in the face of obstacles and low odds of success (Stefan & Davie, 2013; Taylor, 1989). But perceptions of control can also lead people to pursue unrealistic goals and to adopt harmful behaviors in pursuit of such goals. For instance, wom- en who perceive they have a great deal of control over their body weight are more likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors, including dieting, skipping meals when hungry, and purging after a meal (McKinley & Hyde, 1996). Second, goal striving and self-regulation are generally perceived to be beneficial. However, the reverse is true when people strive for an unrealistic or unattainable goal. Accord- ing to research on goal disengagement, people who abandon unattainable goals have higher subjective well-being and less depression than people who continue to strive for such goals (Wrosch & Miller, 2009; Wrosch, Scheier, Miller, Schulz, &

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Carver, 2003). So greater control perceptions and goal striving are common conse- quences of malleable beliefs and in most cases these consequences are beneficial. However, when malleable beliefs are directed toward an unattainable domain, these consequences instead produce harmful outcomes. In sum, people who believe their intelligence or academic skills are malleable tend to invest more attention and effort in improving these traits. However, the domain of beauty is different because the idealized standard represents a largely unattainable goal. Thus, the increase in attention and effort that results from a mal- leable perspective may result in negative consequences when directed toward the beauty domain.


The purpose of the present work was to examine the impact of women’s implicit theories of beauty. Prior research on beauty ideals suggests that when women fo- cus on their appearance, negative consequences ensue (e.g., Fredrickson & Rob- erts, 1997; McKinley & Hyde, 1996). However, it remains to be seen if women’s beliefs about whether beauty is malleable or fixed alter this relationship. Based on the notion that beauty standards are largely unattainable, we hypothesized that women who believe beauty is malleable will exhibit more harmful appearance concerns than women who believe beauty is fixed. If this were the case, it would suggest that the commonly communicated “beauty is malleable” message is unde- sirable and potentially maladaptive. Importantly, we did not expect men’s implicit theories of beauty to have a par- ticularly strong impact on their appearance concerns. This prediction was based on a number of insights. First, men’s beauty standards are not as extreme or unat- tainable as women’s beauty standards (Stice, 2003; Wolf, 2002). Second, men are less likely than women to be objectified in the media (APA, 2007; Wolf, 2002) and as a result, are less likely to internalize the ideal beauty standards as their own (Fredrickson, Forbes, Grigorian, & Jarcho, 2007; Fredrickson et al., 1998). As a re- sult, numerous studies have found that men are less sensitive to factors that typi- cally ignite women’s appearance concerns (APA, 2007; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004). This is not to say that men do not have anxiety about their appearance (Hebl et al., 2004; Martins, Tiggemann, & Kirkbride, 2007). It is just that men’s anxiety appears to be more stable than women’s and is therefore less affected by factors that impact appearance concerns.

Study 1

The purpose of this preliminary study was twofold. First, we sought to assess if people do in fact vary in their implicit beliefs about whether beauty is fixed or malleable. To assess implicit beliefs in beauty, we modified items from the general implicit beliefs assessment to reflect the domain of beauty. We chose to focus on


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the term “beauty” rather than another term like “appearance” or “attractiveness” because the messages most commonly communicated to women in Western cul- tures in regard to their appearance is in reference to “beauty” ideals, competi- tions, standards, and practices (e.g., Bissell & Rask, 2010; Markey & Markey, 2012; Swami et al., 2010). Second, given such variability, we sought to examine if a fixed or malleable per- spective is associated with appearance concerns. We selected two measures com- monly used in the appearance and objectification literature and predicted that both measures would significantly correlate with implicit beauty beliefs such that women with malleable beliefs would evidence greater appearance concerns than women with fixed beliefs.


Participants. One hundred and twenty-eight female students from a large Mid- western university completed the materials online for course credit (mean age = 19.67, SD = 2.80). The sample consisted of 87% Caucasians, 3% African Americans, 3% Latino Americans, 3% Native Americans, 2% Asian Americans, and 2% unre- ported ethnicity.


Implicit Theories of Beauty. To assess individual differences in implicit theories of beauty, we created a four-item measure modified after Chiu and colleagues’ (Chiu, Hong, & Dweck, 1997) general measure of implicit theories. Specifically, our four items assessed the extent to which participants perceived beauty as fixed or mal- leable (i.e., Natural beauty does not change much over a lifetime—people who are born beautiful stay beautiful and people not born beautiful typically stay that way too; A person’s level of natural beauty is something very basic about them and it can’t be changed much; People who are born without natural beauty can’t do much to change that; People can do things to change their appearance a bit, but they can’t really change their level of natural beauty). We selected the phrase “nat- ural beauty” because we felt it best represented a person’s true beauty, rather than other appearance factors (e.g., clothing). Responses were made on a 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree) rating scale and were averaged to create a composite score (α = .79). Thus, lower values indicate a more malleable perspective of beauty and higher values indicate a fixed perspective. Our subsequent analyses treated this measure as continuous, but for purely descriptive purposes, we used the mid- point as a cutoff (Chiu et al., 1997) and found that 30% (N = 38) of participants held an incremental perspective of beauty, 47% (N = 60) held an entity perspective, and 23% (N = 30) were undecided (i.e., scored at the midpoint).

Appearance-Related Attention and Effort. Next, participants completed the Appear- ance Schemas Inventory–Revised (ASI-R; Cash, Melnyk, & Hrabosky, 2004). We selected this measure because it is commonly used in the appearance and objec- tification literature, but unlike most of those measures, it focuses on general ap- pearance rather than body image (e.g., Rusticus, Hubley, & Zumbo, 2008; Smith

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& Davenport, 2012). The ASI-R consists of 20 items that include questions regard- ing greater attention to one’s appearance (e.g., “When I meet people for the first time, I wonder what they think about how I look”) and greater effort exerted on appearance-management behaviors (e.g., “I often check my appearance in a mir- ror just to make sure I look okay”). Prior work—using both clinical and nonclinical samples—has established this scale as a valid predictor of appearance dissatisfac- tion, dysfunctional appearance-related emotions, and harmful eating behaviors (see Cash & Hrabosky, 2003, for review). Responses were made on a 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree) rating scale and were averaged to create a composite score, with higher values indicating greater attention and effort regarding one’s appearance (α = .87).

Contingent Self-Worth. Finally, participants completed the physical attractiveness subscale of the Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale (CSW; Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). The CSW assesses the extent that various domains (e.g., academics) are important sources of one’s self-esteem. We relied on the physical attractiveness subscale of the CSW, which contains five items that assess how much physical attractiveness is an important source of self-worth (e.g., “When I think I look attractive, I feel good about myself”). Prior work has demonstrated that self-worth based on phys- ical attractiveness is associated with a number of negative outcomes, including appearance dissatisfaction, increased body surveillance, and greater depressive symptomatology (Overstreet & Quinn, 2012; Sargent, Crocker, & Luhtanen, 2006). Responses were made on a 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree) rating scale and were averaged to create a composite score (α = .75), with higher values indi- cating greater importance of physical attractiveness on self-worth.


As expected, implicit theories of beauty significantly correlated with appearance- related attention and effort, r = -.18, p = .04. The more a woman believed beauty is malleable (lower implicit theories score), the more she focused on her appearance and engaged in appearance-management strategies. Implicit theories of beauty also significantly correlated with CSW on attractiveness, r = -.20, p = .02. The more a woman believed beauty is malleable, the more she based her self-esteem on physical attractiveness. Thus, the results of this preliminary study show that women do vary in their implicit theories of beauty and that a malleable belief is associated with greater appearance concerns than a fixed belief.

Study 2

The correlational data from Study 1 is suggestive, but several questions remained that we sought to address in our second study. First, our preliminary study only included women. By including male participants in this second study, we were able to determine if men also vary in their beliefs about beauty and if so, whether this variability is related to appearance concerns in the same it is for women. Prior


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work indicates women are more likely than men to experience objectification and media pressure to conform to a beauty ideal; therefore they are more sensitive to factors that impact appearance concerns (see APA, 2007, for review). Thus, we ex- pected a malleable beauty belief to have a stronger impact on appearance concerns for women than men. Second, Study 2 manipulated beauty beliefs to determine if implicit theories of beauty play a causal role in appearance concerns. Third, our use of the term “natural beauty” in our implicit measure may have implied a more fixed quality of beauty, which in turn may have skewed our results. To address this concern, the Study 2 manipulation only used the term “beauty.” Fourth, we sought to extend this work by including additional appearance concern measures. Lastly, to better understand the connection between implicit beauty beliefs and appearance concerns, we examined a potential mediator. According to the objecti- fication literature, body shame and appearance anxiety are the two major variables that mediate the relationship between objectification and harmful appearance con- cerns (e.g., Choma et al., 2010; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Monro & Huon, 2005; Slater & Tiggermann, 2002). Body shame refers to how ashamed people feel about their body not matching the thin body ideal (McKinley & Hyde, 1996). Appear- ance anxiety refers to people’s concerns about their overall physical appearance (Dion, Dion, & Keelan, 1990). Since the emphasis of the present work is less on the body and more on general attractiveness and beauty, we focused on appearance anxiety as a potential mediator between malleable beauty beliefs and appearance concerns.


Participants. One hundred and fifty students (71 women, 79 men) from a large Midwestern university participated for course credit (mean age = 19.69, SD = 2.94). The sample consisted of 73% Caucasians, 8% African Americans, 6% Latino Amer- icans, 5% Asian Americans, 4% Native Americans, and 4% unreported ethnicity.


Implicit Theories of Beauty Manipulation. In this study, participants’ implicit theo- ries of beauty were manipulated using articles similar to that of Chiu and col- leagues (1997). Specifically, participants were randomly assigned to read one of three Psychology Today style articles created by the researchers. Individuals in the fixed condition read an article with study results and expert quotations that high- lighted the fixed nature of beauty (e.g., “Beauty is rather fixed and does not signifi- cantly change over time,” “In most of us, by the age of ten, our physical features have set like plaster and they do not change as we age. Therefore, beauty is a stable trait”). Individuals in the malleable condition read an article with study results and expert quotations that highlighted the malleable nature of beauty (e.g., “Beauty is rather malleable and significantly changes over time,” “As people age and de- velop, their physical features blend and can actually change. Therefore, beauty is not a stable trait”). Thus, these two articles were nearly identical in content, except that one emphasized a fixed view of beauty and the other emphasized a malleable

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view. Finally, individuals in the control condition read an article irrelevant to beauty (i.e., jellyfish). After reading the article, participants completed the same implicit theories of beauty measure used in Study 1. Next, they completed Chiu and colleagues’ (1997) general implicit theories measure (e.g., “Everyone is a certain kind of person and there is not much that can be done to really change that”). This allowed us to test if the article manipulation altered participants’ general implicit beliefs or just their beauty beliefs. The beauty items (α = .74) and general items (α = .82) were each averaged to create a composite score, with higher values on both indicating a stronger fixed belief.

Appearance Anxiety. Next, participants completed the Appearance Anxiety Ques- tionnaire (Dion et al., 1990). Appearance anxiety refers to people’s concerns about how they look and is often manifested through constant attention to and adjusting of one’s appearance (APA, 2007; Keelan et al., 1992). Prior work has demonstrated that appearance anxiety is higher among women than men and that it increases when women view themselves in a way that emphasizes their attractiveness or sex appeal (e.g., Slater & Tiggemann, 2002). This measure contains 30 items that as- sess anxiety associated with one’s physical appearance (e.g., “I feel nervous about aspects of my physical appearance,” “I am concerned or worried about my ability to attract members of the opposite sex”). Responses were made on a 1 (Never) to 5 (Almost Always) rating scale and were averaged to create a composite score, with higher values indicating greater appearance anxiety (α = .90).

Contingent Self-Worth. Next, participants completed the same physical attractive- ness subscale of the CSW used in Study 1 (α = .79). Typically research on CSW treats this construct as a chronic trait but more recent research supports the asser- tion that changes in CSW can occur as a result of situational influences (Bucking- ham, Weber, & Sypher, 2012; O’Keefe, Ben-Eliyahu, & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2013). We therefore treated CSW as a dependent variable in order to determine if our beauty manipulation alters the extent that people base their self-worth on physical attractiveness.

Interest in Cosmetic Surgery. Next, participants completed items taken from the Interest in Cosmetic Surgery Questionnaire (Markey & Markey, 2009). This scale measures participant’s interest in a variety of cosmetic surgery procedures. Some of these procedures are largely irrelevant to men (e.g., breast lift, breast augmen- tation); therefore we selected items relevant to both sexes (e.g., liposuction, chin, nose). Responses were made on a 1 (I would never consider this procedure) to 5 (I would definitely consider this procedure) rating scale and were averaged to create a composite score, with higher values indicating greater interest in cosmetic surgery (α = .89).


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474 burkLey et aL. FIGURE 1. Appearance anxiety as a function of gender and experimental condition

FIGURE 1. Appearance anxiety as a function of gender and experimental condition (Study 2). The rating scale ranged from 1-5. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.


The correlations among the dependent variables were as follows: appearance anxi-

ety and CSW (r = .53, p = .001), appearance anxiety and surgery interest (r = .35, p

= .001), and CSW and surgery interest (r = .19, p = .02). Results were analyzed using a 3 (Article Condition) × 2 (Gender) factorial analy- sis of variance. Gender was coded such that 0 = women and 1 = men.

Implicit Theories. As expected, the manipulation article significantly impacted

participant’s implicit theories of beauty, F(2, 144) = 20.41, p < .001, η 2 = .22. Partici- pants in the fixed condition rated beauty as significantly more fixed (M = 4.47, SD

= 1.13) than those in the control condition (M = 3.69, SD = .95), t(147) = 3.81, p <

.001, d = .62, and those in the control condition rated beauty as significantly more fixed than those in the malleable condition (M = 3.11, SD = 1.01), t(147) = 2.82, p

= .006, d = .47. However, there was no main effect of gender or interaction with

gender, Fs < .20. Lastly, there was no effect of condition on the general implicit theories measure, F(2, 144) = .84, p = .44. This indicates our article manipulation only affected implicit beliefs about beauty (rather than general implicit beliefs).

Appearance Anxiety. There was a significant Condition × Gender interaction for

appearance anxiety, F(2, 144) = 4.09, p = .02, η 2 = .05 (Figure 1). As expected, women in the malleable condition had significantly higher appearance anxiety (M = 2.76, SD = .57) than women in the fixed condition (M = 2.32, SD = .40), t(68) = 2.98, p = .004, d = 0.72. Women in the malleable condition also had significantly higher ap- pearance anxiety than women in the control condition (M = 2.47, SD = .54), t(68)

= 2.02, p = .05, d = .50. However, women in the control condition did not have

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ugLy duckLINg effect 475 FIGURE 2. Contingent self-worth (CSW) on physical attractiveness as a function of

FIGURE 2. Contingent self-worth (CSW) on physical attractiveness as a function of gender and experimental condition (Study 2). The rating scale ranged from 1-7. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.

significantly higher anxiety than women in the fixed condition, t < 1. For men, ap- pearance anxiety was not influenced by condition.

Contingent Self-Worth. There was a significant main effect of gender, such that women’s self-worth was more contingent on physical attractiveness (M = 5.57, SD

= 1.22) than men’s (M = 4.05, SD = 1.04), F(1, 144) = 7.73, p = .006, η 2 = .05. How-

ever, this was qualified by a significant Condition × Gender interaction, F(2, 144)

= 3.18, p = .05, η 2 = .04 (Figure 2). As expected, women in the malleable condition

had self-worth that was more contingent on physical attractiveness (M = 5.18, SD

= .95) than women in the fixed condition (M = 4.16, SD = 1.27), t(68) = 3.08, p = .003,

d = 0.75. Women in the malleable condition also had self-worth that was more con- tingent on physical attractiveness than women in the control condition (M = 4.32, SD = 1.21), t(68) = 2.58, p = .01, d = .63. But women in the control condition did not have self-worth that was more contingent than women in the fixed condition, t < 1. For men, self-worth contingency was not influenced by condition.

Interest in Cosmetic Surgery. Overall interest in cosmetic surgery was low (M

= 1.23), but this is consistent with prior surveys conducted on college students

(American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2011; Sarwer et al., 2005). Also consistent with prior research was the fact that there was a significant main effect of gender, such that women were more interested in cosmetic surgery (M = 1.33, SD = .55)

than men (M = 1.15, SD = .41), F(1, 144) = 4.82, p = .03, η 2 = .03. Importantly, this main effect of gender was qualified by a significant Condition

× Gender interaction, F(2, 144) = 3.10, p = .05, η 2 = .04 (Figure 3). As expected, women in the malleable condition were more interested in cosmetic surgery (M

= 1.52, SD = .78) than women in the fixed condition (M = 1.16, SD = .32), t(68) =

2.36, p = .02, d = 0.57. Women in the malleable condition were somewhat more in- terested in cosmetic surgery than women in the control condition (M = 1.28, SD =


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476 burkLey et aL. FIGURE 3. Interest in cosmetic surgery as a function of gender and

FIGURE 3. Interest in cosmetic surgery as a function of gender and experimental condition (Study 2). The rating scale ranged from 1-5. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.

.35), although this effect failed to reach significance, t(68) = 1.57, p = .12. However, women in the control condition were not more interested than women in the fixed condition, t(68) = .75, p = .44. For men, interest in cosmetic surgery was not influ- enced by condition.

Mediational Analyses. Lastly, we tested whether differences in appearance anxi- ety mediated the effect of the Condition × Gender interaction on our dependent variables. Due to the unexpectedly high overlap between appearance anxiety and CSW (r = .53), we conducted an exploratory factor analysis to examine if the two scales tap into separate constructs. The results suggested they did not, therefore we do not report the mediational analyses for CSW. To test for mediated moderation in regard to cosmetic surgery interests (see Fig- ure 4), a bootstrapping analysis based on 5,000 bootstraps was conducted using PROCESS (Hayes, 2013). The results showed the direct effect of the Condition × Gender interaction, b = -.24, t(146) = -2.52, p = .01, was reduced to non-significance, b = -.16, t(145) = -1.71, p = .09, after controlling for the potential mediator of appear- ance anxiety. Importantly, this reduction was statistically significant, as indicated by a 95% bootstrap confidence interval for the indirect effect that did not include zero (-0.18 to -0.02). Thus, the effect of the interaction on cosmetic surgery interests was fully mediated by appearance anxiety. To further probe the data, we examined the conditional indirect effect for wom- en and men separately. For women, appearance anxiety mediated the effect of con- dition on surgery interest as indicated by a 95% bootstrap confidence interval for the indirect effect that did not include zero (CI = .02 to .18). For men, appearance anxiety did not mediate the effect of condition on surgery interest (CI = -.06 to .02). Thus, the effect of condition on cosmetic surgery interest was mediated through appearance anxiety for women but not men.

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ugLy duckLINg effect 477 FIGURE 4. Conceptual mediated moderation model for appearance anxiety on interest in

FIGURE 4. Conceptual mediated moderation model for appearance anxiety on interest in cosmetic surgery (Study 2).

Because appearance anxiety and CSW were highly correlated constructs, we ex- amined an alternative mediation model with CSW instead of appearance anxiety mediating the effect of condition on surgery interest. The results showed that CSW did not mediate this effect for women (CI = -.01 to .14) or men (CI = -.02 to .02), as evidenced by a 95% bootstrap confidence interval for the indirect effect that did include zero. Thus, appearance anxiety, but not CSW, mediated the effect of the implicit theories manipulation on surgery interest.


Across these varied measures, women who were convinced that beauty is mal- leable demonstrated greater appearance concerns than women who did not re- ceive this message. Men did not show this pattern. Although men’s beliefs about beauty were successfully manipulated, these beliefs did not in turn influence their appearance concerns in the way that they did for women. Thus, the message that “beauty is malleable” led to negative outcomes among women, but not men. Fur- thermore, the mediational analyses indicated that one negative outcome of this message, interest in cosmetic surgery, is mediated by an increase in women’s ap- pearance anxiety. It is worth noting that women who were convinced that beauty is fixed did not show less appearance concerns than women in the control condition. There are two potential explanations for this pattern. First, it may be that the fixed message is simply not as powerful as the malleable message. The fixed beauty message is certainly less prevalent in our culture than the malleable message, so it may be that its novelty resulted in a weaker impact. Second, it may be that most women already believe beauty is fixed; therefore those in the control and fixed conditions held similar beliefs. Consistent with this assertion, Study 1 did find that 47% of women hold a fixed belief of beauty. If a fixed belief is the default for most women, it would be interesting to examine if this occurs over time. It may be that young


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girls are more likely to adopt the media message that beauty is malleable, but after repeated attempts and failures to live up to the unattainable standards, they come to believe beauty is fixed. Future research should explore the developmental tra- jectory of these beauty beliefs.

geNeraL dIScuSSIoN

For most women, beauty is an ever-receding mirage. The more they work to achieve the idealized beauty standard, the more it slips from their grasp. In sup- port of this analogy, we found women who view beauty as malleable appear to be more vulnerable to appearance concerns than women who view beauty as fixed. Furthermore, the causal implications of our second study suggest that stories or magazine articles that communicate a message of malleable beauty may in fact set women up for future appearance concerns. We refer to this overall tendency for malleable beauty beliefs to produce negative appearance concerns as the “ugly duckling effect.” However, our results suggest that men do not appear to show this ugly duckling effect. Although men do vary in their beliefs about beauty, these beliefs are not associated with greater appearance concerns in the way that they are for women. Although our studies represent an important extension of prior research, several limitations exist. First, for reasons described earlier, we sought to focus on the do- main of beauty. It may be that other terms like “attractiveness” or “appearance” respond differently or are more likely to be impactful for both men and women. Second, the effects discovered in the present studies may be moderated by a num- ber of other variables. For example, people’s satisfaction with their own appear- ance may moderate our effects. The majority of women are dissatisfied with their appearance (Fallon & Rozin, 1985; Silberstein, Striegal-Moore, & Rodin, 1987), so it may be that women who hold malleable beauty beliefs and are dissatisfied with their appearance are most likely to demonstrate harmful appearance concerns. Third, the present studies did not include behavioral outcomes so it would be use- ful to explore if women with malleable beauty beliefs are more likely to engage in behaviors directed toward improving their attractiveness (e.g., purchasing make- up, reading beauty magazines). Future research should explore these possibilities. A final limitation is in regard to the gender difference found in Study 2. Re- sults showed that men’s beauty beliefs were influenced by the malleable and fixed beauty messages (i.e., evidence of a successful manipulation), but their appearance concerns were not. Although this gender difference is consistent with research on self-objectification (Fredrickson et al., 1998; 2007), it remains to be seen exactly why men’s appearance concerns were less influenced by the messages. As we sug- gested earlier, it could be that the term “beauty” is more relevant to women than men. It could also be that men are less likely to value the domain of beauty and therefore their appearance concerns are less impacted by messages regarding this domain. Finally, if appearance satisfaction moderates our effects as we previously

ugLy duckLINg effect


suggested, this could also explain the gender difference. Most women are dissatis- fied with their appearance whereas most men are not (Fallon & Rozin, 1985), so appearance satisfaction may explain our gender difference. Examining the exact reason for this gender difference is beyond the scope of the present article, but future research should explore the exact mechanism that underlies this pattern.


The present results have important implications for addressing the epidemic of appearance concerns that plague women in modern society (Wolf, 2002). If wom- en with malleable beauty beliefs are most vulnerable to appearance concerns, it may be beneficial to identify them early on, before societal pressures have set in. Furthermore, since implicit theories are known to be easily altered (Chiu et al., 1997), understanding their role in women’s appearance concerns may offer new opportunities for psychological interventions. In the past, interventions have been created to help people adopt a malleable view of intelligence in an attempt to im- prove academic standing (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002). In the case of beauty, a program could instead be designed to combat society’s message that beauty is malleable. It may seem counterintuitive to convince young girls there is not much they can do to improve their beauty, but anecdotal evidence suggests just such a message may be beneficial. In early 2013, Victoria’s Secret model Cameron Russell made headlines when she stated her beauty was not based on hard work but on the fact that she had “won a genetic lottery” (Russell, 2013). Many women reacted to this message by stating it was inspirational and empowering. Future research should explore if an intervention with such a fixed-beauty message would also be empowering. The present work also provides further theoretical insight into implicit theories more generally. Nearly all research on implicit theories indicates a fixed perspec- tive results in negative outcomes and a malleable perspective results in positive outcomes. Prior research also suggests a malleable perspective is associated with less anxiety than a fixed perspective (e.g., Burns & Isbell, 2007; Plaks & Stecher, 2007). However, the present studies suggest a theoretical boundary. Malleable per- spectives may be beneficial and associated with less anxiety when directed toward domains that are attainable, but may backfire when directed toward domains that are unattainable. The present studies provide one of the only known demonstra- tions that malleable beliefs can have negative consequences (see also El-Alayli & Baumgardner, 2003). This recognition that malleable beliefs are not always bet- ter may serve as a catalyst for future research that identifies when such beliefs are beneficial and when they are harmful. We therefore encourage future implicit theories researchers to “think outside the box” and consider other domains where malleable beliefs may be more maladaptive than fixed beliefs.



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