Why bother looking good?

What's the science behind being image conscious?
02 October 2018

Interview with 

Professor Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University


From cosmetics to clothes, to going to the gym, most of us pay attention to our physical appearance. But why? To find out, Katie Haylor spoke to social psychologist and body image expert Viren Swami from Anglia Ruskin University. First Katie asked Viren, why bother trying to look good?

Viren - There are a number of different theoretical explanations. The kind of the most dominant one is the evolutionary psychological one that we try and look good because you want to attract mates. And the way we demonstrate our health and fitness is primarily through our attractiveness. The idea is that attractiveness is highly linked with health and fertility and that people who look attractive are more fertile and healthier. So we try and demonstrate our effectiveness or our propensity to mate with other good looking people by demonstrating our own attractiveness.

There is also a cultural explanation, which is simply that we are generally biased to perceive attractive people as having better personal qualities. Being more sociable, being happier, being better at work, and all kinds of other personal qualities. And if you have that bias or if you incorporate and internalise that bias, then you want to look good because you think you’ll accrue the rewards of looking good.

There is also a neuroscientific explanation, which is that our brains process attractive people as more rewarding. There is part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which shows heightened activity any time we see attractive people. And the suggestion from neuroscience is that our brains like it when we see attractive people so we try and demonstrate our own attractiveness.

Katie - Now, I’ve made a bit of an assumption that everyone pays attention to how they look. Is that true?

Viren - There is evidence to suggest that most people pay attention to how they look but also that they conform to different standards of grooming. So most people have an idea of what’s expected of them societally in terms of what they should look like, whether it’s in an occupational settings, or romantic settings, or in daily life.

They also have an expectation of what they should look like in terms of their grooming but there are also individual differences. So, for example, there are studies suggesting that people who are higher in what we call “appearance investment” tend to spend more time focussed on their appearance, and also tend to believe that their own appearance has a huge impact on life outcomes; whether they get a job or whether they’re likely to find a dating partner and so on. People who are low in investment appearance tend to think that appearance isn’t particularly important and they consequently spend very little time on their own appearance.

There are also other factors that might relate to how important you think appearance is, and also your use of cosmetics, for example. There is some evidence to suggest that people who are, for example, higher in what we call “oppressive belief” so people are more sexist, who are more hostile towards women, are more likely to believe that women in general, but also their partners, should use cosmetics.

Katie - So, in my handbag, which is sitting in the corner of your office, I’ve got some mascara, some foundation, some lipstick. I’m probably not alone. Why do so many of us paint it on our faces?

Viren - I think there are a number of reasons. If you look at it from a cultural point of view, particularly for women, I think there is pressure to conform to stereotypes of what femininity is. At the individual level, the reasons might be very different to why someone might choose to use cosmetics compared to the political or the social level. There is a good deal of data to suggest that when women wear makeup they feel better about themselves. When women wear cosmetics they feel more confident, they feel more self-competent, and the also perceive themselves experiencing better rewards as a result.

Katie - And have the same studies been done on men or people of other genders?

Viren - Not at the moment. We know very little about men who use cosmetics and particularly men who use makeup. There is evidence to suggest the use of makeup among men is increasing, but we don’t know necessarily about the outcomes. One of the difficulties with men and cosmetics is that, historically at least, the use of makeup in men was considered transgressive in terms of their masculinity. More recently, there is evidence to suggest that the use of makeup has been incorporated into some forms of masculinity.

Katie - What about other people’s opinions of us then? Can, for instance, wearing makeup may change the way someone else might behave towards me?

Viren - Again, it’s really difficult to know whether they’re responding to you because of the makeup or because they perceive you as being more attractive. I think there are two separate things here. I think one is the kind of general response from other people. It’s quite possible that the responding, for women particularly to you using makeup, because they perceive you as being more feminine as opposed to when you don’t use makeup when you’re perceived as being less feminine. So there are lots of interactions between the perceptions of people based on whether or not  they’re using makeup.

There are also studies suggesting when women wear makeup they’re perceived as being more competent, particularly for high-powered jobs. Because again, it’s consistent with the perception of what’s required for those jobs. So it’s really difficult to know whether the response at the level of the general population is to you because you’re wearing makeup, or because you’re conforming to societal normal about what you should and shouldn’t do.

Katie - So if I go to a job interview and I put on some makeup, is that really going to increase my chances of getting the job?

Viren - It turns out it is possible. And it’s certainly likely that you increase the likelihood of you having a successful outcome from that job interview, but I suspect this is partly a function of the people who are interviewing. Historically, at least, job interviews tend to be dominated by men and they have certain expectancies about what they would like and don’t like women doing. And the assumption here would be that women who wear makeup are kind of conforming to a gender role and men feel more comfortable when women conform to that gender role.

Women on interview panels might be doing the same thing. So they might be assuming that when other women are coming for a job are conforming, they feel better and safer around these women.

Katie - And there’s evidence to backup that notion?

Viren - Yes. The other really interesting thing is how a partner might respond to you. And this is particularly true of men’s responses to their female partners in heterosexual relationships. There is some evidence to suggest that when heterosexuals are in committed relationships men generally don’t like their partners to wear makeup. And this might be because they perceive it as a means of attracting other partners so they experience greater feelings of jealousy.

One of the nice things about social psychology is that we also know that the importance of first impressions drops off very quickly. So the importance of physical appearance matters most in the absence of any kind of social interaction so when you see someone for the very first time you make a judgement about that person based on their physical appearance alone and that makes sense because you’ve got no information about that individual.

Once social interaction begins, and this is also true of interviews and job interviews and so on, also romantic relationships for example, once you begin to have social interactions you begin to piece together a much fuller picture of the individual and you’re kind of gleaning much more satisfying and richer data. And you begin to use things like reciprocal information, whether you’re exchanging information with the other person, or whether you’re exchanging intimacy, whether you’re exchanging useful information with the other person in a job outcome, things like similarity also then begin to matter then as well.

Kind of the key point is that although appearance really is important, particularly in occupational settings, the importance is often overestimated.


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