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Appearance Is Important, But Let’s Stop Obsessing Over It

I may never look perfect, but I — and everyone else — have better things to worry about.

I may never look perfect, but I — and everyone else — have better things to worry about.

It turns out that we really care about what we look like. We spend time trying to look good, we worry about our appearance, we stress over parts of our body that maybe aren’t exactly as we wish they were, and we gaze at made-up, Photoshopped celebrities and wonder why we can’t look like that.

We know this because the results of a survey done by Today and aol.com told us so. Or maybe we know it because we are part of the 38 percent of adult women who spend about an hour on our appearance every day, or because we are part of the majority of the population who worries more about how we look than about finances, or because we, like more than half the adult population, are concerned about the shape of our “stomach” (by which I assume they mean torso/abdominals and not the digestive organ itself).

This is clearly something that is important to Americans, and rightly so. Our appearance often gives people their first impression of us. If we are happy with how we look, we feel more confident. And, of course, in a society where people are willing to drop lots of money on the perfect hair product or to have their nose reshaped, there’s also a sense of “keeping up with the Joneses” — if we spend only 20 minutes a day on hair and makeup, we’re going to look like schlubs next to that lady over there who probably spent 3 times as long.

But there comes a point at which we need to say: “I’m not going to worry about this any more. I’m doing my best, take it or leave it.” I strongly believe that we should try to be our best selves, and if that is what we are doing, then there is no need to worry or stress about the results.

Our best selves may still have acne, may never get rid of “those last 5 pounds of baby weight” (or regain the pre-baby tautness of torso), may deal with unruly hair that curls in just the wrong way — and our inability to tame and control those imperfections can be frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be debilitating. I am one of those people who still gets monster whiteheads on occasion, and when that happens, I remind myself that I’m taking care of my skin as well as I can — and then I hope for mercy from those who have to see my face.

And when I am feeling particularly self-conscious and stressed about my imperfections, I remember what was perhaps one of the best things anybody ever said to me, which went something like this: “People have better things to do than think about you.”

Yes, it was mean-spirited. Yes, it was meant to be a slap in the face. And yes, I have spent the past 14 years feeling quite grateful to the girl who said that to me back in high school. It has been one of the most liberating revelations for me because now, whenever I’m having a bad face day/week/month I just remember that I’m the only one who is looking that closely. And even on those occasions when I’ve had people ask me what’s wrong with my face (yes, it has happened), I can shrug it off knowing that even if I’m currently failing, I’m doing my best with what I’ve been given to work with.

That attitude — I’m doing my best and nobody really cares, anyway — is one that I’ve tried to cultivate. After all, there’s only so much I can do about my appearance, and dwelling on my physical insecurities isn’t going to help me do the things I want to do with my life.

Which is why, as I read through the results of a survey, I wondered how much worry “worry” was, and if they may have been overstating things by saying that Americans are “obsessed” with their appearance. People have a right to be concerned about whether they are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. And I think that, to a degree, it is fine to wonder about whether they are succeeding or failing.

But just to a degree. And once that “worry” turns to stress, to feelings of not being enough, or to mistaking “best self” with “Photoshopped ideal of a celebrity,” it’s time to step back and regain some perspective. There’s only so much we can do about how we look. Do it, and then move on.

Photo credit: Lizzie Heiselt

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