Gray hair, Botox, liposuction, nose-piercing, and happiness–do appearance and attractiveness matter?

The other night, I sat down to read Anne Kreamer’s Going Gray and practically didn’t get up again until I’d finished it.

Going Gray is her account of her decision to stop dying her hair – why she decided to “go gray,” how she did it, and how she felt about it. On the one hand, she wanted to accept herself more fully, and stop spending time and money on her hair; on the other hand, she worried about “letting herself go” and whether she’d look less attractive.

I wanted to read the memoir for several reasons. First, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between happiness and attractiveness. It’s complicated. I’m still thinking.

Second, I’m interested in how people express themselves through their appearance – hair, clothes, tattoos, jewelry, etc. At earlier times of her life, Anne Kreamer dyed her hair in a certain way to signal at work that she was a creative, non-corporate type. I want to “Be Gretchen” – how do I translate that into my appearance?

I suppose both of these issues are sub-parts to a single fascinating question: how our outer appearance affects and reflects our inner character.

Anne Kreamer struggles with the issue of authenticity. If we mess with our appearance, does that make us less authentic? Should we accept ourselves as we are? What is the relationship of inner and outer?

Which raises the question – if we do alter our appearance, where’s the line? Some people embrace Botox, face lifts, pierced lips, liposuction, and nose jobs; some people think these interventions are too extreme. If so, is it acceptable to straighten your hair, shave your beard or your legs, pierce your ears, wear make-up, use contact lenses? I can’t think of a single example of a person or group who argues against ANY alteration of a person’s natural appearance (e.g., Amish men trim their beards and if I remember correctly, don’t wear mustaches).

The book was very thought-provoking, and also made me feel lucky in two ways. First, it reminded me that I love having red hair. It’s unusual, but it’s natural. I get the benefit of looking highly individual, but without any effort (or self-questioning).

Also, I never realized quite how lucky I was not to color my hair. I’ve never even put in highlights, because in high school, a hairdresser warned me that red hair can turn brassy.

I always expected to go gray early, partly because that seems like my personality (why? I don’t know), and also because my mother told me that red-haired people tend to go gray early, but so far, I haven’t. Like so many things in life, I’ve completely taken my hair color for granted – but reading this book made me very appreciative of the time, effort, and money I’ve saved.

I’m still struggling to think through the issues related to appearance and happiness. Yes, I know that our appearance SHOULDN’T affect our happiness – but I think it does. Or does it?

Any thoughts? All comments on this subject welcome.

I’m extremely interested in the subject of organ donation, so I was very interested to read Laura Meckler’s front-page story in the Wall Street Journal today: Kidney Shortage Inspires a Radical Idea: Organ Sales. I kept thinking, “Why don’t they get some economists involved, to try to predict the consequences of paying for organs? This isn’t something that doctors think about very much, but some folks do.” And voila, I read this on the excellent Freakonomics blog.

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  • What great timing you have, Gretchen. I’ve been thinking about this topic a great deal, having just finished re-reading The Beauty Myth.
    I believe that there’s a great deal of happiness to be had from colour and costume, play and ornament. However, there’s a large and lucrative industry out there that seems to promote ‘feeling bad’ about perfectly lovely ordinary things (wrinkles, grey hair, freckles, naturally shaped breasts and thighs…) I guess there’s a lot of money to be made from convincing millions of ordinary human beings that it’s not okay to be ordinary.
    I try to find joy in dressing up as a mode of self-expression, while at the same time dismissing the fiction that my appearance is something I ‘need’ to alter to be okay. (Not reading beauty magazines helps!)

  • You started off mentioning the relationship between happiness and attractiveness, then you solicited comments on appearance and happiness. I don’t want to split hairs here–split ends are so unattractive–but I view ‘attractiveness’ as how I perceive the perceptions of others about my looks and ‘appearance’ is my own perception about my looks.
    In the former case, my mood is affected by judgments from those close to me. Much more raw emotion comes from harsh criticism by these folks. I’m not too concerned about what others think.
    For the latter, well, I’m old enough to have switched my concerns to health over handsomeness. Plus, I want my clothes budget to stay within reason and my pants to fit.
    I agree with Helen, even for men, one of the best things to do is drop the subscriptions to the “men’s health” type magazines. If it has a photo of a shirtless man on the cover, you’re better off without it. Buy a fitness book or go online to find a lifting or cardio routine.

  • After seeing how my mom and my grandmother went gray, I’m looking forward to it. Of course, that’s while I’m young.

  • Katie

    Me and my best friend in high school one day observed that it is our own appraisal of how we look that has the greatest affect on our happiness, not so much our actual objective attractiveness.
    For example, most women the first time they wear a new outfit they like get almost a high from it. But, the same outfit worn a hundred times later, even in the exact same shape, does not create the same feeling.
    Or, we can feel we look great just to find out we have some huge thing in our teeth or something.
    Other people noticing we look good can make us feel great, but that is because we believe them and thus change our own thoughts. Ultimately, it is how we feel we look more than how we actually look that affects our happiness.

  • I find myself agreeing with much of what Helen wrote above. I’m loathe to meddle with the characteristics I was born with, but I feel that my appearance from day to day — good hair days and cute outfits together — can drastically affect my mood. If I’m in a Damn-I-Look-Good mood, I find myself skipping about cheerfully in ballet flats and twirling about in skirts. If I’m having what I sometimes refer to as an Ugly Day, I hide in whatever I’m wearing, and try to hide even behind my now-short hair.
    I also find myself to be a fashion chameleon, dressing the chaste beauty when singing in the church choir; the funky artiste when at my web mag internship; the casual business professional when proofreading at the newspaper. It’s a fun thing for me, and I think I do it as much for myself as for the gaze of anyone else.

  • As a practicing hairdresser and the author of a book on happiness, I think I am uniquely qualified to address this issue.
    While it is true that looking good can help people feel good, the deeper truth is that inner peace and happiness exhibit themselves physically.
    Happy people are perceived by others as attractive. People who are at peace with who they are are less likely to look for validation from others. Confidence is attractive.
    Conversly, we have medical studies that show stress causes cells to age and die prematurely. Hair and skin are just a bunch of cells.
    Our society perceives youth and health as attractive.
    Stressed equals old and tired (unattractive.)
    Happy equals youthful and energized (attractive.)
    Truly, beauty is more than skin deep.

  • This post brings to mind one of my favorite TV shows, How to Look Good Naked (
    It’s a British show, but they show it on a lifestyle channel here in Israel.
    It basically helps women to change their self-perceptions. Sure, they give them a bit of a makeover and help them find clothes that best suit their figure, but it is inspiring to see a woman who used to think she looked awful (and who covered everything up to hide it) coming to realize that she actually looks great.
    If it’s available where you live, you should give it a look.

  • May I just say that some women look absolutely lovely with gray hair. There’s this sort of elegance that comes along with it, provided that the hair is taken care of. With such a visually-oriented crowd today, it seems that appearance and attractiveness do matter. Still, I don’t think such attributes can only be achieved through all those artificial means. Happiness, I think, has a lot to contribute to beauty.

  • Ella

    It depends who you are, right? If you are a person who cares about her appearance, then maintaining that appearance is part of your happiness equation. I’m not obsessed with my appearance, but I certainly care about it, and I don’t feel particularly good if I look awful. I love clothes, and I do feel good when I’m dressed nicely. So, recognizing that a key to happiness is to “Be Ella,” dressing nicely is one (small) part of my happiness regime – it makes me happy to have a pared-down closet in which everything fits well, is in good condition, and looks well on me. I decided a couple of years ago to “spend out” by purchasing fewer and higher-quality items of clothing each season. That has worked well for me – I like to have a few perfect things rather than a lot of ok ones, and there is great pleasure to be had in a beautifully-made dress, if you like that sort of thing.
    If I tried to deny that looking nice makes me happy, that would be inconsistent with “being Ella.” On the other hand, if I tried to adopt a complicated makeup routine or a high-maintenance haircut, that would also be a departure from my true self and wouldn’t make me happy.
    I believe there is research, btw, demonstrating that critically ill patients report feeling a bit happier when someone helps them to look nice – to put on some makeup, do their hair, etc.

  • Ella

    One more thing – I had the world’s longest awkward phase when I was younger. I felt unattractive from childhood and all through my teens – I had braces forever, was too skinny, and didn’t know how to manage my hair. I got my act together, appearance-wise, in late college – and it still makes me happy, fifteen years later, to look in the mirror and feel that I look nice. So I think appearance can be a huge part of happiness, and that there isn’t as much of a hedonic treadmill with this as there is with other things. Though I do wonder whether people who do more drastic things with their appearance (plastic surgery, e.g.) experience a hedonic-treadmill effect.

  • Aliza

    When I met my brith mother (I was 20 and she was 37) she had long, gorgeous salt and pepper hair. I looked forward to having the same hair. Why wouldn’t I? I looked like her, right?
    Fast forward almost 30 years – I still have my reddish-brown hair, with a few grays tucked in(so people will know it’s my color! No-one believes me!!). No-one believes my age – they think I’m in my late 30’s, not on the cusp on 50.
    Do I have a special beauty routine I follow to keep so young looking? Nope.

  • Debbie M

    Like Doug, I also see a difference between appearance and attractiveness.
    When I think of “appearance,” I think of how other people judge us and react to us. If you want to get hired, you might do things like pull out your piercings, cover your tattoos, cut your hair (or wear a short-hair wig), color your hair to look younger or more creative, shave your beard, trim your nails, etc. If you want to get a loan at a bank, you might wear a suit. My brother says that if you’re a male pedestrian, having long hair increases your odds of having a police officer pull his car over and ask you the nature of your business in that neighborhood.
    I usually just do what’s comfortable, cheap, and has pretty colors, but really have to remember that I’m also putting out some sort of message about myself. When I ask, I’ve been told that the message I accidentally put out tends to be that I’m librarian-like, geek-like, and maybe hippie-like. I also look sweet and harmless. I’m okay with all of that, so it works out. I know someone who shaves his head and has a big bushy black beard in winter, so he looks somewhat intimidating. He’s not actually a scary guy, but if someone is bothering him at the movie theatre, all he has to do is turn and look at them and raise one eyebrow. Problem solved.
    People who have to deal with racism and similar problems are probably supremely aware that appearance can affect your happiness this way. So to increase happiness, it’s probably a good idea to make your image(s) work for you as well as you can.
    When I think of “attractiveness,” that’s where the botox and stuff comes in. But the sad part is how little attractiveness really matters once you get to know a person (except for that weird thing where people look like their spouses and their pets). If you like them, they start to seem more attractive and if you don’t, less. Here, I would agree with Aura May that being happy makes you seem more attractive, so the causation is the other direction.
    From this perspective, happiness depends more on what you’re doing or accomplishing than on what you look like. And it probably helps to brainwash yourself into liking how you naturally look. Once I realized that I had the exact same hair as this totally cute guy I was dating, it was easier to realize that I had pretty hair.
    Another strategy is focusing on your good parts. I think everyone has bad parts and good parts and you can choose which to focus on. If you focus on “fixing” the “bad” parts, you can always find ever more minor “bad” parts that need fixing (see Michael Jackson). Plus, most of the time, what you think of as your bad parts, someone else actually likes. People have told me they like my long straggly hair (although mostly it’s little old ladies who can’t grow their own hair long anymore), and people have even said that my crooked buck teeth are “cute” rather than hideous. There’s no accounting for tastes, but hey, if someone likes it, how bad can it be? All those other people (including me) can just deal with it.
    I wish everyone would feel free to look graying and bald and to have every kind of nose shape and sticking out ears and sticking out ear hairs, etc. because that’s what people look like.
    But then I think Ella brings up a third issue which is how what you look like directly affects your own feelings. I definitely get happy on the days I get to wear my favorite outfits. I had a friend who would wear fancy lingerie every day, even if it was under sweats, because she felt beautiful that way. Actors and others find it easier to get into the right roles when they look right for the role. For example, people supposedly do better in telephone interviews if they are dressed in a suit than if they are dressed in sweats—it makes you sit up straighter and remember how serious things are. And actually smiling makes you come across better on the phone, even though your listener can’t see you smiling.
    Wow, there sure are a lot of issues here!

  • Daria

    Well here is a different view – perhaps. But first absolutely I believe we women need to find our empowerment in aging – however we need to claim it.
    Now about the issue of grey hair:) I’m European born of so called cultured European parents and we emigrated when I was just a child. Well my mother, and grandmother, and all their women friends had this kind of style, where they always knew now to look, well classsy AND all the women died their hair, always. Even my Omi, who lived to be 98!
    I have to be honest but that well put together look really appeals to me. The women I’m talking about had no facelifts – oh maybe an eye lift here and there, many wrinkles to show the passing of time – but they were so well put together.
    My sister and I are now at the age of getting some grey hair and we decided – absolutely – it’s not for us. We love the European classy look and we decided that we’re sticking with it. We are dying our hair!
    so there you have it.

  • ori

    To me, the elephant in the room (or in the comments) is being fat. I’m not speaking about health (we all know it’s healthier to be trim), but about pure appearances. In our society, being fat is a source of deep shame. It’s more difficult to find romantic partners. I think being fat is a source of deep unhappiness. I used to be quite fat. (I’m 5’1 and my highest weight was 180.) I’m now less fat, but still pretty chubby. (I’m 150, give or take.) I can say with confidence that being a bit fat is much better than being very fat, in terms of my happiness. And I hope that being thin (which I plan to be) will be happier than being fat. I think it might be like money… being thin doesn’t make you happy, but it doesn’t hurt, at least to a point. Thoughts?

  • I think it’s really difficult to separate positive and negative interpretations when it comes to appearances. It’s so complex.
    What I mean is, some people are plain bigoted about heavier people, and others are just attracted to what looks to them like healthy personal maintenance. And the same goes for everything else to do with appearances: appearances can tell you genuine information that matters about a person, or set off your prejudices. Reacting to appearances is a very instinctive level of brain processing, isn’t it?
    Taking good care of oneself is very important, and the moral kind of “selfishness”- you can’t love your neighbour “as yourself” if you treat yourself horribly. So I don’t agree that appearances should have no significance whatever- style and grooming matter! (I’m old-fashioned)

  • Nell

    Grey hair really touches a nerve with me. I am from a family in which early greying is genetic — my grandfather was completely white before he turned thirty. I’m in my mid-thirties and started dying six months ago, when the grey started to become a streak rather than glitter. I’m ambivalent about it: when I stop to think about it, I feel like a bit of a fake. But on the other hand, I look young and having greys made me feel old. Not seeing them makes me feel younger, and thus happier. When my husband starts to go bald, I’ll leave off dying my hair.

  • I’ve been going gray since I was in my early 20s. At first I found it beautiful, but after I turned 30 I decided I looked older than my age and it was making me unhappy. Getting it colored professionally, while expensive and full of chemicals that I hate to have touch my body, made me feel beautiful again. That’s what works for me. When I’m 40, I want to let it go and turn silver. My mom’s silvery hair is part of what makes her a knockout.

  • Rachel

    When I was right out of college and starting to figure out how to live with integrity — in terms of my role in a diverse community, simplicity, vocation, and life choices — I pierced my nose as a symbol of my transformation from generic suburban white girl to someone who knew herself and what she stands for. Six years later, when I practically forget I have a piercing until older ladies or children point it out to me, I was told I had to remove it for a job offer I had already accepted. This felt like a huge betrayal to myself and the identity I had come to embrace and be proud of, and I debated for two days whether to decline the position. So yes, personal appearance is linked to my identity and to my happiness, and I feel “fake” when I remove the piercing to play the role of “corporate professional.” FYI — I did accept the job, but I cheat sometimes and wear my piercing when I’m working away from the office, and I also have my eyes open for another position where I can be fully myself.

  • smilie

    Your hair looks absolutely lovely on your picture. I’m a bit jealous 🙂 Red hair is so cool, especially natural red hair. I was bright blonde as a child, then turned mousy darkish blonde, such a terribly boring color…so instead, I’ve been white blonde, medium blonde, highlighted blonde, light brunette, highlighed brunette, medium brunette, reddish brunette – I haven’t seen my real hair color since I was 14 (25 now)! Having my hair done makes me happy, I feel pretty and put together. I try not to think about the chemicals though! And I don’t do it very often, I try to manage until the growth looks terrible.
    Another thing…I’ve never heard that red hair goes gray prematurely. Actually, from what I know it’s the opposite. My grandmother (87) is redhaired; barely a gray hair on her head…and she’s 86! My equally redhaired uncles and aunts (in their 40s and 50s) also have barely a gray hair between them. And none of these people color their hair, never have. My grandfather on the other hand, who used to be brown haired, is now snowy gray, and my dad’s slowly going grey too.

  • All these comments are extraordinarily interesting. It is just so complicated. What is “authentic”? How do inner states and outer states affect each other? And how much time, money, effort is appropriate to dealing with it?
    A person who feels beautiful and happy probably appears to others to be more attractive. And vice versa. But it’s also true, not to belabor the obvious, that someone who is very attractive is probably more likely to feel attractive — or, at least, not worry as much about appearance.
    I agree, fat is a big issue. That’s a huge conversation, right there. As anyone who reads my blog regularly has picked up, I am very weight-preoccupied, and my perception of my weight definitely affects my happiness. It shouldn’t, perhaps, but it does.
    I guess there are two things that make this hard.
    1–we feel like the way we look should reflect our personality, but that isn’t always the case. if not, how much should we mess with our appearance, to try to bring the two into line?
    2–you can’t opt out out of appearance. There’s no “non-choice.” You either dye your hair, or you don’t dye your hair. You have to wear clothes, and all clothes carry some kind of meaning. I wear running shoes practically 24/7, and that affects people’s perception of me — when all they should read into that, is that I do a lot of walking.
    So much to think about.

  • 1. There’s a lot we can do about our appearance that isn’t permanent. Hair can be re-dyed, and clothes have enormous personal expression potential. Surgical procedures commit you permanently, which is a whole other kind of change. Not to mention risk. Should you do something that has a tiny chance of killing you for the sake of changing your appearance? I’d be far too scared!
    2. The closest thing to opting out of appearance is probably modest clothing, as worn in different forms by women in some religions. Could be a black cloak, could just be long sleeves and skirts. Uniforms such as Hassidic Jews wear are a kind of opting out- which is far from unassuming outside of Israel…

  • H-Bob

    On the issue of allowing organ sales, I read an essay in the New York Review of Books, where the writer observed that permitting organ sales would harm people with financial troubles, particularly in third-world countries.
    For example, if someone couldn’t repay a loan, could they be required to sell an organ to repay the loan ? Will the bankruptcy laws be furthered tightened to require organ sales before granting a discharge ?
    Regardless of any legal regulations, the mere existence of the organ sale market creates an opportunity for loan sharks to force their delinquent “customers” to sell organs in order to pay off the debt.
    These scenarios are troubling, especially because legal systems for capitalist/market economies generally do not view dire economic circumstances as “coercion” similar to physical violence.
    Although organ sales might seem reasonable in concept, most people’s reality does not resemble the life of tenured upper-middle class professionals.

  • lynn

    On the topic of going gray…I decided about six months ago to let my gray shine through. I embraced the notion of going gray. I was who I was and my hair had nothing to do with it. Or so I thought?! I am now fully gray and feeling less than the usual energy I should have and less beautiful and more dowdy. I feel overworked and overweight and over tired. Is it the gray? Probably not, but its not helping.
    And I am feeling like I made a public statement about the whole gray thing and now I’m caught in this philosophical discussion inside my head about who I am and what I represent and why I am almost coming out of my chair writing this article. I have had my hand on the phone 5 times to call the hairdresser and each time I replace the receiver, determined to persevere. Until yesterday.
    Yesterday two things happened, the first was I ran into an old friend and she said nothing about my hair, but she was looking at it. I also said nothing. I walked away feeling terribly exposed and not feeling good about me. The next thing that happened is I went to have my eyebrows done and the lovely girl who does them said” Oh you’ve gone gray” This was stating the obvious, but then she added” I like it”. Followed by, “What made you do that?” Again I walked away feeling less joyful, less beautiful, less energy.
    I want to be sure its not some hormonal shift that’s working on me, before I take back my words and leave the gray for another day. You can see this whole gray thing has got my hair turning even grayer!