Why Do We Care About How We Look?

We all care about our appearance to some extent. It’s completely normal. It feels good to receive a compliment on our appearance, so of course we’re going to take note of that. It doesn’t make you vain or self-absorbed, it just makes you a normal human being. Unfortunately, caring too much can often make us feel bad if we feel like we are not matching up to expectations, whether they come from ourselves or from other people.


Believe it or not, there was once a time in your life when you didn’t care about how you look. We are not born thinking about our physiques each day. Can you imagine not even having a sense of your appearance? This is something that gradually develops over time, beginning in childhood.


There are a number of factors that contribute to the development of our body image. These factors can be divided into two basic categories:

  1. The historical influences from your past affect how you came to view your appearance in the ways that you do.

  2. The current influences are the events and experiences in everyday life that determine how you think, feel, and react to your looks.

[1]


Cultural socialisation, interpersonal experiences, physical characteristics, personality traits… all of these factors come together to shape the perceptions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings we have about our physical appearance. These attitudes include not only how satisfied or dissatisfied we are with our looks but also how important our physical appearance is for defining who we are and who we want to be.


If you grow up with a parent who consistently complains about his or her appearance, you may learn that looks can be something to worry about. If you discuss weight and dieting often with your friends, you may adopt the social expectation that one is supposed to complain about being too fat. If you have perfectionist tendencies, you may feel the need to present yourself to other people, in actions and appearance, as exemplary and flawless.

Our ideal of beauty also depends on the culture in which we grow up in. Society dictates social values, including those of physical attractiveness. Typically women are told to be thinner and men are expected to be more muscular. Societal ideals of physical attractiveness are often extreme, manipulated, or above-average outliers are portrayed as the norm.

Societal norms also change over time. Just consider this portrait that was painted by Rubens in the 1600’s.

Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisboa.


There once was a time when this look was considered the epitome of pure, jovial beauty. The black satin dress, large fan and broad-brimmed hat (decorated with ostrich feathers no less) was in vogue among the bourgeoisie of the era. Sobriety and sumptuousness was the epitome of attraction. Imagine the looks you’d get if you dressed this way now!

Physical ideals change over time too. In recent years we have seen the rise of fitness advertising [2] and the objectification of female athletes [3]. Rather than wanting to be thin, more women are striving for the ‘muscular and lean’ look [4]. Internalising these ideals can lead to heightened negative thoughts and mood, which can lead to exercising for weight and appearance reasons, rather than for health, fitness, or social reasons [5]. Men are also affected by media ideals, and they’re catching up with women in levels of body dissatisfaction [6].

We naturally engage in mental comparisons with the people around us, across many different domains, without even realising it. These evaluations can impact our motivations, feelings, and consequently, our behaviour. This doesn’t have to be problematic in and of itself - it’s great to look to others for motivation and inspiration. The issue is that these natural human tendencies have been exploited by our modern environment and physique comparisons make us feel worse more often than not.

Remember that these societal ideals only affect you if you buy into them. You don’t have to pressure yourself to live up to extremes. We can certainly work on our physiques but remember that we are the ones who determine our own self-worth.

If you wish to be less concerned with your appearance, it can help to understand where these concerns come from in the first place. You might like to reflect on the influential events and experiences that have occurred at different periods of your life, such as childhood, adulthood and recent years. This will help you to understand your own history, before you focus on the here and now. Remember that it’s totally normal to be concerned about how you look, but it doesn’t have to get in the way of living your life.

How your body appears on the outside does not have to determine how you feel on the inside.

[1] Cash, T. F. (2008) The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks (2nd ed). New Harbinger Publications.

[2] Yoon, S., Choi, Y. Determinants of successful sports advertisements: The effects of advertisement type, product type and sports model. J Brand Manag 12, 191–205 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.bm.2540215

[3] Dafferner, MacKenzie & Campagna, Jenna & Rodgers, Rachel. (2019). Making gains: Hypermuscularity and objectification of male and female Olympic athletes in Sports Illustrated across 60 years. Body Image. 29. 156-160. 10.1016/j.bodyim.2019.04.001.

[4] Bozsik, F., Whisenhunt, B.L., Hudson, D.L. et al. Thin Is In? Think Again: The Rising Importance of Muscularity in the Thin Ideal Female Body. Sex Roles 79, 609–615 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0886-0

[5] Courtney C. Simpson & Suzanne E. Mazzeo (2017) Skinny Is Not Enough: A Content Analysis of Fitspiration on Pinterest, Health Communication, 32:5, 560-567, DOI: 10.1080/10410236.2016.1140273

[6] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/millions-men-uk-affected-body-image-issues-mental-health-foundation-survey


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