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June 10, 2011 9:54 pm

How much should we care about our appearance?

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The Shrink

In the therapy room, rough correlations linking state of mind with state of body soon emerge. But one has to be careful, because for every client whose dishevelled looks reflect a disordered mind, there is another whose suffering is somehow hidden behind a neatly coiffed, colour-co-ordinated appearance. Getting a haircut might be the first step towards recovery for one, while progress for another might be daring to walk to the shops with no make-up on.

There is certainly something to the view that taking care of our appearance is correlated with feeling good about ourselves. But it’s not the whole story, as a 2007 study found. It showed that girls’ confidence and comfort in their own bodies was undermined by thinking of and treating it as an object of others’ desires.

The alternative position – that real beauty comes from within and that we shouldn’t worry unduly about self-presentation – also has some plausibility. It’s certainly true that when people have zest for life and are at ease with themselves others often find them more attractive. But, like it or not, we are bodies as much as minds, and a degree of interest in our appearance seems natural and acceptable.

Nevertheless, we are clearly too concerned about our looks if we allocate most of our time and resources to the care of the body, neglecting more worthwhile pursuits; or when our sense of who we are is so dependent on how we appear to others that we can’t face the world without wearing a mask.

We can also be slaves to oppressive and unrealistic ideals of beauty – the imperative to look forever young, for instance. We shouldn’t forget that no matter how many nips and tucks we indulge in, age will always have the last laugh, and we had better invest in alternative sources of satisfaction while we can.

So it’s not really a question of whether we should or shouldn’t wear lipstick, or dress in Armani suits; what matters is the meaning such self-care has for us and the role it plays in our life.

The Sage

Appearances make hypocrites of us all. Virtually everyone agrees that we shouldn’t judge people on their looks but we all do just that, whether we admit it or not. Psychologists have shown that even people who spend their lives working against prejudice are affected by stereotypes of gender, race and even forenames, which can be subtle indicators of social class.

Given how entrenched superficial judgments are, how we should present ourselves creates political as well as personal dilemmas, particularly for women. Conform to expectation and we might be complicit in perpetuating pernicious stereotypes. Defy expectation and the chances are you will pay a price, because no matter what people say, most, if not all, will treat you differently. So, admirable though it may be to resist pressure to present yourself in ways that reinforce prejudice, it seems too much to insist that people put their own self-interest on the line in an attempt to buck a system that most defiance would hardly even scratch.

We can, however, become too sanguine about the need to accept the world for what it is, rather than challenging it. Consider, for instance, the fact that many find taking care of the way they look helps boost their self-esteem. That may be true, but there are many bad things that can also do that, such as wielding excessive power over others or wallowing in the praise of sycophants. The value of looking good, like anything else, is not measured purely in terms of how it makes us feel.

On the other hand, there is a tendency for the educated to overstate the triviality of surfaces. A disdain for appearances is often taken as a mark of intellectual superiority, an ability to see further and deeper than the shallow hoi polloi. But although there is indeed more to most things than meets the eye, it doesn’t follow that all that is most real and important is hidden from view. Reality is layered, the visible no more or less real than the invisible. The wise, therefore, appreciate the truths in appearances, not just the truths behind them.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England

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