3 Reasons Why You Look Better Than You Think You Do

Three ways to help us appreciate our own attractiveness, physical and otherwise.

Posted Jan 13, 2018

Consider the lyrics to Ed Sheeran's song "Perfect":

     "When you said you looked a mess, I whispered underneath my breath / But you heard it, darling, you look perfect tonight."

Or the lyrics to "Just the Way You Are" by Bruno Mars:

     "I know when I compliment her, she won't believe me / And it's so, it's so sad to think that she doesn't see what I see / But every time she asks me do I look okay? I say / When I see your face there's not a thing that I would change / 'Cause you're amazing just the way you are." 

How can it be that we see ourselves as less perfect and amazing than our loved ones see us? They are not just trying to make us feel better about our imperfections; we really do underestimate our own attractiveness. Researchers may recognize a contradiction in this area: Although under some circumstances we idealize ourselves, even seeing ourselves as more attractive than we actually are (Epley and Whitchurch, 2008), we still often underestimate our own appeal. Here's how:

1. Body Shape and Size

Among women, perception of our own attractiveness is strongly influenced by our body shape and size, as well as by what we perceive to be ideal body shapes and sizes. The issue of body shape and size affects women across the globe. Swami and colleagues (2010) gathered data from female participants in 26 countries encompassing 10 different global regions. They asked women to indicate the body shape they thought would be most desirable to men. Across cultures, women thought that men would prefer a thinner body size than men actually preferred. Lesbians and bisexual women also rated a heavier female figure as more attractive than a more slender figure (Cohen and Tannenbaum, 2001). Interestingly, women also thought that men preferred larger breast sizes than men actually preferred (Furnham et al., 2006); in this case, however, lesbian and bisexual women preferred larger breast sizes as well (Cohen and Tannenbaum, 2001). These results imply that both heterosexual and lesbian/bisexual women are judging themselves by harsher standards than their partners or potential partners actually desire. Although men’s body weight and shape are not as important to their appeal as women’s (see Kurzban and Weeden, 2005), men’s waist-to-chest ratio can strongly affect women's ratings of their bodily attractiveness. Women prefer men with a V-shaped torso, but this preference varies among cultures (Swami et al., 2007). For example, women from Greece desire a stronger V-shape than women from the United Kingdom.

Hrecheniuk Oleksii/Shutterstock
Source: Hrecheniuk Oleksii/Shutterstock

2. Beyond Physical Attractiveness

We may also underestimate how physically or facially attractive we appear to others. When we compare our partner's ratings of our physical attractiveness to others' perceptions, we see that our partner finds us more attractive than strangers do, and that our partner rates us as more attractive than we rate ourselves (Swami et al., 2012; Fugère et al., 2015). In this case, we seem to judge ourselves using harsher standards than our partner does. One reason that our partner may see us as more attractive than strangers do is that as we get to know each other better and respect each other more, our attraction to each other grows and deepens (Kniffin and Wilson, 2004). Another reason that our partner sees us as more attractive may be that physical/facial attractiveness is not the only way to be beautiful or sexy. For example, both men and women who perform altruistic behaviors appear more attractive to others (Moore et al., 2013), and creativity in men is linked with increased attractiveness to women (Haselton and Miller, 2006).

3. Comparison Is the Death of Joy

Mark Twain wrote that "comparison is the death of joy," and indeed, we may underestimate our own attractiveness when we compare ourselves to others. Research shows that when we see photographs of very beautiful others, we not only view ourselves as less good looking, but our self-esteem suffers as well (Cash et al., 1983; Little and Mannion, 2006). This is sometimes referred to as the contrast effect: We see ourselves as less appealing when we compare or contrast our appearance with that of others (Little and Mannion, 2006). However, the contrast effect can work in the opposite direction as well: Women who were shown photographs of unattractive women subsequently viewed themselves as better looking (Little and Mannion, 2006). Comparing ourselves to others on social media, or to celebrities, may make us temporarily insecure about our own attractiveness.

It is important to recognize the ways in which we underestimate our own attractiveness and to recognize that others also experience these doubts about their appearance. Researchers have shown that even though we tend to overestimate ourselves in some circumstances (self-enhancement), when we feel insecure about our abilities or our appearance, we fail to recognize that others share the same weaknesses (Kruger, 1999).

What would happen if we showed ourselves the same compassion and understanding that we show to our loved ones? We might start to believe Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars: We are perfect and amazing just the way we are. 

Share this post with someone you find perfect or amazing.

References

Cash, T. F., Cash, D. W., & Butters, J. W. (1983). " Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall...?" Contrast Effects and Self-Evaluations of Physical Attractiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 9(3), 351-358.

Cohen, A. B., & Tannenbaum, I. J. (2001). Lesbian and bisexual women’s judgments of the attractiveness of different body types. Journal of Sex Research, 38(3), 226–232. doi:10.1080/00224490109552091

Epley, N., & Whitchurch, E. (2008). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Enhancement in self-recognition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(9), 1159-1170.

Fugère, M. A., Cousins, A. J., & MacLaren, S. (2015). (Mis)matching in physical attractiveness and women's resistance to mate guarding. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 190-195.  

Furnham, A., Swami, V., & Shah, K. (2006). Body weight, waist-to-hip ratio and breast size correlates of ratings of attractiveness and health. Personality and Individual Differences, 41(3), 443–454. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.02.007

Haselton, M. G., & Miller, G. F. (2006). Women’s fertility across the cycle increases the short-term attractiveness of creative intelligence. Human Nature, 17(1), 50-73.

Kniffin, K. M., & Wilson, D. (2004). The effect of nonphysical traits on the perception of physical attractiveness: Three naturalistic studies. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(2), 88–101. doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(04)00006-6

Kruger, J. (1999). Lake Wobegon be gone! The" below-average effect" and the egocentric nature of comparative ability judgments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(2), 221.

Kurzban, R., & Weeden, J. (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(3), 227–244. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.012

Little, A. C., & Mannion, H. (2006). Viewing attractive or unattractive same-sex individuals changes self-rated attractiveness and face preferences in women. Animal Behaviour, 72(5), 981-987.

Moore, D., Wigby, S., English, S., Wong, S., Székely, T., & Harrison, F. (2013). Selflessness is sexy: reported helping behaviour increases desirability of men and women as long-term sexual partners. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 13(1), 182.

Swami, V., Frederick, D. A., Aavik, T., Alcalay, L., Allik, J., Anderson, D., & ... Zivcic-Becirevic, I. (2010). The attractive female body weight and female body dissatisfaction in 26 countries across 10 world regions: Results of the international body project I. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(3), 309–325. doi:10.1177/0146167209359702

Swami, V., Inamdar, S., Stieger, S., Nader, I. W., Pietschnig, J., Tran, U. S., & Voracek, M. (2012). A dark side of positive illusions? Associations between the love-is-blind bias and the experience of jealousy. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(6), 796–800. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.06.004

Swami, V., & Tovée, M. J. (2007). The relative contribution of profile body shape and weight to judgments of women's physical attractiveness in Britain and Malaysia. Body Image, 4(4), 391–396. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2007.07.002