Psychology of beauty
It was Joan Collins who said, “The problem with beauty is that it’s like being born rich and getting poorer.” Certainly my client Natasha would agree: “I’m here because I’m insecure about how I look. I don’t know who I am without my make-up face on and it’s important in my industry,” she explains when I ask what has brought her into my therapy office.
She is not the first woman who has come into my office feeling lost and not sure of the way forward as she comes to terms with her perceived decreasing attractiveness.
On the one hand, psychology research backs up this perspective. There are certain research-based truths about beautiful people detailed in the book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful (Princeton University Press, 2011) which probably won’t surprise you.
They are hired more quickly, they earn more, they get better evaluations from strangers and they are more likely to be helped when trouble befalls them. When people are shown pictures of independently rated attractive people versus plain-looking people, brain scans respond differentially in the way they light up to people with symmetrical features (one of the hallmarks of beauty) than those with asymmetrical features.
While these results may also be seen as being an inevitable consequence of a society obsessed with beauty, there is an evolutionary explanation too: men find young, attractive women alluring because their looks are an indicator of potential fertility whereas women are attracted to men based on looks suggestive of masculinity and strength.
Evidence suggests that we are genetically predisposed to turn our heads when we encounter beautiful faces – even babies stare longer at faces with classically well-proportioned, balanced face scapes.
Rather than being a Western phenomenon, research suggests similar results are found across cultures, according to Survival of the Prettiest (New York: Doubleday, 1999).
While some might suggest the success of beautiful people is in part due to their looks rather than skill or talent, there will come a time through ageing when this is no longer an asset to rely on. This is what is terrifying Natasha; her self-concept is tightly linked with her looks.
Good looks and happiness
Although looking beautiful has some advantages, it bears no relation to happiness according to Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness (New York, Penguin, 2007).
Good looking people (as rated by independent observers) are no happier than others not so blessed in the looks department. This fits with the thought-provoking talk by model Cameron Russell on TED, who says: “Looks aren’t everything, believe me, I’m a model.” In her talk she shares her vulnerability: “I am insecure because I have to think about what I look like every day.”
Russell dispels the myth that you will be happier with thinner thighs, shinier hair and the coolest clothes, because models have these assets and “they are the most physically insecure women on the planet”.
What’s interesting, though, is that happy people are more likely to perceive themselves as beautiful or happy with their looks. Positive psychology research suggests that when happy people look at the world, everything is tinged with a positive or optimistic hue.
Contrast that to what’s known as “depressive realism” – the finding that those who are depressed actually see the world more realistically. Perceiving yourself as beautiful holds much more power than the objective truth.
Actually this is one of psychology’s main findings across a range of topics from stress to chronic pain: what you believe and perceive about the issue facing you is crucial to how you experience it. Often we react not to what is in front of us (the actual reflection in the mirror in totality), but to what we think is in front of us (the many flaws in your complexion or the positive strengths that are reflected back at you).
How to change our perceptions
If I were writing this article a few years ago, it would have suggested that we should all strive not to compare ourselves with others or media portrayals and to accept ourselves and our bodies as they are.
While I still believe that acceptance of the cards we are dealt is important, these days I am possibly more realistic. Our minds will continue to create unhelpful comparisons with others in many areas, including physical beauty. I know my mind is good at generating criticisms of my appearance, especially when shopping.
The fields of psychology and psychiatry acknowledge that there is no way to get rid of negative self-judgments in the long term. However, we can learn to relate to our thoughts differently so that we are able to focus on what matters to us and be less swayed by what our minds are telling us if it is unhelpful.
One practice taken from Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) is known as diffusion – stepping away from the content of our thoughts by labelling what our minds are busy with in any moment. By first noticing, and then letting go of unhelpful comparisons, we can have distance from the thoughts that don’t take us closer to the life we want to live. We can also acknowledge that our minds will continue to feed us information on how we are doing relative
Accepting that this is just an understandable characteristic of our minds, born out of both biology and societal influences, means that we can treat it just like the daily weather, notice it and then get on with our lives.
Taking a broader approach to beauty is a good first step. This means not just focusing on physical characteristics but noticing other qualities like a friendly smile or a giving nature. One of the findings from the positive psychology literature is that “appreciation of beauty” is a character strength that is linked to all manner of positive outcomes including increased health and wellbeing. Some people are naturally adept at noticing beauty, but there is increasing research suggesting that we can build this ability.
Interestingly, appreciation of beauty is one of two character strengths that have been shown to be associated with life satisfaction following recovery from a psychological disorder (the other is love of learning).
In a web-based study of 2087 adults published in The Journal of Positive Psychology (2006), Christopher Peterson and colleagues found that people who had a high appreciation of beauty were more likely to recover from depression and anxiety disorders with greater levels of life satisfaction.
Thus, interventions that include how to develop appreciation of beauty may be useful not just as a general life skill, but in enhancing life when experiencing psychological distress and afterwards. So how do we find beauty in our world and appreciate it?
In the late 1980s, two psychologists wrote The Experience Of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1989), a book detailing the psychological benefits of natural surroundings. In it they state that focusing on nature’s beauty can bring us greater peace of mind and restore our health.
Mindfulness is, among other things, about being in touch with the present moment. It also involves paying attention in an engaged way. William James, the father of psychology, is credited with saying, “My experience is what I attend to.” This sounds simple, but deciding what to pay attention to takes work.
Try it by choosing a routine activity such as brushing your teeth, and use the time to really pay attention to the task on a daily basis.
If you are hanging out the washing, notice the textures your hands come into contact with, notice your arm movements and how they seem to know where to go, notice the way your body moves as you bend down to pick up the next item. You might be surprised to find even the most mundane task becomes fascinating if you approach it with curiosity and openness.