Selfie & text by Gabrielle.

Thank you for the terrific comments and discussion last week about experimenting with looks and identity. I went out that same day and had bangs cut! Not an extreme change, I realize, but still fun to get a glimpse of myself in the mirror and see something new.

Related to the same topic, Ben Blair told me there’s a section in the book, The Singularity Is Near, that talks about the future, and predicts that a time will come when we can control how we appear to others. To be clear, it doesn’t say that we will actually change our bodies, but that we would control how we are perceived. So, if we want to appear taller (or shorter), we can. If we want to appear with darker (or lighter) skin, we can. If we want to appear curvier (or thinner), we can.

I have no idea how this will technically work (I think he said something about avatars), but let’s pretend for a minute that it will. Let’s imagine for a minute that it’s a fact. If you could appear however you like to the people that you encounter — without actually changing your body (no pain, no surgery) — would you choose to look any different than you do now?

My first thought, when Ben told me about the concept, is that we will all choose to appear as supermodels — bronzed and tall and lithe like Iman. It will be non-stop super models all day long. Supermodels at the grocery store, supermodels at the bank, supermodels at the dry cleaner.

Then, I thought: no, to appear as a completely different person will be difficult — people will want to be recognized by friends and family and colleagues. So perhaps it will be subtle things, like being perceived as having straighter teeth, or smaller pores, or a scar that can no longer be seen. This would be closer to what some people do right now — dyeing hair or getting nails painted or wearing spanx.

Next, I thought: I can already guess at the backlash. If everyone appears as a perfectly coiffed, super gorgeous human all the time, I can imagine a resurgence of appreciation for appearing naturally. A recognition of the true beauty found in the variety of the human race.

As I continued thinking about this, my friend Rona came to mind. I met Rona when Ben Blair and I lived in Athens, Greece, seventeen years ago. She was an expat from England, and sometimes we would discuss accents in England and how they affect social status. She said that in certain shops, she would use a different accent — an accent that made her sound like she was part of the nobility — in order to get better service. It wasn’t a change to her body, but still affected how she was perceived.

This got me considering characteristics beyond physical bodies — things like accents, or confidence, or attitude (maybe rebellious, or obedient), or even clothes and brand names — and how they affect how we are perceived by others.

I haven’t read the book, and it’s very likely I don’t understand correctly, but ignore that for a minute and chat with me. What thoughts come to mind for you? If you could appear differently to those around you, would you? Would you go for a drastic change, appear as is, or something in between? And whatever you would choose (from drastic to no change at all), what does that tell you about your self-image? Do you like how you look right now? Do you feel like people perceive you accurately and positively?

63 thoughts on “Appearance”

  1. My boyfriend and I discuss a similar concept often. He has lost almost 200 pounds, but still has about 50-60 more to lose. He has done this through healthy eating and exercise, and is in better internal shape than most skinny/buff guys. However, people still perceive him to be out of shape. I’m in a similar boat, as I carry extra weight, people are surprised to learn that I run half-marathons and road bike long, fast distances. Somehow my parents raised me to be extremely confident in my body (summers spent in swimsuits at the lake probably contributed to this), so I am happy with how I look. But, I do get annoyed when people discredit my physical fitness level because of outside.

    1. “But, I do get annoyed when people discredit my physical fitness level because of outside.”

      Love your comment, Sara. A good reminder to not be quick to judge!

  2. I’m in for a change in appearances soon too. Being pregnant with baby number 2 has given me a strong desire to finally cut my hair short so that I can quicken shower times. Can’t wait to see how it turns out! Praying to the hair Gods!

  3. Pamela Balabuszko-Reay

    People think I am cross a lot of the time because of the “11” lines between my eyes on my forehead. When I’m thinking hard, daydreaming or looking for something I squint and the wrinkles deepen. So- I’ll be minding my own business (even in my own home with my family) and people will ask me why I’m mad. Honestly makes me wonder if people have made assumptions or not approached me or asked me a question etc. That makes me sad. I could get this “fixed” with botox. I did cut bangs to soften (cover) the lines. So- yep. I wonder if my life would be different if people didn’t think I was mad. How many moments would have changed?

    1. Same thing with the lines between my eyes! People think I’m upset, and it doesn’t help that I tend to be on the cynical/more depressed side of things anyway, so it’s just always assumed I’m in a bad mood. *sigh*

  4. Love your new look! I’ve been wanting bangs for a long time, but I have really curly hair – they type of curl that I think you’ve had in the past. So, would you mind sharing what you do to straighten your hair – is it something you’ll do every time you wash, or did you have it permanently straightened. I really want to try a permanent straightening process, but I would feel better if I first saw someone with bangs that had it done.

    1. The hair in the photo at top was after a blowout. If I’m going to be somewhere like Alt Summit, my preference is definitely a blowout. I’ll get it done on Monday and it will last all week (with the addition of dry shampoo if it’s getting oily). It’s so much faster on busy mornings than maintaining my curls.

      I’ve never tried a permanent straightening process, but perhaps someone reading that has experience will chime in.

  5. Have you read the YA novel series The Uglies? They are distopic novels about everyone choosing to be “beautiful” and bronzed, thin, etc as you mentioned. The first book is the best and it’d be a great family discussion topic, especially with all school aged kids.

    1. That sounds like a great series! I am definitely checking it out. My cousin teaches middle school and I used to and we have an unofficial YA Book Club to help her recommend books to her kids. Thanks!

  6. When I read this post I thought “why would anyone want to appear differently to others than how they are naturally?” I guess that’s naive. Thanks for bringing up the question bc it reminded me that I’m comfortable in my skin au naturale. My hope is that everyone feels that way. Also, how boring if we were all to appear flawless! One person’s flaws can be seen as attributes to another.

  7. Such a fun topic. I graduated college a year ago and have been in a style transition phase. I have been asking myself the question a lot of what it means to dress like an adult.
    I recently had an older woman tell that I was simply too old to not leave the house without lipstick! While I respectfully disagree, it makes me wonder what aspects of my style I am simply too old to do/not do if I want to be perceived as an adult.

    1. I really like that question, Bonnie — how to be perceived as an adult.

      I’ll be thinking about that. Little things come to mind, like having cash in my wallet for tips, or lemonade stands, or if a homeless person I encounter needs a meal. I tend to feel unprepared and childish when I don’t have cash on hand, and I feel so responsible and prepared when I can pull out a 5 dollar bill at the right moment.

    2. Being perceived as an adult is something I’ve continued to think about since my teenage years. As a short person (5’1″) with a baby face, I’ve often felt like people see me as younger and therefore less experienced. Even when I’ve dressed in suits, I still feel like a kid, mostly because of my stature. I know some of it is coming from me, but I know it’s coming from the outside as well. I’m kind of tired of hearing that I must be too young to remember….or I’m too young to know about ……. when really, it turns out I’m older than them!

      1. I’m an average height and have a curvy “adult” frame, but at 30 I look very young and have struggled with trying to be perceived as competent and respectable for awhile! One of the worst things was, at age 26, when a tax accountant asked if my (self-employment income) was babysitting money, after telling me I was too young to be married – how insulting! Really though, I generally like most everything about my appearance (on most days) and can’t think of how I would make myself appear older in order to be taken more seriously? Would I really want to add grey hair or age lines in order for people to take me seriously?

  8. Very interesting! My first thought was the supermodel thing too. And then I thought, nope, I would just want to be a more jazzed up version of myself! I think I am already pretty, but I would want a straight nose with no bump, and larger breasts. A bra size of AA36 kind of sucks. I would like to have “grapefruits” instead of “scrambled eggs” :) As someone who works in the beauty industry I would love for everyone to have an acceptance of self. No matter how old you get, or how many freckles you have, I would love for everyone to embrace themselves and realize that they are made the way they are for a reason, and it is enough.

  9. Have you read Infinite Jest? There’s a very funny (and prescient!) chapter about the rise of video phones and how an entire market grew around them to provide callers with ever fancier masks (starting out small with eliminating unsightly wrinkles, but going all the way to full ceremonial masks and backdrops), before it totally collapsed along with the video phones themselves as people gave up video and went back to voice phones in relief.

    It’s tough to explain (there’s an awful lot going on in that book!) but this post — especially the idea of whether, given the choice, you would choose to change how you are perceived — reminded me very strongly of it!

    1. I just got a new android phone (samsung galaxy s5), and included in the camera modes is one called “beauty face.” I guess it’s like having a built-in airbrush to your camera. So on some levels, what you’ve described is already happening!

  10. Have you seen the movie Surrogates ( with Bruce Willis? A similar concept. Basically everyone interacts via customizable robots so you can have your robot be a better version or yourself or someone completely different. The movie looks at the consequences and there is a counter movement! It’s not the best movie ever but I enjoyed it for the very reasons you are talking about here: it made me think!

  11. have you ever heard of this? resting bitchy face. it’s kind of hilarious and true. so if there’s one thing i would like to change is my resting face. i wish it was more open and warm and not so serious and solemn. oh also, my height. i’m short (5′) and i always wished i was super tall (at least 6′)!

  12. I wouldn’t change what I look like but I would change certain things–my teeth, my arms. I never had braces and they’re not terrible but they’re not perfect. Or white. Also, I’m a lot heavier now than I’ve ever been and it is SO HARD being super short and maintaining a healthy weight as I get older (disregarding the fact that I’m pregnant right now, as I started this pregnancy heavier than I ended with my first pregnancy). But I really hate my arms and I always have. I was a cheerleader in high school and was strong, so my arms were bigger then, but never toned, muscular, just big. And they’ve stayed that way. I would change my arm size and my teeth. those are pretty small things, right? I also recognize those things can be changed now…but I don’t have the money for perfect teeth and lifting weights and losing weight has never changed the appearance of my arms.

    Those bangs make you look so much like your oldest daughter!

  13. I am 26 but I look so young, people frequently think I’m in high school and it is so annoying! I have acne, not terrible but moderate, and scarring, which I feel at my age adds to the “teen” look. So I’d get rid of that. Or maybe I should start wearing lipstick as another commenter mentioned above! I did add eyeliner a couple years ago and I feel like it helps, but I don’t know how else to look older, haha!

    1. Me too Colleen! Once when I went to the library someone asked why I wasn’t in school. :P I also overheard some kids saying I looked way too young to drive. I’m in my 30s now, but I still have acne and feel like I look like I’m in high school (and not in a good, youthful way).

      1. I figured out that dairy products and food containing dairy products was causing my acne. It’s annoying but nothing else has worked and I’m juuust vain enough to stick with it.

  14. Excellent topic! I would hope that most people would want to be themselves with a little improvement here and there. I would love to be perceived as taller, less sunspots on my face, and my lazy eyelid raised to match the other one. The only problem with this whole idea is that it would make people watching less interesting. It’s the flaws that make people interesting and fun to look at. Hmm, maybe I should revise my answer above.

    1. Alicia — I love that talk and her final point to pass these important findings along to people who really need them. I teach mostly non-traditional adult learners, and I always share this TED talk with them (and it’s helpful for me, too!).

  15. It’s like the Bruce Willis movie “Surrogates”; have you seen it? I thought it was very thought provoking and entertaining. I have gotten to a point where I am mostly thankful for my body and its quirks. God made me and I need to eat healthily and move and be good to my body, but beyond that I am mostly accepting of myself. So I hope I would not choose to make any drastic changes beyond what I do currently (very occasional makeup, hair cut, nail polish every now and then etc)…I hope we never get to that point!

  16. Appearance has been on my mind a lot lately. Last fall I had a bike accident. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t bad – no head injuries, no broken bones, still have all my teeth, etc, but I had a lot of superficial damage to my face – they stopped counting stitches at 40. The plastic surgeon who stitched me up did a fantastic job and you can barely see the scars, but the shape of my mouth is just the tiniest bit different than it was before. A tiny bit more lopsided, the upper lip just a little more pulled up, the bow the tiniest bit off from before. Nobody but me notices. But I REALLY notice. That tiny, tiny difference and it is like a stranger in the mirror. It is a nice mouth, but it isn’t mine.

    I’m trying to embrace it. I took it as an opportunity to change my look – I cut my hair super short for the first time since I was 10. I figure if I have to get used to a stranger in the mirror I might as well go big.

    But if this future you describe really happens, my avatar will totally have my old mouth.

  17. As unhappy as I am with my appearance and aspects of my personality, I have never wanted to look like someone else… just a better version of myself. And I would rather achieve that through legitimate means than having others think or see differently. At the end of the day, it’s actually how I see myself that matters, so being able to have others see me differently isn’t the problem. My husband wonders why I still have issues with myself when he’s always telling me how good I look. :) If only it were that easy…

  18. I always think that every person is so aware of his own appearance that most others do not see … I think that social relations I say more about how they see us
    kisses for you

  19. I think it’s more a matter of self perception or in how we perceive that others perceive us. Whenever I look at pictures of myself from the past I always remark how good I looked but how back then I thought I was not looking good (usually I think I need to lose weight/get in shape). When I was a girl I thought my sister was beautiful and I was the ugly duckling which I know now was far different from how others perceived me. That little girl still very much creeps up inside of me. On a different note, usually when I am more healthy (eating right/exercising/sleeping enough) I perceive myself to be more attractive and I groom myself accordingly. Or maybe the grooming helps my perception but I think it is most likely the other way around. You have lots of ideas on a huge topic. I wonder what point you’ll come to for further exploration.

    1. “Usually when I am more healthy (eating right/exercising/sleeping enough) I perceive myself to be more attractive and I groom myself accordingly”.

      TOTALLLY TRUE for me too.

      I’m also very on board with the notion that it’s more about “how we perceive that others perceive us”. I think that in the end . . . it’s all LARGELY self perception/judgement. Take as an example people who are sure everyone is judging them and their situation when in truth almost no one is even aware of what’s going on (i.e. – the specifics of a divorce for example ).

  20. Crazy sci-fi, or potential near-future reality? What a fantastic topic. It would be a slippery slope, wouldn’t it, to just take off a few pounds, and then maybe straighten this, or curve that….I think some people, much like life now, would handle it well, and others would take it to the extreme. What happens when we would see ourselves in the mirror? Could we only change how others see us? Would we constantly change our ‘outer’ perception and continue to be unhappy internally? And, would we lose what each culture values as ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ to some more collective sense of what is Beautiful? Homogenizational beauty would then make everyone the same- so what would set others off as beautiful then? Crazy to think about. Lots of rich topics to mine.

    1. Slippery slope is right on.

      I generally like the way I look, but I can see how easy it would be “fix” little things here and there until I wasn’t even recognizable anymore.

  21. Man, you look gorgeous. I mean, you look beautiful no matter what, but the bangs give you a very sophisticated look…Love it!

  22. OK, so first I saw this beautiful picture of you and felt compelled to make a comment immediately . THEN (only then) did I read the whole post.
    Would I change my appearance? I think not. For the most part, I feel great in my own skin and as I said in the previous post on turning 40, I can’t wait and I think I look better now than when I was say in my 20’s. I do wish grey hair didn’t exist!!
    But on a serious note, my parents were so encouraging and loving to me , growing up that I never really had self esteem issues and that is a true gift. I never felt that I had to be perfect or anything like that, physically or other. My main concern is to be healthy and make smart choices when it comes to food for my family and myself.

  23. I have to be honest: I can’t even be bothered to think about changing my appearance from person to person. In my current life stage, I can barely get one look a day going! People are just going to have to take me as I am. :)

  24. I remember going to bed sobbing when I was 12 because I didn’t have boobs yet and wishing that I could have an avatar to represent me at school every day so that I wouldn’t have to go to school as my (flat) self. At that age I imagined a robot that I could live inside, protected from the outside world.

    These days I’m pretty happy with my body. I’m about to hit 40 and something has softened with the way my face looks, apparently, because lately I’ve noticed people talking to me much more often than when I was younger: they ask me questions about where stuff is or how to find stuff or to take their photo. I think I must look like a nice, non threatening Mom! And I am. So I guess that’s ok.

  25. I have a Southern accent, and sadly, I have witnessed that some people in the Midwest believe that I am not an educated person because of it. I have a college degree, as well as education past college, and an above average I.Q. I wonder why people judge others based on accent?

  26. Oh, I popped over for a recipe for dinner and caught this post! First-the bangs.. tres chic! I dramatically change my hair about every 2 years color and all. It makes me have fun with new clothing and jewelry and keeps ME interested in taking care of myself! Often that means I have to find new hairdressers, they don’t seem to want to take the same ride I do, haha! My short hair this last time made me feel a bit less female even though I had short hair a lot when I was younger. I do very much believe people glance at you and see if they can “connect” with you (yes, some people judge) but I think it goes deeper than that. People want to get a quick glimpse of who they think you are and we often help them often-Kate Spade bag-preppy urban chic, Birkenstocks-hippie (or new hippie chic) Blunt bangs…cool rock chic or French film star :)

  27. In college I took a class called Self and Society. We talked about something (I don’t remember the name for it) that bugged us about ourselves and we felt like people notice but most the time it was more extreme to us than to others. I wish I could explain it better but the concept is so interesting to me still. We were supposed to ask people things that bugged them most about their appearance. I was dating a new guy at the time and I quickly assumed his would be the long scar across his forehead but it wasn’t, he said his teeth were yellow and not straight. I had not noticed his teeth.

    I think sometimes the things that we think stand out negatively about our appearance aren’t noticed by other people.

  28. Your bangs look terrific!

    I had bangs at one point and loved them until I got home and showered and then they just wouldn’t fall right. Probably because my hair is dead straight with no body (unless I get a professional blow out) and my low maintenance style didn’t seem to lend itself well to bangs. Still, seeing yours kind of tempts me again!

  29. I turned 40 in this past March and I’ve been putting myself through beauty bootcamp. I grew up with an old school feminist orientation. I felt that those girls in high school who focused on looks were inherently shallow; the time dedicated to such things could be used more productively. While I was naturally cute, I never learned how do hair, make up, nails or even how to shop for flattering clothes for myself. Clear into my career as a lawyer, I didn’t wear heels or makeup. My hair had never been colored or permed.

    Well about a year ago, my white hairs started to get very obvious. (I’m Asian so the the contrast is stark.) Then I ascended to a somewhat prominent position where my photo was being taken frequently. These things along with the big 4-0 looming on the horizon suddenly motivated me where there wasn’t any previous impetus. I started coloring my hair. I hung out at the make up store trying on different brands of make up and perfume. I started reading nail blogs and buying a couple of bottles of polish a week. Also, I started wearing heels– higher and higher ones. I joined a gym and dropped from a size 10 to a size 6.

    My family does think I’m going through a midlife crisis. They can’t believe the same “I hate shopping” girl is now wearing stilettos and crazy nail art. I do have pangs of guilt that I am descending into shallowness. But generally, I think of myself as just a late bloomer, learning and doing the things I should have done when I was younger, but for my youthful idealism. :)

  30. Love this topic. I have been thinking about it myself lately. I have been feeling a backlash against heavy makeup and photoshopping. I feel annoyed and disappointed at photos in magazines where the women seriously don’t even look real. I mean, how insulting! I have no doubt that those women are truly beautiful – and it’s frustrating that someone thinks their skin looks better when it doesn’t even look human! I have been feeling this in real life too – I grew up in NYC and it has always seemed to me that women there generally go for a more natural look (possibly because of the heat and humidity?). I now live in a dry, cool. place out west and women here wear a lot more makeup. And also “do” their hair. Don’t get me wrong, I often wear eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara and maybe fix my bangs – so I am NOT against some “doing”, but I truly think people are more beautiful with only slight enhancements.

    That being said, I turn 30 this year and as a bday gift to myself, I am going to get my teeth whitened! :)

  31. Your bangs look bangin! :) Had to say it. I met you at Alt last week and you worked those bangs. They look fantastic. I recently had a similar experience when I cut and colored my hair to look a bit more “rock ‘n’ roll” because one of my colleagues said I looked matronly. That seemed to trigger something in me and I reacted with the funky cut and a pink streak. But then I also started playing roller derby again (something I did before I became a mother) and that felt like much more of an empowering change for me. Weird, right? For me it’s tough to navigate my experience when measured by others’ perceptions. Yet when I feel pretty/hip/smart/whatever, I think I give off that energy.

  32. what I wish is that the topic of looks would just go away. I wish it wasn’t so important to everyone. I grew up in a household where it was always a topic and everyone was judged partly by how good looking they were! I hate it. I was sucked into it. Now, since being married and joining a family where it really holds no importance, just being healthy is, I can see how immature and vain it is. Obviously there is always a moment for us to think about what to do with our hair or what color lipstick to wear, it is fun, but we shouldn’t think much more about it than that. It really doesnt matter. I would let everyone see how I really look!!

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