Why We Choose to Look the Way We Do

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We are perceived, objects beheld, lab specimens under a microscope. A human being is akin to a car in a showroom window. While you can drive yourself batty worrying about the opinions of those who are watching you, ignoring them completely is usually a recipe for loneliness. Equally, your own evaluations have consequences for those you observe. Sometimes you can tell a whole book by its cover, sometimes a few pages, and every so often you mistake a Donald Duck comic strip for Anna Karenina. 

When a person enters our field of vision we receive a rush of incoming data: clothing, jewelry, hair style, hair color, and portable objects (phones, purses, brief cases). We might notice what is in the mouth (gum, food, tobacco), head coverings, and exposure of skin. Aids to movement (walking sticks, bikes, wheel chairs) and facial hair are hard to miss.

Even what people are looking at is sometimes obvious. Gait, posture, and facial expressions are clear. Passersby text and talk. The physique itself is part of the visual array. Let’s not neglect eye contact, body punctures, tattoos, glasses, headphones, and backpacks.

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Individually or in combination, intentionally or not, all these create an impression. What conclusions might others draw from what they see of us? What might we surmise from what we notice of them?

  • His tribe. In other words, group affiliations such as nationality, school, sports team, and religion.
  • Whether he is a friend or a foe. 
  • Attitudes toward sexual allure and modesty. Advertising sexual availability is as simple as a bare ring finger or as obvious as a leer.
  • The transmission of fear from the terrifying one being inspected to the watcher.
  • Signs of wealth or power.
  • An attempted disguise (for example, makeup, wearing a beard to cover a weak chin or a combover).
  • Physical fitness. Attitudes toward food and diet are inferred from this. Conclusions about self-control or its absence might also occur.
  • Information about values, as reflected by religious symbols or clothing identified with a particular culture. For example, a green wrist bracelet with the words “Save Darfur” declares support of a cause. The surveyor may further conclude something about the wearer’s politics.
  • Adherence to social convention is demonstrated by unremarkable, mainstream attire. Conversely, unconventional appearance rejects those same standards.
  • The importance of clothing itself is implied if the person dresses in finery.
  • A wish for attention or for anonymity, the latter by blending into the crowd. Equally, an attempt to generate attention by those who have become “invisible” due to advancing age: a war with time fought in retreat. Past a certain age, it is harder to draw the eye of the audience. Instead, we fade into it.

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  • Encouragement of social contact from others or simple openness to such contact. (As easy to convey as a smile, a wink, or a frown).
  • A uniform (literal in the case of soldiers or those required to wear work attire; figurative, in the case of a business suit or the tuxedos sported by symphony conductors).
  • Subtle intimidation. The “power” tie of a litigator, perhaps. Or outfits chosen to minimize intimidation and reduce anxiety in the other. (Therapists are motivated to make themselves approachable. Some select casual, unostentatious clothing to accomplish this).
  • Confidence or its absence. The insecure risk transforming themselves into targets without even wearing a “kick me” sign. Their combined characteristics create a kind of metaphorical bullseye sensed by potential tormenters.
  • Other values. Perchance, a preference for comfortable clothes over expensive or impressive ones.
  • Habit (particularly true of older people who wear their hair in styles long out of fashion, or clothes unbecoming to someone past his body’s “use by” date). In effect, these people are also informing us they either don’t see themselves as they are or don’t care what the onlooker thinks.
  • Incidental information. On occasion you witness such things as whether a person is aware of his literal impact on neighbors, as when he clobbers another with his backpack or purse. Perhaps you will note how tied he is to his cell phone while at dinner with a companion, etc.

When a fellow human passes in review we instinctively size him up. We control many (but not all) of the characteristics of appearance leading to the impression we are trying to project.

It is worth knowing how people read you. Indeed, this is just as important as recognizing what self you’d like onlookers to see. Introverts often believe their shyness is obvious, when in fact they are frequently misidentified as arrogant. The failure to “join in” is interpreted as being “stuck up.”

Unless a good friend delivers difficult feedback or you have heard unflattering commentary in a therapy group or from your boss, you might not recognize your impact on others. Not even your counselor will be frank with you unless he believes it is in your interest and that you can take the pain of such a message without dissolving on his office carpet. Messy, by the way.

Not everyone works hard to manage his impression, but you leave clues whether you are making the effort or not, aware of what the impression is or not. You are a kind of walking, talking advertisement.

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Regrettably, many spend more time (and money) putting a brand on their “package” than improving what is inside it. Frequently, the person conveying characteristics required to get a job or spouse anticipates disaster when time exposes his true self. In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, no matter how velvety and enticing the dish looks.

On the other hand, some qualities are only on the surface. Attempts at finding their depth is the equivalent of fishing for tuna in a desert: they are not there to be found. If, for example, “I am beautiful” is the intended message of the one drawing your eye, there is nothing but the outside — nothing more below the surface with respect to that characteristic. And qualities like intimidation also depend on the exterior of things, at least in part. Competence, intellect, morality, and companionability are less likely to be correctly and completely inferred from how we look.

All of us, at one time or another, try to sell the product named “me.” Best, of course, if the underlying goods are worthy of the value suggested by externalities. Making it so can be a lifetime project. Do remember, however, that the object inside the gift-wrapped box needn’t be perfect to do the job.

The shine on everything wears away. The ideal is to possess something underneath more worthwhile and lasting than an alluring glow. Time is going to alter the package. Few grow up wanting to look like a 60-year-old as fast as possible.

Some of you doubt that you have much extraordinary under the surface — or any idea how to obtain such qualities as you wish were present. Yet they may already be there, in which case all you lack is confidence in what you offer.

A pleasant surprise is in store if only you can recognize what is in the package. The bubble wrap might safeguard the tender contents, but can also obscure what is protected.

Here’s hoping the container, like a box of Cracker Jack, holds a prize you want and tastes as sweet.

The gift box icon is the work of Zeus Box (kuswanto) and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

13 thoughts on “Why We Choose to Look the Way We Do

  1. Dr. Stein, the constraints that society put upon our exterior appearance can be quite suffocating; can prevent us from being the person we truly are; and stifle our potential to contribute meaningfully to our community.

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    • All true, Rosaliene. And, as a faithful follower, you know I’m not keen on caring too much about the opinions of others. Yet, we are watched, more and more. At traffic lights and by security cameras. Although literally behind us, 1984 might be only a bit ahead of us. Yikes! Thanks for your comment. By the way, you might want to investigate a major book I’m reading: “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” by Samuel Huntington. I think you’d find it provocative and enlightening.

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      • Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve added it to my To Read List (growing longer by the day).

        “Yet, we are watched, more and more. At traffic lights and by security cameras.”
        ~ So true. I’m all too aware of this. Oh, for a world without Fear!

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  2. A very interesting post, very thought provoking. The outward appearance is only part of the complete picture of who we are as a person, an important part to as you point out. I think though we can learn alot from the elderly ones in our community. I’ve been involved in nursing for twelve years now, eight years of those looking after older ones in the nursing home setting and then further as a qualified nurse. So many times in the busyness of the work routine I’ve been stopped dead in my tracks by the simple comments by these beautiful people. ‘You have such a lovely smile’ ‘you have beautiful eyes’ ‘you are a really nice person’. Its been so refreshing in alot of ways working with the elderly particularly and the sick, it has buffered the pressure that society puts on us to look thin and super model beautiful. Because when life, age or sickness strips away your control and freedom what really counts is the someone sees who you are as a person and cares about you and what you are going through. When life has taken away so much a simple but genuine smile or touch or hug can give back so much comfort and give you the strength to keep on going for another day.

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    • A lovely and essential thought, Claire. I side with the Stoics in believing we spend far too much time thinking about the opinion of others, but some attention to it is impossible to ignore without unfortunate consequences, especially when we are young. As you say, those who get to the core of what is important — kindness and decency — are to be prized at any age. Thanks for commenting, Claire.

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  3. I worried about my appearance for many years, but in retrospect, that was probably more a confidence issue Now, I try not to put too much emphasis on the outward persona, but it is so true that we do make quick judgements on how something looks. Another great post, Dr G, they always seem to compliment my therapy

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  4. Oh! and that’s a lovely comb-over you have!

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  5. I love this part, thank you so much: “Some of you doubt that you have much extraordinary under the surface — or any idea how to obtain such qualities as you wish were present. Yet they may already be there, in which case all you lack is confidence in what you offer. A pleasant surprise is in store if only you can recognize what is in the package. The bubble wrap might safeguard the tender contents, but can also obscure what is protected.” Last week in therapy I was talking about how I felt I’d ‘written off’ my relationship with my parents. Amongst other things, my therapist made the comment that my mother was missing out on a lot. Unusually for me (!) I immediately took this as a compliment – that my therapist thought relating to me was enjoyable and therefore my mother as missing out on knowing me better – and then spent the next few days until the next session talking myself out of the compliment and telling myself I’d misunderstood and that it was a general comment about how mothers like to have a relationship with their daughters and in that sense she was missing out on a ‘common’ experience. I told my therapist, who said that it was both a specific and a general comment, and made her ‘usual’ point about me not expecting good things, or people to be interested in me or want to spend time with me. I certainly doubt what is below the surface, and the qualities I see in others (my therapist, for instance) feel completely out of my grasp. It would certainly be good to have a pleasant surprise! Thank you for writing….

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    • drgeraldstein

      You were among those I thought of as I wrote this. I’m gratified that it resonated with you. Life is (really) full of surprises. If only they were all good!

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      • Thank you 🙂 At the risk of sounding ‘soppy’, it’s really nice to know I was thought of when you were writing this. Sorry, I’m particularly conscious of being ‘kept in mind’ at the moment, due to the therapy break having just started and me wondering to what extent I will be ‘kept in mind’ during that time……your post _did_ resonate and I’m sorry it took me a little while to comment!

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      • No need for apologies. You are welcome. The resonance works both ways!

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