Reflection on: The Role of Appearances in Women

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This week’s of TLC’s What Not to Wear episode was on the lovely Beryl of NYC really resonated with me and stirred up a lot of emotions and reflections for me. To say that I was a little teary eyed at the end would be a huge understatement.  This episode helped me reflect a lot on the role of appearances in my own life, which brought about a slew of both positive and negative emotions, thoughts and questions around the role of appearances in women.

Empowerment of women is an issue that is very close to my heart, and something that I want to take an active role in my life – not just thinking about it, and writing about it, but really do something about it.  I truly believe that empowerment and confidence comes from within, but I also think that the role of our appearance is connected to that empowerment and confidence.

The Role of Appearance Growing up

In the case of Beryl, she grew up kinda nerdy and awkward with thick glasses and really not feeling very attractive.  She didn’t give much thought to what she looked like out on the outside, because she was brought up to value what is on the inside, only.  Often times she put very little effort in her clothes, because she didn’t want to be judged.  Wait a minute, that sounded like me!

Growing up in my family, looks were not a high priority. My sisters and I needed to look neat and tidy (i.e., no ripped pants), but other than that, higher education and moral values were deeply ingrained in myself and my sisters.  My parents taught my sisters and I so much about being a good person – to be kind, compassionate, fair and to be strong.  Education was a super priority in my family, as it was one of few opportunities to climb out of poverty.

But, looks? Clothes? Make-up? That was so superficial and frivolous in my household.  Wearing dresses, or nice clothes, was not something that was valued or brought up for discussion.  I think I saw my mother put on make-up once – when her and my father went to a wedding reception.  My father never allowed my sisters and I to wear nail polish during school.  I remembered I begged my mom to allow me to tweeze my eye brows in grade 11.  I’m not complaining, I’m just saying, this was how I grew up.

I love my parents deeply and am grateful for them shaping me into the person I am today. I truly believe that media (especially in today’s society) has too much say in how a woman should look and too often, media objectifies and diminishes a woman’s stature.  I understand now, that parents were only try to protect me and keep me on the path of success, in the best way that they knew how.   And I am grateful they shielded me away from the unhealthy messages of appearance from the media the way that they have done.

Discovering the Impact of Appearances

It was really only after high school and university, when I started caring a bit more about how I looked and how I presented myself.  Being catapulted into the life of college student, I learned about how to dress for a club to how to dress for a job interview. I learned how harshly women were judged, how harshly we can judge one another, and most important, how harshly we tend to judge ourselves.

I slowly discovered how appearances can play both a negative and positive role in my life.  It became clear that my appearance definitely had a role.  I am learning that caring about how I look doesn’t necessarily make me a selfish or a bad person.  It is simply part of me – and whether I agree with it or not, the message it projects can have a huge influence on how others (including my peers, my superiors, strangers and even friends) perceive me.

Media and Appearances

I truly believe that there is much more pressure for women to look nice, than for men, in general. And I believe that pressure comes from any number of sources, including the media, our culture, our role models, our family, our friends – but most of all, I think it also comes from within ourselves.  And despite the efforts of (a lot of mainstream) media pitting women against other women – I find this is not the truth in my personal experience.

I find that most women and men – but especially women – are about supporting one another and mentoring one another.   Just take a look at the various blogging communities, whether the niche is personal finance, fashion & style blogs, or make-up and beauty blogs – and these are only the blogs which I know and read.

My Conclusion on the Role of Appearances in Women

How we choose to project ourselves through our appearance, is making a statement, whether we like it or not.  The statement we choose to make, is up to us, and there are any number of tools and accessories we can use to help project the message we want (or don’t want) to share about ourselves.  Our clothes, our hair, our make-up, are all part of a message we are giving to the world around us about how we see ourselves and how we want to be treated, whether we are in a job interview, negotiating for our next promotion or going for a date.  Our appearance affects almost all aspects of our lives.

Is this healthy or right?  I don’t know, but it is the reality of our world, and our culture today.

And I think it’s only by understanding the role that appearances play in our lives, that we can utilize it to make the changes we want to see.   When abused, the role of appearances degrade women (and men) and encourages oppression, ignorance, violence and a false ideal of beauty.  When leveraged, the role of appearances can encourage acceptance, creativity, confidence, strength and true inner and outer beauty.

Readers, what are your thoughts on the role of appearances in women and men? How do you think it affects our daily lives?

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Reflection on: The Role of Appearances in Women

  1. It discourages me that there’s so much emphasis and scrutiny on how women look – it’s rarely about what they think and say, more about what color lipstick we chose. I think that, both men and women, should present themselves professionally for work. It’s fun to play with clothes and hair for leisure. But I try to wear as little makeup as possible at work – mascara, some concealer and eyeliner – because I would love for people to listen to my mind and not my makeup.

    • I agree completely. For work, I wear very neutral make-up, mainly to even out my complexion and look more awake/alive, but I save the coloured lipstick and eyeshadow for weekends. I enjoy playing with make-up, but I don’t think the work is the place for that – at least not for me.

      I, too, wish there was more emphasis on a woman’s intellect and her thoughts. There is so much more that we can learn from one another :)

  2. Sounds like we were brought up the same way.
    I can’t remember where I read it but ‘they’ say women who wear makeup to work earn more that those that don’t. :(

  3. When I was in high school I didn’t wear much makeup. I wore a little bit, but not a lot. I didn’t really know how to do my hair either. My dad’s response to makeup was always “make up for what?”, because we didn’t have anything to make up for. We were beautiful as we were. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that looking at photoshopped pictures in magazines of women who have been painted by professional make up artists.

    • It is definitely hard to compete with women who have their make-up professionally done and photoshopped. So much pressure on women to look like celebrities, when celebrities may not even look like celebrities without the make-up and photoshopping.

  4. Very interesting. You might want to check out the documentary “Miss Representation” if you haven’t already. It all about how women are portrayed through the media, very fascinating. I grew up in a similar situation. Brains were more important than beauty. I never wore more than mascara up until college, but after that I really realized the impact your appearance has on people, for better or worse.

  5. I grew up with similar influences. Being on the farm, I spent a lot of time wearing ‘barn clothes’ – ratty jeans and t-shirts or coveralls, so what I looked like was never really important because there were stalls to muck or some other dirty job to do. It really wasn’t until I went away to university that I learned about the perceptions that go along with appearances. It was quite the wake up call.

  6. Depending on how you look at it, it’s good and bad.

    The best thing, is that looking your best means that it’s something you can control and if you can take charge of it, what’s the harm in being smart AND pretty? Why can’t we have both?

    I grew up wearing secondhand, hand-me-downs, and my parents kind of let me do what I want with my style, which meant I looked like a very odd little girl. They also banned me from wearing makeup until I turned 19, and appearances for beauty’s sake was not encouraged in my house.

    After all of that, I still think that it was a good thing what my parents did.

    I grew up focusing on my brain, in the years of development that really mattered, and I had a strong work ethic as a result.

    With looks — I can control that, and there’s power to be had in looking good in the workplace. It is also psychologically uplifting to know that you look good, which makes you FEEL good, and it translates into people responding to you far better just by the way you look.

    As long as you don’t NEED to wear false eyelashes and makeup every time you leave the house, and you are fine with just sunscreen, why not? :)

    The girls who can’t leave the house without wearing a full face of makeup and being extremely dolled up, have problems. Otherwise, it’s all fun and I –love– dressing up, even if people think I have a brain of a marshmallow as a result.

    It makes the result all the more sweeter when they realize I’m smart too. :P

  7. This is why I could never work in mainstream women’s publications.

    I like to look good, but in my world that means clean clothing that fits in nice colours, a swipe of lippy, brushed hair. That’s me. And that’s as much for myself as it is for the benefit of others.

    Growing up beauty was not really emphasised and I was never complimented on my looks – except I specifically remember my mother bemoaning “Oh, you’re not going to be pretty anymore” when I had to get glasses. Gee, thanks Mum.

    I had terrible scarring acne in my teens, something I inherited from my mother, but rather than taking me to a derm to get anything done about it, she simply told me to harden up and wait till I grew out of it.

    That was our family stance on looks and beauty.

  8. I don’t really know why I put so much into my looks, because my parents definitely didn’t (and still don’t). I do remember having an epiphany around 23 where I confessed to some of my closest friends, “I thought being pretty would matter more”. Basically I had realized that spending time on my looks was a lot of wasted effort, and I was generally recognized more often for my academics or other accomplishments.

    Not that that made me change my behaviour, I’m still terribly vain. The only explanation (and please, I am being serious here) is I find it fun. I love doing my make-up and my hair. I love dressing in nice clothes. Spending time & money & effort on my looks is probably my main hobby (pretty bad eh?).

    I mean, I’m not crazy, I don’t do false eyelashes or hair extensions or fake nails (it’s important to me to be classic/natural looking), but I’m definitely washed, waxed, and made up 24/7. My mother doesn’t put any real effort into her appearance, so I don’t know where I learned this, but it’s a real priority to me. Through jr. high and high school and much of university I felt awkward, like I wanted to be pretty but didn’t know how to do it right. Now I feel like I’ve got the hang of it and basically like to dress up every day. Maybe I’m just more self-confident but I like to think I’ve mastered an art lol. I find looking my best empowering — maybe because when I feel I look nice, I don’t have to worry about it and can just worry about presenting whatever other skill I have to.

    • I think it’s fun to dress up and play with make-up, I just don’t feel I should wear too much to work because I am afraid that people will focus on that instead of what I am saying.

      With your job, I’m sure there is a lot of interaction with the public and students that it is very important for you to look your best and dress up, right?

  9. I’m very wash and wear with the exception of my hair (lots of crazy up-dos). I was a bit of an ugly duckling and I think I’ve grown into my features.

    What a beautiful, thoughtful post.

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