Confident and Captivating: How Looks Affect Self Esteem

By Joe Murphy

It is easy to advise others that true beauty is more than skin deep: perfect skin cannot substitute for a sharp mind, a toned body is no match for a great sense of humor, and a sparkling smile will never measure up to a kind spirit. While all of this is true, it does not change the fact that appearance and self-esteem are inextricably linked together. For better or worse, the way a person looks does, in fact, have a bearing on how they feel about themselves.

Studies have shown a very strong correlation between how a person rates their outer appearance, and how high they rate their self-esteem. This confirms what anyone who has ever been in high school could have guessed: more attractive people are more self-assured. Rather, people who are pleased with their appearance and find themselves attractive have high self-esteem. This inability to separate appearance from self-worth begins as children, from the time that a child begins to understand cultural beauty standards, and how closely they do or don’t align with them, they begin to develop a complex surrounding their own appearance and hanging their confidence on it.

Later in life, the knee jerk reaction to pin self-esteem on appearance does not decrease. On the contrary, people only become more aware of how they look as they age. Images of teenagers constantly watching mirrors and 20-somethings spending hours in the gym dictate that even the most attractive years of a person’s life for all intents and purposes are wrought with anxiety over the way that they look. Any adult can tell you that the pressures and concerns over beauty only continue to mount with the number of years lived.

Of course, it is not without reason that appearance and self-esteem are so strongly linked, and it is not just an inward assessment of attractiveness that plays a role in society. Actually, for the most part, it is just the opposite in social interaction. The reality is that more attractive people are treated better, thanks to something called the halo effect. The halo effect is a well established unconscious psychological bias that states if someone believes one good thing about a person, they are more willing to believe other good things as well, without any evidence indicating that they are true. This translates to physical attractiveness fairly obviously. For example, “he has a great smile” or “she has beautiful eyes” easily leads to “he is smart” or “she is talented” under the principle of the halo effect. Everything from social interactions to landing jobs will, therefore, come more easily to attractive people.

So, what is one to do with the understanding that their appearance will negatively or positively affect their self-esteem and indeed, their lives? There are a number of options, but they boil down to this: a person can either accept and learn to love the way that they look, or they can choose to make some sort of change.

Since studies have indicated that it is only a personal assessment of one’s own attractiveness that influences self-esteem directly, a person who does not find themselves traditionally attractive can work on positive self-talk, and relating to themselves more positively. Besides, modern messages of inclusivity and body positivity are working to abolish some of the impossible beauty standards to which people have been held for generations. Simply coming to peace with their appearance and learning to love the skin they’re in is certainly an option that will hopefully result in higher self-esteem. This method does not, however, take into account the halo effect. If even some of a person’s self-esteem is pinned on how others react to and treat them, the inner peace will not remedy that. This may sound harsh, but it is simply clinical: if other people find someone more attractive, their lives will be easier. Of course, this may not be a concern for someone, in which case there is no need to worry about anyone else’s assessment.

It is worth noting, though, that in the 21st century there is no shame in seeking cosmetic procedures in order to bolster one’s confidence. Even those wary of altering their appearance beyond recognition need not be concerned: surgical and non-surgical procedures have advanced to a point that extremely natural results are entirely possible. These procedures consist of more than just silicone and liposuction; subtle dermal fillers, eyelash extensions, and even just facials are all small ways that a person could feel a big shift when they look in the mirror. Should a person choose to undergo some sort of procedure, their self-esteem will likely be highly boosted by the change in others’ attitudes toward them. The argument can certainly be made that cosmetic procedures are not simply a matter of vanity, but that they are also useful in protecting a person’s mental health.

There is no question that inner-beauty trumps outer appeal every day of the week, and cosmetic enhancements should never be used in place of personal development. When people get to truly know each other, a person’s inner-workings shine much brighter than their outward appeal, and that is how true connection is forged. Short of that point, though, lies a lot of judgment and personal unrest surrounding appearance. Whatever the chosen method to get there, it is clear that one of the most important factors in healthy self-esteem is finding oneself attractive. Vanity has long been used as a negative attribute or a personality flaw, but the facts state that a little bit of vanity might do a lot to help a person’s view of themselves.