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When Your Appearance Matters

Do you feel pressure about your appearance? We live in a social media environment where everything is very visual. In order to keep up, we can feel we have to be ready to post pictures of ourselves at any time of the day? It feels like we need to be 'photo ready' at all times. If you are feeling self-conscious, for whatever reason, this can feel like a lot of pressure. Your 'appearance' in the broad sense of how you appear to others is made up of many things; be it clothes, makeup, likes and dislikes. It becomes part of that overall online curation of your life to present to others.

It is also true that we cannot always change how we look. There’s a minority of people who feel entitled to comment on, or even criticize, appearance in others. This is even more likely on social media. Those odd, hurtful comments can be powerful and damaging.

So, it is important that we take seriously someone’s anxiety over their appearance because it can be a very real pressure for them. It can be particularly difficult for young people to manage because they are still working out so many aspects of how they want to present themselves to the world.

However, just reassuring someone that they 'look fine' may not solve the problem as they see it. When we think about the psychology of this, it doesn't matter if most other people think that your appearance is OK, or even lovely. Research has shown us that it doesn’t necessarily make us feel better about it. What matters most is how you see yourself.

Some young people with conditions or injuries will always look different. But this post isn’t a call to a collective weep over how awful things are. The key predictors of high self-esteem and confidence are social skills and having a good support network around you. And those are things that we can work on.

It is important to focus on activities that you enjoy and opportunities to build friendships. It is also about how important appearance is to you. If appearance becomes the most important or interesting thing about you, whether good or bad, it becomes your story. Then if there are any changes, or days when you don't feel confident about it, then it will have a much bigger impact on you.

The key thing is to find the other things about you that are important. Concentrate on things that are not tied up with appearance - your friends, hobbies or interests and what you are good at. It is a cliche to say that 'it matters more how gorgeous you are on the inside than on the outside" but it is a cliche because it is true. Your true friends and family are going to care much more about how kind, thoughtful, helpful, interesting, friendly, funny etc. you are than they will ever care about how good your hair is looking today. And although we understand there can be a lot of emotion around how you look, the best way to balance that is to invest time, effort and concentration on other things that matter. Challenge any internal, critical voice you notice. Remind yourself about all the other things about you that are great.

We know that there are young people out there who have significant differences in how they look. Many of them make friends, socialize, do well at school and get on with their lives in brilliant ways. It can be difficult, but they achieve all that because they have realized that their appearance isn't the most important thing about them. They are telling the stories about themselves that they want to tell. Making sure that their story or their feed is not just about their illness, or injury, or appearance this week.

The more we can all do that, the better the rest of society would be. Young people have a huge capacity to change attitudes. Look at climate change protests, or acceptance of non-binary gender, where the next generation have shown older ones how to behave. It would be helpful for everyone to demonstrate that it is OK to be different. We can all help those who have a different appearance, by focusing on other things.

As a society wouldn't it be great if we could all demonstrate that there are much more interesting stories to be told than just those about outward appearance!

Best wishes, Helen

Dr Helen Care, Clinical Psychologist at

psychology that works for you

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