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:
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