The ROI of beauty

Empirically, the most accomplished, intelligent people I know couldn’t give two fks about beauty standards.

All the same, it is super popular and desired. Being beautiful seems to serve a purpose beyond health and attraction. I am wondering what that is.

I followed Jessi Kneeland a few years ago after seeing a recommendation on Greatist. Obsessed with HIIT, the fitness-junkie in me rejoiced at finding her, fit as a tennis ball.

 

So many women- clients, friends, and strangers- off handedly apologize to me or feel shame for not "having their shit together" like I do. Which always strikes me as strange, because I don't have my shit together either. We all have gifts. I just found a way to pursue and teach mine. But trust me, I have just as many "issues" as anyone else. I like to think I deal with them compassionately and patiently, but that doesn't mean they're not there. I don't see any particular reason to spend time lamenting stuff I suck at, because focusing on my gifts is so much more fulfilling! So I guess what I'm saying is this: stop giving all your power to the stuff you suck at. Stop comparing your gifts and weaknesses to other people's gifts and weaknesses. Just find some shit you're amazing at, and do more of it. Focus on your gifts, and enjoy the absolute shit out of sharing them. #mindset #selfesteem #confidence #dharmayogawheel #yoga #bodyimage #remodelfitness #gifts

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In the last year, she switched from being a fitness guru to a body image coach:

“Here are some of the boxes which a modern woman must check in order to be hot. (You’ll notice that many of these are actually “achieved” through effort, skill, time, and money, rather than inborn):
➡️A thin/toned hourglass body
➡️Big perky breasts
➡️Long femme smooth hair
➡️Youthful appearance
➡️Big doe eyes
➡️Kardashian level makeup
➡️Smooth and hairless skin
➡️Well-fitted clothing and high heels
➡️A particular way of moving, speaking and posture.” Source

I think this is a really interesting point: hotness is down to the amount of energy you put into it. My personal experience would be congruent with her ideas.

“Women were taught that our purpose in life was to be desirable enough to “snag” a good partner.”

That is certainly the idea being thrown around by “empowering” publications. I think any woman who was told this and bought it already had issues with her self-respect.

I went through a rebellious phase when I was around 12. Sporting short hair with a touch of pink, I was asked to stay behind after class. The teacher didn’t bring up anything academic. She told me that she does not approve of my image and that women ought to have lovely long hair.

I told her that I don’t subscribe to her standards of what women “ought” and could she please refrain from biting into my after school time unless absolutely necessary.

Being a rebellious teenager seems to be like chicken pox. It’s better to get over it when you are a teenager.

I’m not immune from societal expectations. I do admit to feeling a little ill when seeing some of the casual modelling that goes on on Instagram.

But if I were to feel bad when watching the Oscars for not being a movie star or feel bad when going to a gallery for not being an artist, that would be silly.

It’s best not to confuse societal expectations and your own. But this is where it gets interesting:

“Beauty standards got invented to help women be more competitive in the man-snagging market, and the whole thing escalated endlessly until we all have to look like airbrushed celebrities in order to be “good enough”.

Indeed, what is the point of beauty standards if not to attract a partner?

“I wondered if women who aren’t attracted to men might worry less about looking “hot,” since the whole women-as-beautiful-sex-objects thing was made by and for men, right?”

Basically, she asked LGBT women. As an experiment, this didn’t control for the “looking for a partner” aspect, only for “looking for a male partner”.

“The feedback I got proved this shit has nothing to do with men at all: being gay does *not* seem to offer ANY freedom from the pressures of the male gaze, beauty standards, or insecurities…

It’s not for men. So then what are doing this all for?”

What if we tried to control for “looking for a partner”? Ask married people? Well, they still have to “maintain a parter”, so that’s out.

So why do women do it?

A lot of men do the male equivalent, but it seems that that’s not quite as common.

Is it literally being gullible? These standards are floating out there, so we adapt them with the idea that… That what? It will make us better people? Plug holes in our self-esteem?

Or is it literally just down to being a more attractive partner? But that doesn’t add up because (from what I can tell) a lot of men don’t like women who fulfil the “hotness standards” outlined above.

So, either the purpose of looking hot is to find/maintain a partner, only the method is miscalculated, or there is some other reason. Let’s consider proving your worth as a reason.

Traditionally, men had other ways of proving their worth, e.g. their work. That’s increasingly popular with women. In that case, looks should be less important in today’s society than they were 200 years ago. I have no way whatsoever of testing that.

It’s well known that beautiful people are assumed to be more persuasive, trustworthyintelligent and generally better.

The question then arises: is it worth it?… Cause it is hard work – as Jessi has shown us above.

Curious as to what you think!

UPD: This is a really interesting perspective on gender issues.

Another reason to be less demanding

“I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

I came across the idea that our self-esteem is equal to our opinion of others.

Sounds esoteric, but I reflected on it and there may be something to it.

Assumption:

A mentally well person accepts that she is an ordinary human being and that most people who surround her are ordinary human beings.

Hence,

a) if she is highly critical of most ordinary human beings, on an average day she is critical of herself

b) if she is accepting of others’ faults,on an average day she accepts her own faults

Doesn’t this add up?

I sort of talked about this when I hypothesised that people criticise others for the things they hate about themselves. Reading over it, it seems naive and slightly needy, but I still think there was a grain of truth in it.

“Yet another reason to not be a demanding pig”, I gently remind myself.

An age-old fable that teaches self-esteem

One day a young man came to the Teacher and said:

“I came to you because I feel so pathetic and worthless that I do not even want to be alive. Everyone around me is saying that I’m a loser, a useless idiot. I need your help, Teacher.”

The Teacher, glancing at the young man, hurriedly responded:

“I’m sorry, but I’m very busy right now, so I can not help you. I need to urgently settle a very important matter.” He added: “But if you agree to help me in my quest, then I will gladly help you in yours.”

how to have higher self esteem

“With … with pleasure, Teacher,” he muttered, noting with bitterness that he was once again being treated as less important.

“Very well,” said the Teacher. He removed from his left little finger a small ring with a beautiful stone.

“Take the horse and ride down to the market square! I need to urgently sell this ring to pay a debt. Try to get as high a price as you can get and do not agree to the price lower than a gold coin under any circumstances! Head down and return as soon as possible!”

The young man took the ring and rode away. Arriving at the market square, he began to offer the ring to the merchants. At first, they looked upon the ring with interest.

asian wisdom fable abut self-esteem

However, when they heard about the gold coin, they immediately lost all interest in the ring. Some openly laughed in his face, others simply turned away, and only one elderly merchant kindly explained to him that a gold coin is too high a price for such a ring and that only a copper coin, or at the very most a silver one, can be gotten for it.

Hearing the old man’s words, the young man was very upset because he remembered the Teacher’s order was not to lower the price below a gold coin. The young man tried again. He went around the whole market offering the ring to a good hundred people. Defeated, the young man once again saddled his horse and returned. Feeling like a failure, he approached the Teacher.

“Teacher, I was not able to complete your assignment,” he said sadly. “At best, I could have gotten a pair of silver coins for the ring, but you ordered not to settle for less than gold! I don’t know whether this ring is worth a gold coin.”

“You just said very important words, son!” replied the Teacher. “Before trying to sell the ring, it would be nice to establish its true value! Well, who could do that better than a jeweller? Ride down to the jeweller and ask him how much he will offer us for the ring. Only, whatever he tells you, do not sell the ring. Come back to me.” The young man again jumped on his horse and went to the jeweller.

how to develop high self-esteem

The jeweller took his time examining the ring through a magnifying glass. He then weighed it on small scales and, finally, turned to the young man:

“Tell the Teacher that I can not give him more than fifty-eight gold coins at this time.” But, if he gives me two days, I’ll buy the ring for seventy, given the urgency of the matter.

“Seventy coins?” the young man laughed happily. He thanked the jeweller and rushed back in full gallop.

“Sit down here,” said the Teacher, listening to the young man’s animated story. “And know, son, that you are this very ring. Precious and irreplaceable! Only a true expert can appreciate you. So why are you walking around the bazaar, expecting the first person to do this?”

~

The fable doesn’t address the existence of incompetent or fraudulent jewellers, but you get the point. It is to find the right assessor, a jeweller. I like the fable, but I don’t really use this view of self-esteem. It is always a recipe for unhappiness to rely on someone else to tell you your worth, whoever the proverbial jeweller may be: a loved one, a boss, a child, whoever.

For me personally, self-esteem is something that comes free with being alive. I take a Nietzsche-like view on it: to be alive in an of itself is valuable, here and now. No need to wait for a heaven or an enlightenment, no need for approval from other entities. You are responsible for your actions and adaptations, but that’s all you can do. Something somewhere conspired to create the reader and me despite the seemingly omnipresent entropy of the world. Isn’t that enough proof for the fact that we’re worth a lot?

This logic breaks down if you look around and see other people as being worthless. Thing is, I don’t. That’s not to say that I’ve never met anyone I don’t like, but I genuinely see every living creature as worthy (though for some of them, I prefer that they exercise their worthiness somewhere away from me, for example, the family of carpet moths that infested my living room a few years ago. I wish I could let them live, but alas, it was them or me.)

So my answer is that we have to be our own jewellers. Moreover, we should spend most of our time purifying the metal and finding the clearest and most precious stones for what we bring to the world rather than worrying whether we can sell for one, 58 or 70 coins.

Validation and self-esteem

I’ll drop my glove, to prove his love; great glory will be mine.

Leigh Hunt

Vanity and fair are simple words. However, it was only recently that I understood what these words mean together. In more contemporary English, it means an exchange of validation between two people. What got me thinking about it is the book I recently read by Robert Cialdini called Influence. It describes the mechanics of how easily people’s need for validation  can be used to play them in a Machiavellian way.

Validation is always a treat. We must be wired for it. Given that humans are social animals, it makes sense to yearn for validation as it increases one’s chances of survival. If one is part of a tribe (i.e. accepted/validated by the tribe), he/she is less likely to get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. However, it seems that this pathway gets hijacked an awful lot.

addicted to validation

I think the best way to explain this is by looking at an extreme example: narcissism, because the logic is the same no matter where someone is on the spectrum. I grew up with and subsequently encountered some florid narcissists – though I didn’t always know it at the time. While the full blown narcissistic personality disorder is relatively uncommon, traits thereof appear quite ubiquitous. I will loosely use the word narcissistic here to signify anyone with traits of the disorder. During my late teens I loved high-achieving people and hated arrogance. It made no sense to me why somebody would act so unpleasantly. I thought that arrogant people believe they are better and that I am not worth their time. It turns out that’s only half-true.*

I subsequently figured out – through a mix of psychiatry training and reading (Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is brilliant for this) – that arrogance is a form of insecurity. However, the exact same insecurity can be revealed through being super friendly (hence, not all narcissistic people are arrogant**).

Much of it boils down to the source of one’s self-esteem. I hypothesise that a self-esteem based on external circumstances is one of the factors that contributes to much unhappiness and perhaps even the poorly understood personality disorders – such as narcissistic, histrionic and emotionally unstable.

What does that actually mean? What is it like to be narcissistic (or a person with some narcissistic traits)? Most people think they are deluded with their own glory. This can be true – if the narcissistic person doesn’t have insight into just how hooked they are on validation. Sadly, having insight doesn’t instantly cure it. If the person with narcissistic traits does have insight, it’s a never ending cycle of feeling high from validation, feeling pathetic for being like that and seeking more validation to take the edge of. New Insights Into Narcissistic Personality Disorder highlights their fragility, internal vulnerability and external self-enhancement, their attempts to regulate insecurity by numbing emotion, especially in interpersonal contexts and their preoccupation with blame, and criticism.

For some, it is “I think therefore, I am”. For people with narcissistic tendencies, it is “I produce a good reflection, therefore I am worth existing.”

Interestingly, patients with narcissistic personality disorder have intact cognitive empathic ability and can identify with thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others. However, their capacity for emotional empathy is compromised, especially their ability to care about and share feelings of others.

Having one’s self esteem decided by external factors is hugely painful. It’s like waking up every morning and feeling awful about oneself – and yearning to encounter something or someone in the world that will prove that one’s actually worth something. No amount of proof will ever stop this feeling of emptiness for very long.

This proof could be likes on a social media post, getting any sort of good news, a reassuring friend, attention from a member of their desired sex – anything that reminds them that they aren’t near worthless (which is the default setting). This is also why so many narcissistic people are high achievers. Actually “being the best” is sometimes the only way to get rid of the pain.

If one’s self-esteem is only lifted from the depth of despair by accomplishments (validation), then he/she will do anything to accomplish – and ease the pain.

If one’s self-esteem is set externally, validation is like an addictive drug. If it’s  set internally, validation is like an occasional glass of wine. These two types of self-esteem are also knows as contingent and non-contingent.

However, what does that even mean, “set internally”? Having an interest in mindfulness, I often come across things like loving-acceptance, unconditional positive regard, etc. Maybe the reader understands them better, but more often than not, they make me feel like there’s something fake there. To me, an internally-controlled self-esteem means answering the question: is a person proud of his/her actions.

It’s impossible to hold oneself fully responsible for one’s circumstances. Yes, over time, patterns emerge that reflect the small decisions made everyday. However, there is so much beyond our control that one needs to be cautious making conclusions about themselves based on results. As all of these kind of musings, this is specific to the person in question. Some people are perhaps too laid back about how much they control and others – too intensely determined to control everything. (See this post on how to find good tailored advice.)

I think that one has to always learn from their results, but it isn’t always true that their results are a reflection of their actions. Even learning from results is tough because it is so hard to attribute results to causes.

So to bring one’s self-esteem back to being internal, one can only judge whether he/she is happy with their actions and decisions given the information they had at the time.

This post is to some extent inspired by N.N. Taleb’s commencement speech transcript. It’s not like any commencement speech I’d heard before. He says:

…I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel.

Taleb says that by his definition, he’s not successful. Fair enough. However, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who lacks in self-esteem. This goes back to how different people use the same words to mean different things. Obviously, to Taleb being successful is a kind of a luxury, not a must-have. Otherwise, if one looked in the mirror and resented themselves everyday, that’s a shortcut to despair.

need for validation ruins self-esteem

I wonder what it’s like for other people. For me, my 18 year old self had no clue about how the world works, so I can’t adopt this definition of success – it’s pretty useless to me. Maybe though, that’s Taleb’s point – that one should think back to their idealistic self and see what they would think. I probably shouldn’t say what my 18 year old self would think of me now, but I do wonder what Taleb got up to so that he doesn’t approve of.

I think that’s it though – reconnecting with one’s internal self-esteem is an uncanny exercise of separating oneself into two people and getting one to judge the other’s decision and actions – not their results.

Perhaps, at this point the concept of acceptance become relevant. Otherwise, it is the same old addiction to validation sugar coated with forced positive thinking.

* Whether a narcissistic person believes they are better depends on their insight into the need for validation and their actual achievements. However, narcissists do prefer to associate with people they see as being worthy of surrounding them.

** Some narcissistic people are sweet and charming. Different people use different strategies to feel special and seem worthwhile to others.

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how to regain self-esteem narcissism