Sunday, June 06, 2010

On Looking Good

Many people say that they dress well, or like to look well, only to feel good about themselves. That they don't care much about others' opinions, that their wardrobe is not a matter of peer-pressure, and that their appearance is a matter of taste, self-expression, etc.

I find this hopelessly naive.

What they perhaps do not realize is that our looking at ourselves is almost totally to be imagining how others perceive us. Whether others actually perceive us or not, our imagining that if they do, we will not be found wanting, is a source of comfort.

It is quite obvious, but I think it needs to be said that looking in the mirror is to look at ourselves as the "other", through others' eyes. We see ourselves as objects in the mirror, and if we feel happy about what we see, we feel confident about ourselves, we "feel beautiful", and are not depressed.

How we appear is a form of social stress. Unfortunately, the standards are being ratcheted higher and higher by the ceaseless invasion of media and manufactured images. So, even if you don't watch TV, all your friends and acquaintances do, and there is no way you can avoid the cultural landscape and the current standards of what it is to "look good".

Appearance matters, it has mattered since the dawn of civilization. But the crucial shift occurred when from being a determinant of health, it morphed into a determinant of eroticism and fashion. Men and women are spending obscene amounts of money to gym and spa their way into looking more like the images they see on television. More and more expensive and niche beauty products are available on the supermarket shelves, and to just use soap is so 19th century.

It is almost impossible for an urban, socialized human being to not get influenced by the relentless propaganda of what beauty is, and why it matters.

And because it is impossible, and the beamed messages are becoming universally accepted, to not look artificially beautiful is therefore considered ugly.
  • Threading one's eyebrows is now near-universal in urban women. Gotta do it, even if it makes one looks fake and ill.
  • Even a bit of body fat is considered ugly. For women, the ideal is now boniness, for men, it is having sculpted muscles. Keep working on it.
  • White teeth. If everybody else is using whiteners, to have even mildly yellow teeth can be so "stressful".
  • Colored hair. Permed hair. Streaked hair. The daughter cannot but think: "When mom does it, why shouldn't I?"
  • Shaved bodies for men, waxed bodies for women. Hair is the enemy. Skin should be smooth, silky smooth!
  • Nails!
And clothing is becoming less and less functional, and more and more an expression.

Sexiness is a cultural thing. You may think you have "attitude" and "panache", but in reality, you are an unwitting victim of cultural forces. You have internalized the message of "good looks" so much that it actually feels liberating to finally obey.

We are so stressed to look attractive, to be accepted, to not be judged harshly, that we don't realize that when we are occasionally feeling good about our appearance, it is because finally, we have managed to satisfy the standards which have been drilled into us by advertisers and celebrities.

And sexiness and beauty is becoming an ageless concern. No longer is a woman or man content to move on to the stage where experience and wisdom and contentment are more important than appearance. They are trying to compete with the younger crowd, by coloring their hair, by wearing flashy clothing, and by going in for injections and liposuctions. You think they haven't had enough orgasms? The malaise is deeper than that.

Yes, in a way, it is all for oneself, it leads to good feelings. But what is the structure and causation of those good feelings?

Next time you look in the mirror, and feel good or bad, know that you are, inadvertently of course, doing cultural studies.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

And it doesn't just stop there. We manicure lawns, decorate houses, polish cars, cook to perfection, clean streets, spruce up infrastructure, send rockets into space, flaunt defense forces, strut wealth, cherish culture, value ideals, up education, admire intelligence and grow ever freer democracies. And whats it all for? To impress minds, entertain eyes, enjoy attractive comfortable lives, 'compete' with each other, LEARN and mutate the senses. Even admiring celebrities gives joe blow something to strive for. After all, what else is there to do?

Badri Katha said...

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Cheers,
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Anonymous said...

I could find my own opinions in your words...it makes me sick to be surrounded by bleached faces, waxed bodies, threaded eyebrows and lips smoothened with all sorts of balms. A lot of time is wasted(in my opinion) in doing all this..
What will all this lead to ?

Modern Man said...

Anon wrote: "And it doesn't just stop there. We manicure lawns, decorate houses, polish cars, cook to perfection, clean streets, spruce up infrastructure, send rockets into space, flaunt defense forces, strut wealth, cherish culture, value ideals, up education, admire intelligence and grow ever freer democracies. And whats it all for? To impress minds, entertain eyes, enjoy attractive comfortable lives, 'compete' with each other, LEARN and mutate the senses. Even admiring celebrities gives joe blow something to strive for. After all, what else is there to do?"

Agreed. It's nothing but mankind's hubris and civilization's narcissism. What started off as a legitimate but ultimately naive desire for mankind's betterment, ends in a travesty of hollow ideals. A stupid dream has been reduced to a real-life circus-show, and everyone thinks they are center-stage.

Harman wrote: "Next time you look in the mirror, and feel good or bad, know that you are, inadvertently of course, doing cultural studies."

Another memorable insight.

-MM

srid said...

HARMAN: But what is the structure and causation of those good feelings?"

Was flipping through a research book on body image in the library.

So what is the structure and causation of these good feelings?

I don't remember my past in great details, but I guess this is all operant conditioning in action.

Before reading further, please read the 4-points extract from the first chapter "Lovelessness" of Status Anxiety (particularly the relationship between love, attention and societal status):

Beginning from childhood, we receive 'love' from our peers, when we dress/look/behave good. We will only be mocked, if we don't behave in accordance with such standards. I remember a class mate from my school, who is shy and feminine .. and all the boys (sometimes even I) would bully/tease him to death. You may consider that an extreme version of what I am trying to explain here.

My theory is that, there are two levels of foundation for what causes such good/bad feeling around one's appearance.

1. Biological: our need to belong, and be loved is not "learned". We feel good, when we are loved ('I' feel special) ... and feel bad, when ignored or disliked.

2. Cultural: society now conditions us using love, the biological fertile ground using which it can perform its operant conditioning. This conditioning is somewhat complex, and with repeated blackmailing with love ... made us internalize such values so much that "it actually feels liberating to finally obey."

What do you think of this?

-srid

Anonymous said...

harman said: "My theory is that, there are two levels of foundation for what causes such good/bad feeling around one's appearance."

interesting how your theory completely omits psychoanalysis of the bullies and their equal part in the appearance complex.

such shallow snorkeling harman. tutut.

Anonymous said...

correction. my apologies harman.

Srid said: "My theory is that, there are two levels of foundation for what causes such good/bad feeling around one's appearance."

srid said...

Anonymous: "interesting how your theory completely omits psychoanalysis of the bullies and their equal part in the appearance complex. "

I did write "... with repeated blackmailing with love ... made us internalize such values". What I meant by 'blackmailing with love' is that one's interaction with the bullies bolsters a low self-esteem as that interaction instills an implicit idea of (something like) "you don't look/behave good enough; hence you don't deserve friendliness/attention". I wrote this from the perspective of de Botton's observation that "the story of our quest for love from the world--is a more secret and shameful tale." where 'love from the world' is the otherwise friendly attention gained by agreeing and behaving in accordance with societal values (failing which one risks the very attention/love).

So obviously the bullies do play some part in the creation of this appearance complex; however - the bullies are just part of the environment that utilizes the inbuilt instinctual tendency (love) in humans. IOW, bullies are part of the cultural foundation and love/attention-seeking/desire-to-belong/conform is part of the biological foundation (in my theory above).

Anonymous said...

it’s by-product of commercialization and excess of money which lead to indulge more looking beautiful only from outside.
it has taken over one's time in grooming physically oneself than pursuing hobbies which bring more content and awareness for one’s existence. I feel it is one of the side effects modernization brought. A run away attitude from life’s reality.
But it also has to do with us - how much we appreciate simplicity???or ugliness??