Have you ever been startled by catching your reflection in a store mirror or window? You hadn’t realized, perhaps, that your face looks quite so stern or your hair (or roots) so gray. Try as we might to focus on people’s inner qualities, it’s difficult not to have at least some preoccupation with the way we, and others, appear.
Some individuals go so far in emphasizing their appearance as to base much of their self-esteem on how good they think they look. Individuals high in what psychologists call appearance-contingent self-worth will go to great lengths to maintain what they consider an attractive look. In a society that emphasizes appearance, it’s easy to let your feelings about looks overtake all other aspects of your self-esteem. Women are particularly vulnerable to high appearance-contingent self-worth due, some believe, to the way women's bodies and faces are objectified in the media. Such women may go to great lengths to look good, sometimes at the cost of being, or seeming, competent.
Separate from appearance-contingent self-worth is your appearance self-esteem—the feelings of satisfaction you have with the way you look. If you’re high in appearance-contingent self-worth, then your overall self-esteem will be heavily influenced by your appearance self-esteem. Otherwise, you might be perfectly content with the way you look, but this won’t matter to the way you feel about yourself as a person.
Aging presents a particular challenge for women’s appearance self-esteem because with each passing year, the media define their beauty as fading away. Cleopatra may have been able to avoid this fate, according to Shakespeare's play, in which it was said, "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” For the rest of us, though, our seeming fate is to wither away steadily—at least according to our current representations of aging women. And women high on appearance-contingent self-worth will be particularly vulnerable to the effects of aging in a society that equates youth with attractiveness.
Amy Noser and Virgil Zeigler-Hill of Oakland University in Michigan (2014) wanted to find out whether women who were most likely to objectify their bodies would, in turn, be most likely to show a positive association between appearance-contingent self-worth (thinking that appearance is important) and appearance self-esteem (feeling satisfied with one’s body). They measured objectification using three measures of what's known as the Objectified Body Consciousness Scales: Body Surveillance (“I often think about how I look”); Body Shame (“I feel ashamed of myself when I haven’t made the effort to look my best”); and Control Beliefs (“I think a person can look pretty much the way they want to if they are willing to work at it”).
The participants in the study were 465 female undergraduates, who, while not in the perhaps more critical years of middle and later adulthood, nevertheless represent a vulnerable population. When you’re developing your sense of identity in a culture that emphasizes beauty in women, the extent to which you ascribe to these beliefs can play an important role in your overall self-concept development. Women at this age are also at high risk for the disordered eating that can develop when they are trying to match society’s ideals.
Taking into account other factors, such as overall self-esteem, Body Mass Index, and age, Noser and Zeigler-Hill were able to apply complex statistical modeling to draw pathways linking appearance-contingent self-worth and appearance self-esteem. Appearance-contingent self-predicted scores on the Body Surveillance and Body Shame scales, in turn, predicted appearance self-esteem. Control Beliefs were not important influences on appearance self-esteem. The findings support the overall predictions of the study, however, showing that women who are very conscious of their body’s appearance, including its culturally-defined defects, will be most likely to suffer ill effects on their self-esteem from defining themselves in terms of their appearance.
We might imagine that the Noser and Zeigler-Hill findings explain the common reaction people (especially women) have toward their own aging. When they experience shock the first time they’re called “ma’am” or when they walk past a mirror and wonder who that middle-aged woman is, they’re showing the very effects identified in this study.
Let’s turn to practical ways that you can apply these findings to your own appearance self-esteem:
- Throw away your conventional, media-defined ideals of beauty. You’re not going to change society’s definition of beauty, but you can change your own. Don’t focus on the beauty you see in ads but, instead, to the beauty you see in the real-life people you admire.
- Define yourself in ways other than how you look. Make your self-esteem contingent on your inner, not outer qualities. Focus on what you like about your abilities, personality, relationships, and perspective on the world. These almost invariably show improvement over time and are often more changeable than facial or bodily features.
- Don’t freak out when you feel you “look bad.” The anxiety and stress you feel about how you look can take an actual toll on your face, and you’ll be more likely to display the outer signs that truly detract from a pleasant appearance.
- Smile. On a related note, assembling your features into a pleasant expression when you see people goes a long way toward giving yourself a more pleasing appearance. As corny as it sounds, people like other people who smile. Plus, according to the facial feedback hypothesis, smiling can actually improve your mood.
- Go cold turkey on the makeup. Try a day or two of being makeup-free. You may find out that you actually look better when your skin has a chance to breathe and your eyelashes aren’t weighted down by mascara.
- Wear clothing that’s actually comfortable. Along with the makeup, you can also go cold turkey on the clothes you feel you need to wear to look fashionable. You might find that, even for a couple of days, if you “let it go,” you’ll feel less fixated on keeping up with fashion and truer to yourself.
- Take a break from the mirror. Don’t break your mirrors, but take a brief respite from constantly checking them. Avoid peering surreptitiously at yourself in the rearview mirror or the store window as you pass by, as well. Instead, focus on how you feel inside.
- Focus on keeping healthy. Being concerned about your body’s shape because of how you look isn’t beneficial to your overall well-being; being concerned about how your body functions is. Engage in enough exercise and sensible eating to get in shape, but not to the point of trying to force yourself to mold to the image of a fashion model.
- Use others as a sounding board. You may think your nose is huge and your freckles are a disaster, but those who care about you may find the very features that bother you the most to be endearing. If you’re feeling that you “look funny” or “fat” today, ask your nearest and dearest. They may, surprisingly, support the idea that you don’t need all that makeup or shapewear to look like the person they love.
- Take your aging in stride. Constantly comparing yourself unfavorably to people who are years, if not decades, younger will inevitably detract from your self-esteem. Even comparing yourself to Hollywood figures who are the same age as you can lead to frustration. Most of us can’t afford the luxuries of frequent facials and spa treatments, much less plastic surgery, and no one has ever won the battle with the calendar. You will look older as you get older —but it still beats the alternative!
Overcoming years of indoctrination in our society’s views of attractiveness won’t be an easy transition. As you work your way through this list, though, eventually you should reach a point where you can define your identity in terms that allow you to gain fulfillment that lasts.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Noser, A., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2014). Investing in the ideal: Does objectified body consciousness mediate the association between appearance contingent self-worth and appearance self-esteem in women?. Body Image, 11(2), 119-125. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2013.11.006