It’s no coincidence that the first month of the year is named after Janus, the ancient Roman god of doorways. In art, he’s shown as having two faces: one that looks back on past experiences and another that looks forward toward future goals. The Romans believed that a person achieves inner wisdom by understanding and accepting both perspectives.
As you make (and revise) your own New Year’s resolutions about improving the way you look, think about your past beliefs about your own beauty—and about the ways you’d like to change your appearance in the future. How realistic are your assessments? What doors can you open—and close—to gain a healthier self-image and be happier with who you are and who you can be?
The Truth About Beauty
Before you answer these questions, you might consider what your definition of “beauty” is. After all, if you have a false notion of what constitutes beauty (such as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model), you’ll apply it to your own image and judge away. If that happens, your efforts to change your physical appearance will be misguided and the results could be disappointing, laughable…or worse.
So what are the misconceptions about beauty?
“The word ‘misconception’ is a good one to use to describe myths about beauty,” says psychologist Vivian Diller, Ph.D., lead author of the book “Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change.”
“We not only perceive beauty in distorted ways, but we distort how we think about it, too," Diller says. "I remind people that beauty is not just a physical experience but a psychological one as well. What we deem attractive or unattractive is much more complicated than what meets the eye. It's a combination of how we feel and how we look.”
There’s a distinction between attractiveness and beauty, according to Diller. She explains that attractiveness is “fluid, flexible, evolving and subjective,” while beauty depends more on “a static, rigid set of objective features” such as a symmetrical face, a small nose or a voluptuous body.
Many people limit themselves to accepting a single concept of beauty, one that arises from “the belief that perfection is the golden standard of beauty,” notes Diller. “It’s the striving toward perfection that often makes people feel unattractive.”
Thanks to the media’s incessant focus on beautiful people and creating unrealistic images of them using airbrushing and Photoshop, we live in a culture that reinforces this goal of perfection, according to Diller. It takes a strong sense of self-esteem to refuse to compare yourself to youthful, overly-thin, flawless models. Diller believes that making such comparisons are a waste of time because “there is a much wider set of standards that actually attract people to others.”
That’s good news for everyone. Because the reality is that attractiveness is determined by more than mere physical appearance. As Diller notes, “our attractiveness is strongly connected to how we feel about ourselves.”
She encourages people to develop what she calls “beauty self-esteem,” which is based on three factors: genetics (what you’re born with), grooming (how you care for yourself) and attitude (how you feel about how you look).
“The combination of these three things contributes to our overall sense of beauty,” she says. “One without the others rarely leaves us looking or feeling attractive, regardless of the genetics we were endowed with. That's why some ostensibly beautiful models experience themselves as ugly, while others with less model-like features can feel and look attractive.”
Closing and Opening “Doors”
Rather than resolving to “fix” yourself externally in order to achieve beauty, try making a more practical and important resolution: to boost your beauty self-esteem. You can close the doors on past negative judgments you made about your appearance and open other doors that allow you to see greater potential in the attractive traits you already possess.
Diller suggests these strategies:
Create your own definition of beauty. Forget about comparing yourself to models and limiting beauty to external appearance. Instead, think of yourself as the whole person you are and strive to be attractive in how you think about and act towards yourself and others. “We need to find a good balance between caring for our appearance and caring for all the other aspects that define us,” Diller explains. “For me, it’s about living my life as fully as possible and looking the best I can for my age.”
Look inward for the foundation of your beauty. Diller says that by paying attention to the internal as well as external self, “we feel stronger, stand taller and have more confidence. A positive attitude and confidence are the keys to feeling attractive, and you don't need a plastic surgeon to achieve that."
Have realistic expectations of yourself. Learn to accept the genes you were dealt and to work with them. To get a more balanced self-image, Diller suggests standing in front of a mirror and imagining your closest friend pointing out three physical qualities and three personality traits that are the most appealing about you. Work on highlighting those fabulous features.
See your attractiveness as a work in progress. "Self-improvement is always possible, both inside and outside,” says Diller. “Follow good health routines, eat well, sleep enough and stay out of the sun and away from alcohol.”
Check in with yourself from time to time to see if you are slipping back into past negative beliefs about your appearance or are instead working to increase your beauty self-esteem. Stay positive and give yourself credit for all of your beautiful efforts.
Jeanette Leardi is an instructor of journaling, memoir-writing, personal mythmaking and storytelling. A longtime freelance writer and editor, her publishing experiences also include staff positions at Newsweek, Life, People and Condé Nast Traveler magazines, and The Charlotte Observer. Visit her at jeanetteleardi.com.
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