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Can Appearance Investment Contribute to Positive Body Image?

How much is too much when it comes to caring about your appearance?

Key points

  • Cultural messages suggest the importance of investing in our appearances.
  • The body positivity movement emphasizes self-acceptance.
  • It is possible to care about your appearance and have a positive body image.
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

What does it mean to be body positive?

Does it mean never worrying about your appearance and not making an effort to alter it?

Does it mean hopping out of bed each morning feeling fabulous about how you look and life in general?

With both academics and activists investing more time and effort toward understanding and promoting positive body image in the last decade, messages about body positivity have gone mainstream. And as with most messages that reach a wide audience, there are inconsistencies and even contradictory ideas available about what constitutes positive body image.

Some have interpreted body positivity to mean a degree of confidence in one’s appearance that makes the investment of time, energy, or money into appearance-related matters unnecessary, but most people who are body positive still follow at least some conventions. Clothing and hair styles change, for example, and the majority of us keep up with these to varying degrees.

Basic grooming practices and appropriate work attire, whatever that may be given the pandemic, are somewhat expected in most social settings and workplaces. Some of this is a matter of hygiene, while some may symbolize respect for institutions, organizations, colleagues, or clients. Showing up to work wearing pajamas and sporting a disheveled head of hair may lead coworkers to question your mental health.

In 2020, the beauty and personal care industry was valued at 93.1 billion dollars in the U.S. According to the same source, this is more than the federal education market is valued at in the U.S. This makes it difficult not to wonder if appearance investment, or the time, mental space, and resources dedicated to altering our appearances, has gone too far, and if it does, in fact, undermine body positivity.

It is valuable to consider whether your appearance investment is adaptive and contributing to a positive body image or possibly detracting from your pursuit of body positivity. There are a few different questions that may help to guide your evaluation of your appearance investment.

  1. Why are you spending time, energy, or money on these practices?
  2. For whom do you invest in your appearance? Is this something you do for yourself or because you feel obliged to please a parent, partner, or others in your life?
  3. What do you expect to achieve by investing in your appearance?

In terms of the why, some body image scientists have suggested that beauty practices may be viewed as a choice. They maintain that deciding how to treat your body — i.e., body autonomy — is empowering. Some common, safe appearance-related practices no doubt result in a morale boost. Selecting flattering clothing or styling your hair may impart a degree of confidence that makes interactions with others more pleasurable and results in flattering attention from others. However, some experts, such as Renee Engeln, have warned that “beauty sickness” results when the attention devoted to appearance investment detracts from investments in other important areas of your life. They argue that relationships with others, health behaviors, and professional pursuits should garner more attention than appearance related practices.

Regarding the question of for whom we invest in our appearance, there is debate among scholars as to whether we can truly invest in our appearance for ourself, given the social pressure we all face. Feminist scholars remind us that women are expected to adopt beauty rituals but in doing so do not tend to attain social status or respect but may actually reinforce oppressive gender roles. There are, however, more positive conceptualizations of the social context of appearance investment. For example, in Korea, the word “yewi” refers to appearance investment practices as a sign of respect for yourself and others. In other words, appearance investment is conceptualized as adaptive and expected. Yewi is a form of etiquette related to social status, with more appearance practices expected of those with higher status.

In terms of our expected consequences of appearance investment, it’s not uncommon for us to expect that a new haircut, brand name clothes, or even cosmetic surgery will improve not only our body image but our relationships with others, job prospects, and quality of life. My own studies and my review of others’ research indicates that although cosmetic surgery may improve satisfaction with a particular body part, long-term improvements in body or life satisfaction are not typically realized. Further, recent research has identified a cosmetic surgery paradox, whereas beauty ideals seem to encourage the pursuit of surgery and yet natural beauty is valued over artificial beauty.

Perhaps, this third question is best examined through the consideration of additional questions.

Have your appearance practices brought you joy, comfort, or relaxation? In contrast, have they brought you anxiety, stress, or financial hardship? Has the pursuit of beauty ideals felt like self-care or has it felt like oppression?

Although there is both theoretical scholarship and empirical investigations that hint at answers, there is no simple answer to the question, “Can appearance investment contribute to a positive body image?” It seems likely that no two individuals will have the exact same answer, but that while some appearance investment is likely to be adaptive, both underinvestment and overinvestment may move you farther from authentic body positivity.

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