Appearance, part 6: appearance, obligation, and worth

In my last two appearance series posts, I talked about how society compels people to look a certain way based on their sex. In this post, I want to discuss the sense of obligation regarding appearance more generally.

When people are out in public, we expect them to have their looks up to a certain standard. (This can also hold true when it comes to more private settings; one of the most harmful ideas I’ve seen about the obligation to look a certain way is something promoted in some conservative Christian circles, which is the idea that a woman must keep herself attractive for her husband, and that if she “lets herself go” physically, she’s partially to blame if he cheats on her.) I’m not just an observer of this phenomenon but have thought this way myself; despite not prioritizing my appearance particularly highly, I’ve still caught myself feeling that I, and other people, need to look a certain way when we go out.

It’s like we owe other people something when it comes to our looks—cleanliness, neatness, a certain level of stylishness. That it’s framed as an obligation is evident from the wording we use when policing the appearances of others. Just the other day, I thought about a character on a TV show, “He needs to do something about his neck beard.” To someone with unruly hair, we say, “You need to get a haircut.” Appearance is something we feel very free to judge other people on, and we also feel very free to be vocal about those judgments in the form of mandates. When you tell someone they “need” to do something with their looks, you’re saying, “I think you look bad; thus you should change your appearance.” We put our own opinions above those of the person who the body in question actually belongs to.

The ubiquity of appearance-based judgments may be one reason looking good is so important to a lot of people. When you go out, you make sure you look okay, and that the other people with you do as well—think about parents making sure their kids are wearing clean, matching clothes—because (we think) your appearance reflects on you as a person. We make assumptions about all sorts of things based on someone’s appearance (assumptions that are sometimes just going to be wrong)—age, sexual orientation, class, even personality traits like intelligence and friendliness. These assumptions aren’t necessarily conscious, but to some extent we’re judging people’s worth based on what they look like. So if you look good enough (according to whatever the current standards are—what considered to look good and what’s in style is always changing!), you can protect yourself from that. These ideas were touched on in a comment by morgaine has won on my first appearance post.

This appearance-based valuation leads people to feel embarrassment or shame over things that are perceived as flaws in their appearance, such as acne, scars, or a deformity, even when it’s not anything they have control over. You can escape mockery for wearing a stained shirt by changing clothes. But if it’s having a lazy eye that you’re being ridiculed for, there’s nothing you can do about it. Criticizing someone for the choices they’ve made regarding their looks is one thing; the critic is saying, “You have bad taste” or “You don’t take care with your appearance.” But being condemned for having a physical flaw that you obviously didn’t choose and would get rid of if you could hurts on a deeper level, because in that instance what the critic is saying is, “Something is wrong with you.”

As an example almost everyone can relate to, and one that’s kind of in between the two I just talked about, think about those times when, hours after you’ve last eaten, you find that you’ve been walking around with food in your teeth. You think back to everyone you interacted with and wonder what they were thinking about you (and why they didn’t say something!), and feel humiliated. But why should you be embarrassed  about that? It’s not your fault that you didn’t know; you aren’t obligated to check your face in the mirror after every meal. And yet, you do feel embarrassed, and if you see a stranger with food in their teeth or spilled on their clothes or any other sort of imperfection in their appearance that they don’t seem to be aware of but would fix if they knew, you feel embarrassed for them, because people are going to be judging.

Years ago, my sister and another girl I knew did this thing (spurred by a Sunday school discussion of beauty) where they didn’t look in the mirror for a whole month. I couldn’t understand it at all, and definitely couldn’t imagine doing it myself. How would I know if my hair looked okay? How would I know if I had a patch of peeling dry skin on my face? I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t stand that thought. Looking good, or at least not looking bad, was a way to protect myself from the perceived judgment of other people, and being without that protection, which is what the result of avoiding mirrors would be, would leave me vulnerable.

But now that I’m able to see that social acceptance isn’t the ultimate goal anyone should be striving for, and that our ideas of what is and isn’t socially acceptable can be problematic, I see the value in the mirror experiment (especially for women, whose appearances are over-valued and over-criticized). Purposely staying away from mirrors for a month, although still not something I plan to do (since I still have a level of anxiety around my appearance, and knowing how I look helps alleviate it), is a way to send a strong message to other people and remind yourself that how you look isn’t the most important thing about you.

I’ve had times when I’ve had to interact with strangers at a store or the office where I used to work while feeling like I looked ugly. At those times I was very aware of my appearance—specifically the fact that I didn’t look good—and almost expected to be treated coldly because of it. So when I was smiled at by the strangers and not treated any differently than I was at times when I felt I looked okay, I was surprised and grateful. These incidents have been a good reminder that we don’t have to base our entire judgment of another person just on what they look like, and that other people aren’t necessarily always doing that to me or each other (they also make me think that other people probably aren’t critiquing me as harshly as I do to myself). But I shouldn’t have to feel grateful to someone for treating me decently. You aren’t worth less than other people if you don’t look as good as them. You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to change clothes or put on makeup before a trip to the grocery store. You shouldn’t have to fear being judged because of how you look. We don’t owe other people anything in regards to our appearance. Everyone deserves respect and decent treatment no matter what they look like.

9 thoughts on “Appearance, part 6: appearance, obligation, and worth

  1. Aqua January 13, 2015 / 6:42 am

    One of the things that surprised me learning about conservative and fundamentalist Christian circles is how much they emphasize appearances. At face-value, I expected them to not emphasize appearances, because of all the talk of “modesty”, yet from the writings of some of the leaders in the conservative and fundamentalist circles, women who were seen as too modest, were said to be “doomed to be single forever”.

    The idea of “modesty” while still looking good, that women are pressured into, effectively means just naturally looking conventionally attractive, because any effort to style her hair, or use makeup is dismissed as being “vain” and “worldly”. Yet, when married, she’s pressured to look the way her husband wants to, under the belief that he’ll cheat when he finds someone more attractive to her.

    How does that encourage a marriage to last? It’s insulting to men and women alike. It’s saying that the wife’s appearance is the only reason for fidelity in the marriage, not things like commitment and trust!

    I often don’t care about my appearance that much, but I still feel pressured to style my hair to avoid being judged. That exercise of not looking in the mirror for a month, may have been intended as an exercise against vanity, but it’s very difficult in a society that polices people’s appearances, with no regard to why someone looks the way that they do!


    • cinderace January 13, 2015 / 1:42 pm

      The whole idea of modesty fits well into this discussion—the idea that women must dress in a certain way, either to help men out (as it’s most mildly framed), or because if they don’t they’ll be responsible for the men’s sin (as it’s framed most extremely). But yeah, then women also have this duty to be attractive… It’s like the conflicting, opposite ideas about sex present in Christian culture too—women (and men too to some extent) should be chaste virgins without any sexual thoughts before they’re married, but after marriage you’re supposed to have lots of amazing sex because sex is a gift from God and something you owe to your spouse.

      Yeah, good point about the stay-attractive-or-else-your-husband-will-cheat thing being insulting to both parties. Just like with the idea of modesty, it’s like men can’t control themselves and aren’t fully responsible for their own actions. And even more patriarchal, it’s like the wife owes her husband something in regards to her appearance, and if she isn’t providing it, the husband almost deserves to walk out and find someone better. Ugh.

      And yeah, I admire my sister and friend who did the mirror-less exercise but I can’t imagine most people (myself included) doing it. I think though that it could be translated from a vanity thing into an attempt at societal change, or at least a statement. Someone can say, “My appearance is not the most important thing about me, and society shouldn’t be so focused on appearances,” but if they were to back that up by ignoring mirrors for a period of time, that would show that they really meant it and could also possibly get other people talking and thinking about society’s attitude toward appearance. Again, I’m not going to be the one to do this and I doubt that most people would want to (and with good reason), but I like the idea in theory…


  2. morgaine has won January 18, 2015 / 1:09 pm

    You know, I find your perspective quite inspiring and healing to read. There are not that many nuanced and humane voices on the internet. (And I also find the ace-/aro-communities in general to be a very … nice place on the internet)

    In regards to obligation and worth we assign to people based on looks, I think that how we think about looks can be quite a jungle. Our (negative) attitude towards other people in that area is of course often a mirror of our treatment of ourselves, but how unravel that when we also simply /have/ certain aesthetic preferences?

    I think the answer is that those two are seperate. ‘Preference’ alone doesn’t have a tail of negativity attached that concentrates on things we /don’t/ find remarkable or pleasing.

    I think that looks are something that often serves as one of the quickest ways to construct some way of devaluing others – but I think that that is not unraveled by those counter-paroles of “everyone is beautiful”.

    We find beautiful what has meaning to us, and we should always work on an inner ease and appreciation of others as whole people – but not “everyone” will be beautiful to us.


    • morgaine has won January 18, 2015 / 1:14 pm

      Oh, and that you mentioned my input made me blush ^^ Normally I’m not aware that I provide anything useful for people … I’m just bumbling about, hoping that I’m using the internet somewhat constructively.

      Liked by 1 person

      • cinderace January 19, 2015 / 1:42 pm

        Thanks for your kind words. :) I really appreciated your comment on that other post because having someone else thoughtfully engage with my viewpoint and share their own was just what I was looking for and helped me think about the whole thing differently. I enjoy writing and presenting my own thoughts, but some things I’m just never going to see/think of unless someone else points them out, so I always appreciate when that happens. :)

        The other day I was thinking about whether the world can ever get to a place where people aren’t judged based on their appearances, and I got sad thinking it isn’t possible, because some people are always going to be naturally more beautiful than others, and I couldn’t see how that would ever not matter to at least some people or how it could not affect their attitudes toward the people they perceive as pretty vs. plain/ugly. But I like what you said about preferences; it is perfectly okay to think one person looks better than another. What’s not okay is to value the one person over the other, to think they matter more or have more of a right to exist. So maybe, in a future world, we can get to this place where we can acknowledge our preferences and there will still be some people who are generally held to be more good-looking than others, but that won’t mean that we put them above the less good-looking people in any way.

        And yeah, I think that to get there, like you said, we need to focus on each person as a whole, rather than what they look like; we need to value everyone for who they are. While people can express their personalities through their appearances in some ways, whether someone is tall or short or skinny or fat or has blond hair or brown is no reflection on their character. I wish movies would back up that idea more often by having less-than-perfect-looking heroes/heroines—being the “good guy” doesn’t have to mean looking like a model, but in so many movies it does mean exactly that. And often less conventionally good-looking actors are relegated to supporting roles, quite often the role of the villain, and I think being shown that message over and over—that to be good is to be good-looking, and to be bad-looking/disfigured/not conventionally beautiful is to be evil—takes a toll, even just subconsciously.


        • morgaine has won January 20, 2015 / 1:29 pm

          And to add to all that, the views of who’s attractive and who isn’t are something that actually doesn’t align between everyone. Mine certainly don’t. There have been people with looks that were immensely interesting and pleasing to me, where other people would just shrug and say “Now, come on ….” when I would reveal that to them.

          Diversity of looks in media is also diversity of aesthetic attraction and preference. I think it definitely can only enrich the cultural view on people as they are.

          And yeah, my train of thought is similar to yours! It can get depressing initially when thinking about how looks are judged and what’s actually the problem with it.


          • cinderace January 20, 2015 / 2:05 pm

            Yeah, definitely a good point; there will be conventionally attractive actors whose appearances other people really like, but they just don’t stand out to me personally, and the opposite has happened too. It really is unfortunate that mainstream standards of beauty are so narrow…


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