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First Impressions

First Impressions Can Be Lasting Ones

Sometimes "what's inside" isn't all that counts.

When we think back to when we first saw Jennifer Aniston on Friends, many of us recall her amazing locks. With George Clooney, it's his bedroom eyes. When we picture Angelina Jolie, it's her signature smile.

Sure, these are celebs whose lives revolve around their looks, but for the rest of us in everyday life, it's worth noting that a first glance at a person's face often leaves a lasting impression. It's not only common sense -- our eyes settle on features that are directly in line with our gaze -- but science and culture that support this finding. Facial features are most often used to describe the people we meet; "she's blond and blue eyed," or "he's dark and bearded." Head shots are used not only for casting actors and on dating sites, but in line-ups to identify criminals and for security on credit cards. Facial features are more often remembered following initial interactions than people's bodies or even their personality traits.

So what does someone's eyes, nose, smile, skin or hair typically tell us about them? As a psychologist who studies the role of beauty in contemporary culture, I've gathered some common conclusions people make from the features of our faces.

Eyes: The physical feature that is remembered most clearly following initial interactions are our eyes -- especially their color. Eyes that are bright and open send a message of curiosity, the desire to get to know someone and let others know you. When people avert their eyes, we tend to see them as uncomfortable and insecure with themselves. Partially closed, narrowing or darting eyes can communicate shiftiness, insincerity and a lack of warmth. Remember, eyes are viewed as 'the window into the soul' -- engage with them and you appear confident inviting others inside.

Smile: A person's smile is the feature that elicits the most immediate and positive reaction from others, like "she seems happy," or "he looks friendly." People who have a spontaneous and natural smile or whose lips instinctively turn upwards when their face is at rest tend to send an inviting message to others. It says, "come join me, talk to me." But not all smiles mean the same thing. A stiff deliberate smile can imply that a person is simply being polite. A forced smile, especially when accompanied by averting eyes, can communicate a lack of authenticity. An unsmiling face can say, "I'm not interested." A frown says, "go away."

Skin: Soft, clear skin is often associated with youth, beauty and health. It's why advertisers talk about achieving a perfect smooth look that only airbrushing and photoshop can attain. While perfection isn't possible --- even for the models that promote it -- presenting your face with good hygiene is. A fresh face can send the message that you take good care of yourself. It says, "come close to me, cheek to cheek." No one can have baby skin forever, but remember that glowing freshness implies health and that's a positive impression you can achieve.

Hair: While many of our other facial features cannot be altered easily -- at least not without surgical measures or at great expense -- your hair can. It can be cut short, kept long, colored, highlighted, streaked, curled or straightened. It can be made to look silky smooth and carefully coiffed, or left unkempt, wild and dirty. As a result, how you present your hair tells others a lot about your character; are you playful, serious, sensual, rigid, risky or conservative? Styling your hair in a way that is in sync with your personality, gives you an opportunity to create the kind of impression you want others to have of you.

Eyebrows and Facial Hair: Thick, thin, plucked, waxed, wiry, penciled-in, uni-brow -- these are all ways people wear their brows that give different first impressions. Those who spend time getting their brows in perfect shape tend to come across as more controlling, not only about their appearance, but about their life in general. People who let their brows grow naturally are not necessarily out of control, but often come across as more relaxed. So it is with facial hair. Scruffiness implies a less stressed life, a more relaxed approach to oneself and others. Beards and mustaches in general are associated with masculinity and virility. Likewise, smooth, hairless faces are associated with femininity.

Teeth: Like clear smooth skin, clean, white teeth are associated with general overall health. While we may not all have dazzling straight pearly whites (although braces and whiteners are more popular than ever), having good oral hygiene goes along with the positive impact that a great smile brings. Severely crooked or yellowing teeth can imply you are a smoker or heavy drinker. Mottled teeth can reflect certain illnesses, poor nutrition or an eating disorder. Fresh and bright teeth generally suggest that you are someone with a healthy lifestyle and good grooming habits.

Nose, Chin and Ears: These are the facial features most of us learn to live with whether we like them or not. Outside of plastic surgery, efforts using makeup, cleansers, treatments, etc. do little to change or enhance them. As a result, it's more about your attitude toward these features that contributes to first impressions. A prominent nose can be worn with pride. A pronounced chin can suggest confidence. Wearing a hairstyle that distracts attention from big ears -- or adorning them with great earrings to achieve the opposite effect -- are ways people deal positively with these features.

While there are no clear statistics available on how often first impressions turn out to be lasting ones, I would guess the number would actually be pretty high. Surely "it's what's inside that counts" and what matters most lies behind those eyes, that smile and all these facial features, but it's these very surface ones that often register first.

Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.

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