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.