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The Beguiling Truth About Beauty

Not a knockout? We all focus on our imperfections. But seeing yourself as others do casts you in the best possible light. Turns out that self-knowledge is the most important beauty secret of them all.

Don't hate yourself for wanting to be beautiful. Good-looking people get special treatment from strangers, employers and even their own mothers. The comely reap real social and economic gains in life, from broader romantic proposals to lighter punishment in criminal courts. The rest of us curse the advantages of beauty because we can never claim membership in the knockout club.

Or can we? We're not even close to objective when it comes to judging our own looks. Other people see the whole package. But when we look in the mirror, we're liable to zero in on the imperfections. That bump on your friend's nose? It's her trademark! It gives her character! But to you, that thing on your nose is downright disfiguring. Our opinion of our own looks is also capricious: We can feel like the belle of the ball at one party, but downright shabby at the next, all on the same night.

So if we can't trust our own self-appraisal, or the reassurances of friends and family, we're left to the cool judgment of strangers to satisfy our curiosity about our appearance. The Web site "Hot or Not," which lets people anonymously submit their photos for others to rate on a 10-point scale, had nearly two million daily page views within a week of launching in 2000. Not exactly the best way to bolster your self-image.

The good news: You're almost certainly hotter than you think. It's partly a matter of limited attention—everyone else is too fixated on his or her own appearance to be critical of yours. If you are particularly attentive to your body (as women tend to be), or if you feel uncomfortable in public, you are almost definitely hotter than you think. And we all have the innate ability to change how other people perceive us, without a physical transformation of any kind. When you're convinced you look good, others see you in a more favorable light. Call it an internal makeover: Understanding your own powerful self-perceptions can help you stop obsessing over your appearance—and look better.

Why is it that our self-judgments shift like weather on a spring day? Even a stroll down a street can change the way you think about your looks. Our brains have a built-in hot-or-not meter that never stops gathering data.

Psychologists call it the "contrast effect": You feel prettier around ugly people and uglier around pretty people. These social comparisons happen not only when you deliberately scrutinize passersby, but constantly and automatically. In one study, people given a subliminal glimpse of an attractive female face subsequently rated themselves as less attractive than those who saw a homely one, though no one remembered having seen the images at all. Our self-concepts are built on thousands of these comparisons.

"I'm five feet tall and I'm curvy. I feel good about how I look," says Deanna Melluso, a New York City-based makeup artist who dolls up models for magazine shoots and runway shows. "But when I'm around tall, thin women all day, I start to feel fat. As soon as I walk outside, I feel normal again—I see that I've been in a fake world."

Perhaps because their social status is often contingent upon their faces and bodies, women are particularly susceptible to this effect. "When women evaluate their physical attractiveness, they compare themselves with an idealized standard of beauty, such as a fashion model," says Richard Robins, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. "In contrast, when both men and women evaluate their intelligence, they do not compare themselves to Einstein, but rather to a more mundane standard."

In a study where people were asked to solve math problems, there was no difference in how well men and women scored—when everyone was fully dressed. But when subjects were required to perform the calculations in their bathing suits, the women suddenly fared worse than their male counterparts. They were too busy wondering how they looked to crunch numbers correctly.

Everyone judges his or her own appearance more critically when self-aware, as when giving a presentation to coworkers. But people who score high on measures of a personality trait called "public self-consciousness" feel that way all the time. We all know someone like this—a friend who never runs out of the house to grab coffee without fixing herself up first. Strangers generally consider such people to be more physically attractive than average, says William Thornton, professor of psychology at the University of Maine. But that extra personal care doesn't correct their internal funhouse mirrors: They tend to compare themselves exclusively with very good-looking people—and feel especially down after doing so.

As our faces and figures evolve during childhood and adolescence, we create a picture of ourselves that is hard to get out of our minds in adulthood, however outdated or wrong it may be. Not all people who grow up disliking their appearance were ugly children, says James Rosen, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Vermont. Some were perfectly cute as kids, but had an exceptional trait, like being very tall or heavily freckled, which drew comments and stares.

Our "internal mirrors" are often shaped by our parents, contends psychoanalyst Vivian Diller. A child whose parents tell him he's ugly will have to overcome that perception, but that's uncommon. More subtle is the effect of "the gleam in their eye," says Diller—whether parents sincerely light up at the sight of us and appreciate our individual charms.

While parental love can bolster self-esteem for some, there's no direct line between childhood experiences and adult self-image. Ugly ducklings sometimes turn into swans—or find their looks suddenly validated by committee. Donelle Ruwe, now an English professor at Northern Arizona University, grew up terribly gawky, a teen with glasses, a back brace and, yes, even headgear. But she played piano very well. At the age of 19, she'd recently shed the brace, and a pageant scout looking to improve the talent quotient in a beauty competition suggested she sign up. She did, and was crowned Miss Meridian, Iowa, of 1985.

"For the first time, I felt that I was attractive," she says. That new confidence in her looks actually made her feel freer to develop her intellect—she was quicker to assert her opinions in class and debate with others. "I think that when you are self-conscious about your body, too much of your mind and emotions are focused on it," she says. "But once you let go of that self-consciousness, you can interact without it getting in the way."

But those who are gorgeous from the get-go face their own set of potential problems. Very attractive kids may grow up to be insecure adults, especially if they were praised solely for their appearance. They may develop a particularly harsh way of assessing themselves—what Heather Patrick, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, calls "contingent self-esteem." They may feel good about their looks only if they meet a specific, and usually very high, expectation, such as weighing in at a certain number. Self-satisfaction is not on a spectrum for such people: If they don't meet their standard, they feel absolutely ugly.

Carol Alt, the former Sports Illustrated cover girl, fell victim to this phenomenon in 1995, when a fashion photographer declared her too jiggly for her bikini. After he spent a day on location attempting to hide her extra ounces of flesh behind rocks, he fired her and sent her back to Los Angeles, where she slipped into a weeks-long, Nyquil-soaked depression. "I'd feel fat and guilty anytime I ate," she says now. "I didn't feel I had control over my body, and that fragility was frustrating and even terrifying."

With looks, as in other domains of life, we relish recognition more and recover better from failure when we believe that good results come from effort and not just from what God gave us. If you are born lovely, you have only your parents' genetic contributions to thank. But if you become more attractive because you've invested energy in taking good care of yourself, the credit is all yours.

Alt says she feels better-looking now, in her mid-forties, than she ever has. The author of Eating in the Raw says that overhauling her diet made the difference. "Now I'm more complimented when someone comments on something I've worked for, such as keeping myself healthy, than when someone says, 'You're beautiful.' "

Ultimately, good looks aren't just a question of a lucky birth. In real life—outside the artificial bounds of lab tests and "hot or not" snapshots—our physical appearance is always evaluated alongside our body language, voice and temperament. Charm can trump beauty. In one study, psychologists videotaped people as they entered a room and introduced themselves to two people. They then asked strangers to rate the videotaped subjects on physical attractiveness, emotional expressiveness and social skills. All three qualities contributed to the subjects' overall likeability—but attractiveness was the least important factor.

The easiest way to influence how others view you is to demonstrate that you like them, say Ann Demarais and Valerie White, psychologists and authors of First Impressions: What You Don't Know About How Others See You. If you express interest in what others say, or smile and lightly touch their arm, they will likely feel flattered, comfortable around you and even more attracted to you. A person who finds you likeable will probably never notice your imperfections—besides, no one is as interested in your bald head or fleshy thighs as you are. Demarais and White tell of a client who suffered from the "spotlight illusion"—he imagined that people were homing in on his crooked teeth, which were his least favorite feature. Realizing that other people didn't really care about his teeth was freeing. "He experimented with smiling broadly when he met new people," they write. "When no one reacted in horror, and in fact responded positively, he began to feel at ease with his smile. When he seemed more comfortable in his own skin, he became more appealing to others."

Most of us have had the mysterious experience of watching a loved one become increasingly beautiful with time, as the relationship grows deeper. Imagine that generous gaze is upon you all the time, and you'll soon see a better reflection in others' eyes. You may not be able to turn off your inner hot-or-not meter, but you can spend less time fretting in the mirror and more time engaging with the world.