Walk through any shopping mall in the world, and you’ll be bombarded by images of the look that you “could,” if not “should” have instead of the one you own now. Retailers from Sephora to Victoria’s Secret know how to penetrate your pocketbook by convincing you that by buying their products, you’ll become as glamorous and sexy as the models flashing their faces and bodies all over the walls of their stores. However, you don’t even have to go into the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of these image-conscious enterprises. Online ads push the very same products, often with the advantage of catching you at weak moments when it’s late at night and you’re feeling tired, vulnerable and, perhaps lonely.

If consumers didn’t react to these over-the-top marketing campaigns then those campaigns would go away on their own. However, through a combination of pervasive cultural influences and the rise of image-oriented social media, we’ve become more sensitive than ever to the way we appear to others. You may not have a posse of paparazzi following you everywhere, ready to catch you without makeup or in your everyday sweats, but someone in your social group may at any moment capture you for posterity with a video or photo instantly posted online for all to see, and potentially laugh at.

With the possibility that you could be photographed at almost any time, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll seek ways to maximize your looks, if only to maintain your popularity and protect yourself against ridicule. Both men and women can fall prey to an obsession with body image, clothing, hair, and facial features.  Women seem to be more at risk, however, due in large part to an inheritance of cultural traditions of romantic relationships in which men do the picking and women wait to be picked. 

The standards of beauty that once dominated people’s choice of a romantic partner have now taken hold in many other social spheres. In particular, the office is now a place in which the way you look, especially for a woman, becomes the basis for the way you’re judged. It’s possible that movies and television are partially responsible for this shift. In fictional depictions of the workplace, everyone from female factory workers to politicians are perfectly coiffed, manicured, and polished.  The script may contain gutsy dialog from a female character, but her eyes and hair suggest she’s just as interested in jumping into bed as she is in getting to the top of her career ladder.

You might say that this is harmless enough and that, indeed, humans have throughout history invested in bodily beautification and decorations. You might also regard putting time and effort into your appearance to be a form of creative expression.  The problem isn’t that we primp, but that some of us primp to the detriment of other aspects of our performance. Furthermore, according to a Forbes column by Lisa Endlich Heffernan, women who focus excessively on their appearance only end up feeling less self-confident and effective. An undue emphasis on your appearance can cause you – and the people around you- to judge you as less competent, particularly if you play up your sexuality

Unfortunately, there's a vicious cycle in which the more attractive a woman appears, the more likely she is to be regarded as a sexual object (“objectified”) and the worse she ends up feeling about herself. In a 2013 study headed by University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychologist Sarah Gervais, both women and men were more likely to focus their attention on women’s chests and waists when told to rate images of women on the basis of their attractiveness rather than their personalities. However, men were more likely to use these “objectifying gazes” at first glance, especially when the women in the images had voluptuous figures. Here's the problem: When she’s objectified, a woman is more likely to experience anxiety about her physique but also more likely to try to suppress her emotions. She’s also likely to experience decreased cognitive abilities. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, when a woman feels that she’s being evaluated for her appearance, she worries about how she could look, rather than do, better at her job. She also expends emotional energy trying to rid herself of these thoughts.

Thinking about your appearance takes up valuable mental bandwidth that you could more profitably spend on thinking about your competence.  When you’re preoccupied with how you look, your focus shifts from how well you’re doing, and your performance will invariably suffer. Whether it’s putting on a show for your boss or getting jobs done around the house, if you are busy thinking about your hair, makeup, body shape, or clothing, your attention will drift away from the matter at hand.

The problem of objectification particularly affects women as they get older. In a 2008 paper, Canadian researchers Laura Hurd Clarke and Meredith Griffen talk about the emotional strains of “beauty work” that women feel they must engage in as they get older.  You know the drill: hair dye, cosmetic disguises and beauty creams and, in more extreme cases, plastic surgery on the face and body. The older you appear, especially if you’re a woman, the more “invisible” you are to others. People are much less likely to pay as much attention to the older woman as they do to her youthful counterpart, especially in the workplace.  The only way to keep yourself from fading into the background, according to this view, is to put as fresh and youthful a face forward as you can. In a sample of 44 women ages 50 and older, Clarke and Griffen found that over half used hair dye, three-quarters used makeup, and approximately 15% had used one or more cosmetic or surgical procedures ranging from laser hair removal to injectable fillers and Botox®.

You might regard these statistics as relatively innocuous and, indeed, the majority did not engage in extreme measures to combat their own physical aging. However, it was the reasons they gave for their actions that’s more concerning. Almost all of the women in the sample felt they needed to keep up their youthful appearance in order to remain socially valued. “Mirror, mirror on the wall” tells the older woman that she needs to slow down or reverse the aging process in order to be able to feel good about herself.

With all this mental (and physical) work going into maintaining a youthful appearance, aging women subject themselves to the double whammy of ageism + sexism. Now all those self-doubts that follow your being objectified only become more crippling as you realize that you’re being objectified negatively. You feel that if anyone looks at you at all, they’re judging you critically. The self-doubts you have about your abilities only intensify and, in fact, can further exacerbate any cognitive strains due to aging, normal everyday stress, and the pressure of needing to keep up with younger colleagues, friends, and family members.

How can you avoid getting caught in these binds? You might expect the answer to follow here is to go completely au naturel and demand to be accepted on your own terms, flaws and all. For some of us, that might be liberating and self-affirming. However, you might be one of those people who truly enjoys a bit of primping and feels better and more polished when you’ve done so. The take-home message is that the need to appeal doesn’t have to take over your life. Understand your own motivations, allow yourself to feel in control of your decisions to prep or not, and keep your mind focused on your work rather than your appearance. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but your inner beauty is in your own mind’s eye.

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 

Clarke, L. H., & Griffin, M. (2008). Visible and invisible ageing: Beauty work as a response to ageism. Ageing & Society, 28, 653-674. doi: 10.1017/s0144686x07007003

Gervais, S. J., Holland, A. M., & Dodd, M. D. (2013). My eyes are up here: The nature of the objectifying gaze toward women. Sex Roles. doi: 10.1007/s11199-013-0316-x

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