Keeping up Appearances:Why looks matter and when they don’t
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
In a recent informal survey, I posed the question: How has your outward appearance affected your life—career, personal relationships and/or self-esteem? Both men and women responded much as I expected. To sum up: It’s what’s inside that counts.
Call me superficial, but I believe that the way we choose to present ourselves in the world can be an expression of our uniqueness, a statement of our self-value and sometimes even a clue to the prize inside. In my mind, the answer is not to deny or ignore the significance of our outward appearance, but to embrace it as a way of pointing to the kind of beauty that really matters.
I believe that attention to our outer package, can open doors and invite relationships. This is not to say that we have to wear designer clothes or look like supermodels. Even supermodels don’t look like supermodels without a horde of makeup artists, hairstylists, professional photographers and expert image manipulators. Yet we (particularly women) often react to the burden of expectation and the fear that we fail to stack up. We all want to be loved and accepted as we are, but we may worry that love and acceptance depend on our ability to meet some arbitrary standard of attractiveness.
Blessing or curse?
Survey respondents readily admitted that physical traits have, at times, mattered greatly. From playground taunts and teenage angst to romantic rejection and career challenges, confidence has been battered, egos bruised. However, there were just as many stories of how appearance challenges (e.g. wearing braces or thick glasses, being over- or underweight, having frizzy hair, a birthmark, facial moles or freckles) ultimately helped build character.
If you’re thinking that the genetically blessed have it easy, think again. Some of the most beautiful women I know are the most insecure, striving to maintain a standard they have set for themselves. Many struggle to prove themselves worthy beyond their good looks, longing to be appreciated for their intelligence, talents, kindness and sense of humor. Often the victim of jealous jabs and stereotypical labels, “the pretty girl” is frequently ostracized and/or demeaned for the external assets others may envy or attempt to imitate.
Impressions and perceptions
We may not like to admit it, but we all form instant opinions based on what we see. We are genetically programmed to size each other up. Whether you are meeting a potential employer, employee, friend or date, within the first few seconds, brains have made a thousand computations.
Citing a series of recent studies, presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual conference in Austin, Texas, Dr. Vivian Zayas of Cornell University points out that appearance affects everything from whether we end up liking someone to our assessment of their sexual orientation or trustworthiness. “Despite the well-known idiom to ‘not judge a book by its cover,’ present research shows that judgments about the cover are good proxies for judgments about the book—even after reading it,” she said.
“I would love to think everyone we meet takes the time to see our inner beauty. That, unfortunately, is not how our world works,” said survey participant and interior designer Pam Minter, of Winston-Salem, N.C. “I do, however, think that confidence, kindness and empathy show clearly as we are engaged in conversation. I also believe if you show you care about your outward appearance, it shows you respect yourself.”
“There is something I call ‘countenance’ that impresses me about another—how they hold themselves and whether they seem to exhibit ‘there you are’ rather than ‘here I am,’” said local survey respondent Elisabeth Nantz. “I remember a woman I saw in the grocery store years ago and thinking to myself, ‘I want to look like that when I get older.’ She was dressed simply, little makeup and hair in a bun; she was elegant and reeked of confidence. She didn’t need the ‘trappings’ to feel good about herself.”
Minneapolis-based Lindsey Hopkins, associate designer for Target Corporation and owner and creative director of The Lindsey Hopkins Collection, reminds us that perceptions may vary, and how we present ourselves can either attract or repel. “Perhaps because of my career in fashion, how people choose to style themselves or what they choose to change or emphasize about their looks through their clothes, makeup, accessories, etc. influences my first impression of them more than the features they were born with,” she said. “People make personal stylistic choices with the intention of conveying a particular image, or impression, and those choices have different connotations to different people. For instance, an artificially dark tan on a naturally fair skinned person may convey health and exuberance to some and superficiality to others.”
But is it possible that this can work in reverse? Maybe the bigger question is not whether looks matter, but how accurately what we see in the mirror reflects who we are.
Local fitness instructor Lindy Bison believes self-perception is key. “I think it all comes from inside you,” she said. “Because one day you feel beautiful and thin and the next day, even when nothing has really changed, you feel fat and ugly. I think your perception of yourself, of others, of the world all comes from what is going on inside of you. I believe your life reflects what you are feeling on the inside; and if you want the outside to change, whether it’s appearance or others’ perceptions of your appearance, you need to change the inside first.”
Realtor Karen Clark of State College, Pennsylvania agrees. “How you view your looks matters and how you think others view your looks; but only you have to power to allow that perception to influence your life. I also believe you can form opinions, right or wrong, on first impressions. Looks matter, but it’s what you do with the information that is most important,” she said.
The business side of beauty
While you can’t stop people from making snap judgments, you can understand how to make those decisions work in your favor. Patti Johnson, CEO of consulting firm PeopleResults, said, “I find that this question of personal appearance is a double-edged sword for women—if women are too attractive, it can work against them and they are sometimes not taken seriously. But women who are attractive (as long as not too much) do have an edge in my experience.”
Raquel A. Castillo, media director at Growthink, added, “It’s more than just physical appearance. It’s about looking the part. I say dress and act for the job you want”—advice that holds true for both men and women in the workplace.
Still, some choose to rebel against society’s notion of ideal, refusing to skinny down, wear power suits, hide their tattoos, get face lifts or take other measures to impress the boss or advance their careers. Some take a “watch me” attitude, and many strike out on their own.
According to Charlotte, North Carolina-based entertainer Christopher Hannibal, he was told for years (and still hears it today) that he would never be successful without losing weight.
Over the course of his 20-year career, Hannibal has thus far defied his critics by winning local and national notoriety for his close-up magic, storytelling and unique inspirational theatre. He has been recognized by the International Brotherhood of Magicians and invited to compete in the World Championships of Magic, representing North America. Most recently, he was named Entertainer of the Year in his hometown. Clearly, his talent is far greater than his girth.
Local investment advisor, Kent Thune, president, owner and founder of Atlantic Capital Investments, LLC, is bucking the system when it comes to his manner of dress. “For me, personally, the clothes don’t make the person. But to the world, looks do matter,” he said.
“With regard to my career (money manager), I imagine I might have more clients if I walked around in a suit and tie and a Rolex watch. But I would not feel like myself. I also have no interest in attracting clients who care more about my appearance than who I am.”
However well we accomplish the balance of inner and outer attractiveness, the outward is destined to fade. I am reminded of my 94-year-old mother-in-law—a real looker in her day and a woman who has always taken pride in her appearance. Now living in a nursing care facility and no longer in full control of her daily grooming and dress, when she glances at her reflection before heading to the dining room, it’s apparent that she still cares about her appearance. In spite of the ravages of time, her pale blue eyes convey a beauty that age can’t steal.
For those of us still fighting the unrelenting “ageless beauty” battle, it’s a war we cannot win. It becomes a question of how much time, energy and money we choose (or have) to devote to looking our best along the way.
For me, investing in my personal appearance instills a sense of confidence that I might not have should I stop exercising, coloring my hair, dressing up or wearing makeup. But more than that, I hope my investment says something to the people I encounter throughout the day. Each time I walk out the door, it is my intention to invite you to know me. If you are turned off by my sparkly eyeshadow, please look past it and see the twinkle of kindness in my eyes. If my bright lipstick offends you, look behind it and notice the welcoming smile.
Maybe you’re distracted by my dangly earrings, but they adorn ears that can hear your pain, hold your secrets and share your joy. If my clothing seems pretentious, come closer and let me share my vulnerable side….
Or, just call me superficial.