To live happily, how much does your appearance really matter?

Appearance is often in the news, because it interests all of us. But though we all know it’s fun to talk about appearances, we also know it has a dark side. When journalists and scholars discuss the politics of appearance, they tend express pathological concerns. Appearance competitions, dress codes, and implicit cultural norms cause gender unfairness and female suffering. People suffer appearance anxieties and waste time and energy on associated competitions for status and attention.

For example two pieces, both by feminist journalists complaining about the appearance-related victimization (including collective auto-victimization) of women, were published in the UK this week. The first was a passionate piece on the BBC site by actress Jameela Jamil, arguing that the common practice of airbrushing photographs of women is a ‘crime against women’. She argued that it should be made illegal because it perpetuates harmful expectations about female beauty.

The second piece, by fashion journalist Hayden Freeman in The Guardian  complained about unfair disparities in women’s and men’s dress codes. Specifically, in a recent concert Ed Sheeran had felt he was ‘allowed’ to wear a humble t-shirt, whereas Beyoncé had felt ‘required’ to turn up in extreme fancy dress.

Probably in all cultures, restrictive dress codes and appearance expectations create some problems for both women and men. In modern societies today, body shame and appearance anxiety do seem to be particularly troublesome for women. And the sources of that trouble aren’t all in individuals’ minds and bodies, they are in our culture and our institutions. So can a ‘happiness lens’ help us think through some of the ethics and choices that might be involved in resolving some of these difficulties?

Thinking appreciatively about appearance

The first thing is that instead of just complaining about possible harms and injustices, a happiness lens requires a more balanced perspective that offers some scope for appreciation and positivity. Instead of simply pathologising cultural and social phenomena, it is both more realistic and constructive to appreciate positive aspects of anything being debated. People spend time on their appearance for good reasons, not just for bad reasons. Dress and appearance are important sources of interest, motivation, and enjoyment in life. Physical appearance, elaborated by dress and make-up, is an evolved biological and cultural signalling system that allows people to enjoy creativity in modifying their own appearance, and admire other people’s creativity and beauty.

Simply moaning about the nuisances and inequalities involved is pointless without trying to develop some kind of a theory or plan for making things better. A more appreciative but less judgmental approach to people’s appearance might shift us from zero-sum beauty ranking to more subtle forms of interest in people’s appearance. Most happiness scholarship and philosophy has something to say about the importance of living appreciatively, savouring the good things around us. Just as we teach appreciation of beauty in art, literature and music, why shouldn’t we also educate ourselves about the many ways of appreciating human appearance?

At the same time, some aspects of people’s appearance may matter a lot less than people believe. In a wonderfully simple piece of research published under the title it doesn’t matter what you wear’, psychological researchers showed that the genuineness of your smile has more influence on people’s evaluation of you, and of your clothing, than the influence that your clothing has on people’s evaluation of you. So there’s educative potential in helping people to recognize that their clothing choices matter less than they think, and that a cheerful demeanour may lead to greater social success than a ‘dress to impress’ approach.

Collective action on beauty culture

Secondly, recognizing that we are a highly social species whose wellbeing is to a large extent interactive and shared, we need to consider how to bring about better cultural norms and social institutions that would enable people to live more happily with their appearance. Even if it were true that only women are victims of toxic appearance-obsession (which it clearly isn’t), seeing this as just a ‘women’s issue’ is unhelpful. As with everything cultural, we’re in this together. Since men and women interact to produce these norms and institutions, a man-excluding feminist response isn’t going to be much use.

In the article on airbrushing, the solution advocated was that of restricting competition by banning airbrushing. But by the same logic, you might as well ban any kind of beautification. Why stop at airbrushing and virtual beautification when you could go upstream and ban teeth-whitening, hair-shining, make-up (which is time-consuming, anxiety-raising and deceptive), plastic surgery, and body-sculpting clothing? In fact, if you bear in mind Freeman’s complaints about time spent on make-up, you could argue that airbrushing is in some uses benign and anxiety-reducing. If what you want is a record shot of you looking your best, and you know you can rely on photoshopping, why waste so much time and nervous energy worrying about your make-up?

Still, the airbrush piece does have the merit of demanding action instead of sitting around complaining. We should indeed have conversations about what we can collectively do to reduce avoidable appearance-related suffering. Even if Jamil’s  particular answer is impractical and unnecessarily authoritarian, it makes sense to consider collective action on social dilemmas. There are limits to how much power individuals have to challenge cultural norms on their own. Getting rid of high heels and excessive make-up is analogous, in this sense, to persuading everyone to sit down at a football match – it’s a lot more likely to happen if someone in authority enforces a rule. Schools have done this pretty effectively with their dress codes. And today’s mixed-gender workplaces have much less restrictive dress codes for both women and men than was the case a generation ago.

Beyond complaint: collaborative gender reform and self-liberation

The Guardian piece on male versus female dress codes, by contrast, offers no solutions, only disparagement of men who get away with dressing casually, and anger at the unfairness of it all. Freeman’s piece is simply a complaint, arguing that even the richest and most powerful women like Beyoncé are victims of unfair dress codes. Yet if you look at the photos of the concert, Beyoncé – whom the author assumes to have spent at least four miserable hours getting made up – looks as though she’s enjoying herself. Even if it’s true that she spent four hours on her appearance, need we assume that she saw this as wasted time? Perhaps she enjoyed four hours of sociable fun with tailors and make-up artists. Evidently someone of her iconic status and power could – like Ed Sheeran (who also looks happy) – have chosen to spend literally no time on her appearance, and her audience would still have loved and admired her. If even she’s portrayed as a cultural victim, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Let’s pretend for a moment that it’s true that Beyoncé and other powerful women literally have no choice but to conform to cultural expectations that they make a huge effort on their appearance. If it’s also true (which is of course not actually the case in lots of other professions) that men are given much more freedom to dress casually. If so, from a happiness perspective what should we do about it? If the core of the problem is internalised compulsion, with women feeling pressures that men don’t feel, then one solution could be to try to change women’s minds, so that they make appearance less salient in their pursuit of a good life.

But no doubt men are co-responsible for these psychological problems. Consciously or unconsciously, men stoke appearance anxieties in their daughters, sisters, and partners. It’s hard, of course, for anyone to strike an ideal balance. Too much approval and you’re encouraging women to waste more time and money on beautification; too much disapproval or neglect, and you are provoking appearance anxieties. But it’s a reasonable guess that men could do their bit to collectively help quell unhealthy appearance competitions in women. Women and men together could try a bit harder not to make appearance quite so salient in their evaluations of the women they encounter. There seems to be scope for collective cultural action at lots of levels to bring about a kindlier culture where beauty can be appreciated and dressing up can be creatively enjoyed without millions of people spending half their lives worrying about it.

But finally, having considered legal, institutional, and more informal collective action, we must recognize the liberating potential of individual agency. Although in some countries and some institutions individuals can’t flout dress codes without being punished, in modern democratic societies individuals have far more scope than Freeman gives them credit for, just to say ‘no’ to the implicit ‘rules’ that make them spend too long modifying their appearance. There are fewer female role models who don’t dress fancy, but there are plenty of them nonetheless. Conversely, women should also be free to say ‘yes’ to the enjoyment of beautification and dressing up, without puritans belittling this and calling them victims.

So on these challenges, the happiness lens seems to offer three things: encouragement to consider the positive not just the gloomy side of appearance management; a reminder that to solve social dilemmas requires constructive collaboration and collective imagination, not just a culture of complaint and authoritarian regulation; and an insistence that in the pursuit of better lives and better societies, individuals tend to have a lot more freedom to think and make life choices for themselves than pessimists give them credit for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *