Why do we care about our appearance?

This is just one of the issues I have to consider for my Advanced Extension in Psychology; so here are a few of my ideas:

Evolutionary Psychology: In the past our appearance has probably affected us a great deal, most importantly in whether or not we are successful in securing a mate. For example, having wide hips is associated with being fertile, possibly because women with big hips gave birth more easily. For similar reasons, broad males may have been favoured as they would be deemed better able protect ones offspring. It has always been on our minds to succeed evolutionarily via reproduction, and if our chances of reproduction are linked with our appearance it is only natural that it will matter to us. This can be seen in most areas of animal reproduction which involve mating rituals, such as the peacocks elaborate feathers. The human version is just slightly more complex.

Another factor which always has benefited us is that of belonging to a group. Out in the wild plains it was probably incredibly beneficial to have the protection of belonging to a group. How do many groups categorise themselves? Through their appearance, hence another reason why this has become so important to us. This would help to explain the emergence of fashion and its success in becoming an enormous industry, one which now holds an almost religious ferocity to it, with people desperate to follow the latest trends and sacrifice all else to achieve the perfect appearance. People see what they wear as a way to change their appearance and make it clear which ‘group’ they belong to.

Social Learning Theory: This theory indicates that we copy those around us, or ‘models’. We are more likely to copy  people when we perceive them to be powerful, or receiving some kind of reward. With the increase in TV and an explosion of advertising, the increase in potential ‘models’ is dramatic; advertising is developed from this very concept. We see the beautiful person on TV with the job, the car, the life and we want the products they have, we desire to look like them; leading to our appearance becoming an obsession of ours, with the profits of the beauty industry ever rising. Our appearance has become a means by which we think we can obtain these things for ourselves, as they are now associated with beautiful, famous people.

Genes: Studies have routinely shown that from a very young age children are more likely to prefer attractive people. Faces which are symmetrical are more favourable to them, and they are more likely to trust these people, and guess that their peers will prefer to play with them. Could it perhaps be that we are genetically programmed to recognise certain faces as being more trustworthy in order to help us make decisions? Could it be that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in their genes? For example those who have unsymmetrical faces are more likely to have a disorder or perhaps a genetic fault, which would make them less desirable to mate with. However, nowadays we have a great deal of technology to correct these problems and cure illnesses; therefore it will be interesting to see whether our genetic bias towards unattractive people disappears. Although it would seem that our bias is actually increasing, now that perfection is routinely advertised in air-brushed images, and can almost be achieved with plastic surgery, we try to change how we look, perhaps to fit in with this genetic ‘ideal’.

Operant Conditioning: This theory developed by Skinner suggests that any response can be brought about either by rewards or punishment. Fitting this in with cognitive developmental theories such as Vygotsky’s, who believed we develop the tools of our culture from an ‘expert’ such as a parent, we can greater understand our obsession with appearance. We learn from a young age what is expected of us by society, from the start people coo over children saying how beautiful and cute they are. We are given rewards in the form of compliments when we look nice, or dress particularly well, and told off by our parents when we don’t conform to what is expected. It is made clear to us from a young age what is expected of us and appearance is always an issue, whether it’s what our peers wear, or having to wear a school uniform. It is always something we have to think about.

 Psychodynamics: I imagine most people have heard, in some format, about Freuds famous ideas. There are two ways I think Freuds theories can be applied to appearance. First is the idea of the concious and unconscious mind. It could be that certain facial features unconsciously remind us of something else, for example large eyes remind us of children who need to be cared for, and we therefore find women with large eyes attractive. Large lips have also been linked to thoughts of high fertility. This would also link back to the evolutionary theory, perhaps these thoughts have been ingrained on our unconscious as they are beneficial to our reproductive success, and are therefore something we inherently care about.

 A further possible thought could be to do with our superego. This is an unconcious system where by our parents ideals and our thoughts about society develop in order to aid our ego in controlling our id (or primitive motivations). Therefore it could be suggested that if our parents tells us that our appearance is important, or it is drilled into us by others and the media, our superego will develop in line with this. In contrast our defence mechanisms could also come in to play, where we try to rebel from our parentsand society by becoming everything they have told us not to become.

 To sum it all up, I believe that the reason we place such a great deal of importance on our appearance is the fact that we are naturally social animals. We like to belong to a group and most of us want other people to like us. Our appearance is the one thing that everyone else can see immediately, and therefore is the one place where we can attempt to portray what we are like and what we are in to. Therefore, naturally, it is always going to be something that we care a great deal about. I believe even those who chose not to care about their appearance do in a different way, after all their outward appearance of not caring is a symbol to others of their independent personality; which is probably very important to them, and something they wish to express.