It’s Not Shallow to Care About How You Look

by | Dec 8, 2014
Photo by Pavel P.

Photo by Pavel P.

I had my first SlimFast shake when I was 11 years old and spent the next 15 years struggling my way through every diet under the sun.

Through all of high school and college I suffered from body image issues, fatigue, bad skin and thinning hair, all for a body I was embarrassed of.

If anyone knows how dangerous dieting can be for your mind, body and spirit it’s me.

At Summer Tomato my number one mission for the last five and half years has been to get people to stop dieting. Not only does it not work, it actually makes it harder to become fit and healthy.

Dieting also makes your life suck, and that is unacceptable.

I know this. But that doesn’t mean I believe you should give up on trying to look your best.

Far from it.

As strongly as I believe the word “diet” should be banished from our health lexicon, I feel equally that our bodies should be part of what makes life awesome. And that includes how we feel when we look in the mirror, and how others see us.

I’ve heard from many readers over the years who dislike this idea and have gotten angry at me for even mentioning the words “skinny” or “thigh gap.”

To be clear, I’ve never said these things should be sought after. But the mere mention of these words can trigger strong emotional reactions from some people (usually women).

The argument is invariably something like, “Don’t encourage women to care about their appearance to meet some external standard. It’s what is on the inside that makes you beautiful.”

Of course. Being thin and pretty doesn’t make you a good person and everyone is worthy of love and belonging no matter what.

But you’re delusional if you believe that your appearance doesn’t impact the quality of your life. And it doesn’t make you shallow or petty to care about it and actively strive to improve it.

There’s an avalanche of scientific data that we judge each other on appearance. First impressions are made within milliseconds, and are incredibly difficult to change.

And no, it isn’t just the insensitive jerks who do this. You do it and I do it. Babies do it.

It’s a reflex. It’s part of being human.

I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad, but to make you feel better.

It’s a huge step in the right direction to have realized that dieting is not a healthy path. Congratulations to you for that, you’re way ahead of the curve.

What I’m asking of you today is to have some compassion for the part of you that wanted to diet and look attractive. That person wasn’t crazy or shallow, that person was living in the real world where attractiveness matters.

Instead of rejecting the idea of self-improvement out of hand, let’s dig deeper into the limiting beliefs we have about appearance and health and reframe them so we get the best possible outcome.

Let’s start by dropping the judgement about whether or not appearance is important. You may think it shouldn’t matter, but it does. So let’s just call that a given and move on.

Dieting ISN’T unhealthy because you’re trying to improve your physique. That is a reasonable goal and attainable by anyone.

There’s also an excellent chance that weight loss will improve your health and quality of life.

Dieting IS unhealthy because it doesn’t work, and therefore sets you up for failure and undermines your self-confidence.

With repeated failures, you start to confuse your appearance with your self-worth. And this is extraordinarily dangerous.

If you believe that having extra fat on your body makes you a failure or unlovable, then you’ll feel disconnected from other people and unfulfilled. This is called shame.

When you feel shame you compare yourself to others, and see yourself in the worst light. It is one of the most destructive forces in the world not just because it feels horrible, but because it prevents you from taking care of yourself and being authentic.

Shame stops you from being your best self and keeps you unhappy. And dieting is bad because it perpetuates shame.

That’s the real problem.

I’m all for ditching the diet-shame perpetual motion machine, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop caring about what we look like or be completely satisfied with ourselves as we are.

You can be confident in your self-worth and still see room for improvement.

I do this every day by reading books, taking classes and actively trying to change my behaviors that aren’t aligned with my goals.

When you can get over the emotional part of it, it’s actually really fun.

Another common limiting belief around attractiveness is that it is an exclusively physical phenomenon. But it isn’t.

Positive personality traits such as openness, agreeableness and confidence are more reliable predictors of someone’s attractiveness than physical appearance.

These can be detected when people look at you, but they can also be noticed in your behavior and voice.

That’s right, people can reliably predict someone’s overall attractiveness without ever seeing them at all. It can be done over the phone.

But doesn’t this mean that appearance doesn’t actually matter?

Not exactly. Appearance is one factor in how people perceive you, but it works with other factors to make a complete picture.

More important is that every one of these factors that influence how you are seen by others can be improved with effort.

To improve your appearance you can eat better, sleep better, get exercise, have good hygiene and wear nice clothes.

You can improve your behavior and tone of voice by working on your confidence (which is also linked to appearance). You can also learn about the power of body language and people skills.

Understanding these factors and actively trying to improve them is called having a growth mindset.

When you cultivate a growth mindset you trade in limiting beliefs for expansive beliefs that enable you to achieve more with the same resources.

You gain confidence in yourself and your abilities.

You become a positive force in the lives of others.

Nothing is more attractive.

Have you ever dismissed the importance of appearance to protect yourself from being vulnerable?

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25 Responses to “It’s Not Shallow to Care About How You Look”

  1. rob says:

    It’s even worse if you are a guy, we’re not supposed to care about being attractive.

    I don’t pretend, if it comes up I just say I’m a vain person and leave it at that, what do I care what people think.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly, Darya. There is nothing shallow about being attracted to attractiveness, because it is hardwired into us through years of evolution. We tend to be attracted to people that we perceive as healthy.

    For example, people of healthy body weight are generally perceived as more attractive than anorexic or obese people. People with good symmetry are perceived as more attractive than deformed people. Young people are perceived as more attractive than old people. When we are healthy and rested, we are more attractive than when we are ill and tired. We evolved this trait so that we pass on healthy genes.

    Of course, attractiveness isn’t a perfect indicator of health, and that’s the problem. Sometimes we try to make ourselves appear more attractive by *appearing* healthier. Liposuction is a good example. It just masks an unhealthy body.

    Ideally, we would cater to our vanity by *genuinely* improving our health. We would then get a double bonus.

    • La says:

      Excellent points, Mark (and Darya). When I lost a lot of weight (80 pounds) and became more attractive (by society’s standards) I initially got really angry about the fact that people treated me “better” now that I was thinner (wasn’t I the same person as before, just in a thinner body?). But what I eventually realized is that I was NOT the same person: by virtue of the fact that I had greater self-confidence, I became a more open, friendly, confident, and welcoming person (instead of being fearful, suspicious, guarded, etc.), and people acted/reacted to me differently (more positively) than they did before.
      Anything you can do to become more confident and open (whether it’s losing weight or some other thing) will have a positive effect on your relationships with other people.

      • jean says:

        La, so true. A former boss and mentor in my past changed our (small) office “dress code” to be a little sharper for that very reason. We were all salespeople who sometimes had random drop in visitors, etc. and he wanted all of us to feel our best and not be embarrassed b/c a guest popped in and we were in sweats (which had happened enough that he took notice). It really was a good change, and we all seemed a little more professional for the effort. I am happy to hear of your improved health and happiness.

  3. Dee says:

    It’s great to be attractive :-). Why fight against Barbie the polymath

    • Dee says:

      Seriously, I was taught by my parents not to value looks, sexuality and friends! Only academics… I still resent them for that, because you can have it all.
      So I let myself go over the years, and didn’t hold onto friendships and relationships… But now I know better , it’s still hard because I slip back into the bad habits that perpetuate these beliefs

  4. Firas says:

    I was with you in the beginning but the second half of this article veers into a subsuming dimension that disturbs me a bit. (The counter-factual of the argument becomes something like: if your voice is not attractive then you’re not sleeping well and therefore not a force for good in the lives of others. I know that’s not your point though.) I would conceive of it more as, pick what’s important for you. If your focus is on solving a math formula or rushing for groceries before the store closes it doesn’t matter if you look haggard (lol). If you do want to appear better looking then work on that.

    In a more abstract sense I do generally agree that a lot of what people may call ‘superficial’ (people’s looks, finances, social life) can ironically be the most relevant factors that affect their interactions with the world when other subjective things don’t hold sway. It’s a complex question overall.

  5. Thermo says:

    Is there not a limit on how much time and money you spend on your own appearance? At what point does it come at the expense of contributing energy to others or social causes? Of course as social animals, evaluating attractiveness and traits related to mate selection are central to our behavior, but it is still selfish to buy into the runaway cultural phenomenon of fretting over your appearance, which capitalism has exploited to the detriment of our own self-worth. I also find that people who fixate on their own appearance are also harsh in evaluating others, and tend to be unpleasant to be around.
    The poster above gets at the question of what are honest indicators of a “high-value” mate? Resources allow you to create unreliable signals of your worth (although the ability to acquire resources itself is a sexy trait), and this human obsession has caused great social inequity and environmental harm via embracing capitalism. Where is the balance?
    Darya, I appreciate your emphasis on valuing education, practicing healthy and mindful decision making, and working on agreeable personality traits- these are truly valuable ways to increase your self-worth that are also pro-social. I think the “Go buy some more nice clothes to influence people” strategy is on the other end of the spectrum, and is incredibly shallow, as are lists of expensive skin care products.

  6. Kelsey says:

    Interesting. I would maybe like to hear more on this topic, actually. It seems to me there’s a difference between feeling good about your own appearance and making choices you presume will make you attractive to others. And I also wonder if becoming too concerned with appearance as an indicator of a person’s value could become damaging. We may be “hard wired” to make snap judgments of others based on their weight or other aspects of their appearance, but just because evolution has bred such a judgmental trait into us doesn’t mean we should lie down and take it. A lot of people’s value would go unnoticed if we wrote them off based on the way they look to us.

    In short, I think it’s good to value the self and treat your body as a temple, eating well, sleeping well, and moving well. But if the motivation to do these things comes from an external source it seems less sustainable for anyone who’s not conventionally attractive.

  7. Kate says:

    I agree! Thanks for the provocative article. It’s telling that if I lift some weights or go for a run, I think I look great after just doing it one time, even if objectively nothing has changed. If exercise improves my self confidence, I don’t care if the scale doesn’t budge (thankfully, in my case it doesn’t need to).

  8. AJ says:

    I remember the time leading up to my wedding and how many people told me that I would be a beautiful bride. I remember feeling annoyed by this idea that we live in a society where many people (even me to some degree) think and express such thoughts first. There are so many social constructs and systems that I loathe because they have led to disparities, injustices, and disempowerment. Many of them are linked to the way we look. So yes, I wholeheartedly agree with the concept you have been promoting: our appearances do not factor into our self-worth.

    And yet here I am, thinking about the way I look and sometimes using those thoughts to guide the way I eat. I am often embarrassed to admit that my eating habits are partially linked to my perception of my appearance. But no one should live in shame for having shallow or vain thoughts or attitudes. Most societies have unfortunately been built to condition people to value appearances and experience vanity to various degrees, so I don’t place the entire blame on myself or on others for caring about looks. What is worse is not addressing or discussing the role that vanity plays in our lives and behaviors (e.g. even something like glancing in the mirror before leaving the bathroom). What is even worse would the action of pretending that those things don’t even exist in one’s world.

    Darya, some of your many fine qualities are your vulnerability, honesty, and self-awareness, all of which are present in this post. Judgment doesn’t have much use in any situation including situations around people’s motivations for weight loss. What’s much more important is dialogue, understanding, compassion, honesty, and love for one’s self and others around you.

  9. Suzanne says:

    Thank you for confronting this issue! I like how you point out the link between dieting and shame. You have a mature view of self-improvement!

  10. Dave says:

    Hey, Darya.
    I have always been very active (hyper?). As a result, I burned everything I ate, and entered college at 96 pounds. I am a guy, and can (and still do) eat everything, but have had to modify due to age. I remember when my thighs actually finally touched!!! So, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum from most people that diet, but agree that appearance is crucial. Like it or not, it is fact. I have been made fun of all my life, clothes are hard to find to fit. To find pants in the correct length, it looked like I was wearing clown pants; if I got the correct waist size, then it looked as if I were wearing bell-bottom knickers.

    Take pride in how you look. Make yourself look worthwhile… In real estate it is called ‘curb appeal’. Sure, we all like presents for what is ‘inside’, but the packaging adds intrigue and excitement.

    Love yourself enough to care about your appearance. If you don’t, then why would you expect anyone else to do so?

    Thank you for having the courage to write this article. You will get nasty-grams, but you deserve kudos for your addressing this important issue.

  11. JAYE says:

    Hi Darya,
    I used to diet all the time when I was younger ( 20 something) and going through my years I also had a self esteem issue meaning I hated looking at myself in a mirror.. I’d just go with it. My eating habits were okay then , now I know my eating limits and I stop when I start feeling full. I’m a 57 year old gal ,vegetarian/vegan and very particular about what I put into my mouth. Of course being lactose- intolerant doesn’t help matters especially when my friends take me to a restaurant… ask my bf … he always says ” I can’t take you anywhere”… my meals are usually full of substitutions! I have a good body image , looking in the mirror is no longer an issue and I run and swim to stay in shape…am close to my goal weight of 125…my biggest issue these days is constantly trying to keep my pants up even with a belt on !

  12. Dana says:

    Darya, thanks for this excellent post. I’m a new image consultant, and I began my new blog with a post called “Why Image Matters.” Because like it or not, image DOES matter. How we stand, what we wear, our facial expressions, and certainly how we honor – or don’t honor – our bodies through exercise and good nutrition. Self care is an act of love, not an act of narcissism. Of course, we don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) buy into extreme vanity. But neither should we throw out the baby with the bath water. As humans, we’re mind, spirit AND body. It’s healthy to embrace and balance all three. In a field dominated by fashionistas and gaunt runway models, this won’t be an easy message for me to promote. But you’ve done an excellent job, Darya!

  13. Kim O'Brien says:

    In the study conducted with the infants, I wonder if the “unattractive” women were less confident, less happy, which made the babies prefer the more “attractive” women who were more sure of themselves, more open. I love reading scientific studies, but I’m always curious how much detail was focused on the psychological aspects of the subjects. So many levels of data that aren’t always analyzed.

    I applaud you for tackling a subject as sensitive as self worth. And I imagine you will receive some negative comments for it. Such is the way with humans – pushing back against the bad feelings by flailing against logic in any way we can.

    I agree that shame is the culprit. Shame is the thing we should be fighting against, and it’s a very common enemy, something we can all relate to combating at one time or another.

    Great message, thank you for sharing it.

  14. Inanna says:

    Attractiveness and self-worth are interesting concepts. I have been through several stages with these, connecting and disconnecting them in stages.

    As a child there was no connection, because I did not know or care about how I looked. I used my body to play and that was all. As I felt no ownership to my body I had no desire to make it attractive. I looked boring. -> Not attractive.

    As a teen the connection was absolute. I had to lose weight to feel in control, and so I lost both my attractiveness and self-worth in the process. I looked miserable, and sick. -> Not attractive.

    In ED recovery I tried to disconnect attractiveness and self-worth, but got confused and tried to disconnect attractiveness and weight. I did not try to control my weight at all, but went creative with clothes and makeup. I looked good, until I got to upper healthy range. -> Attractive, for a while.

    Now, I have explored every number in the healthy BMI-range, from 18 to 25. I have a mental image of my body at each size, and know where I look best. Having chosen my weight, instead of just letting it fluctuate, feels very right to me. Wanting to look attractive is half my motivation to stay healthy, and I think that is perfectly okay.

    My body is mine, and I want it to be healthy and gorgeous. When for some reason it does not, I feel bad about it and then about myself. I think I want it to be that way. Even if it means I make the dreaded connection between weight, attractiveness and self-worth. I think this is an interesting post, and I want to re-read and think about it some more.

    • Marissa says:

      I’m right there with you! I struggled with disordered eating for a few years
      , but for “healing ” many people say to separate your body image and personal value and just let your weight settle wherever it may. I’ve tried to do this and experienced a host of weights. When I was at my highest I was told that I shouldn’t judge my body and instead work on valuing myself for who I am “on the inside ” but the truth is it is my body, and I do feel that I have the right to have some control over my weight (and not buy a new wardrobe to accommodate all the weight changes! ) this really is an interesting topic.

  15. Enas Lanham says:

    I love what you wrote about shame and self-esteem. Shame can undermine all areas of our life.

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