the weird pressure to feel good in order to look good

Being beautiful is all about having the right attitude! It’s not about how you look, it’s about how you feel. Smile! When you look happy, you look beautiful! Beauty is a state of mind.



Statements about beauty as an attitude are so popular, a woman might get the impression that she can think herself onto a Victoria’s Secret runway, if only she focuses on being super, super positive. And puts her shoulders back.

A lot of this advice is well-meaning, I’ll give it that. It’s sort of sweet and hopeful on the surface, and I think that often the people who say these things mean “beauty is complicated. It’s not just about fitting into some restrictive standard, it’s about who you are, as a person.” I love that. I spend a lot of time, after all, encouraging girls and women to feel good about the way they look, right now, for their uniquenesses as well as the ways they fit into common definitions of attractiveness. Own it! Rock it! You are gorgeous just the way you are!

Yes. Definitely yes.

But it is also true that no amount of grinning is going to turn you into Adriana Lima, unless you are already Adriana Lima, and, beyond that, there is something that just keeps bothering me about the idea of feeling good=looking good.


(she rarely seems to smile herself in the pictures of her… source)

My mind kept snagging on it. So I told myself that it’s entirely possible that I think about this stuff too much, and then I just put it aside and ate my dinner and read some pop science. But I think I’ve figured it out, finally: the problem with the “beauty is an attitude” logic is that it places all the blame and responsibility on women.


I don’t like it when that happens.

“Beauty is an attitude” suggests that if we just smile bigger, if we just feel better, if we just learn to be happier and more confident, then we will look better, too. In this system, beauty is still really important. We are implicitly acknowledging that we want to look beautiful, we care deeply about looking beautiful, we should look beautiful. Only now, it’s our fault, psychologically, if we don’t. If we don’t, we aren’t just failing to be attractive, we’re letting ourselves down with our crappy personalities, too.

This is a sensitive argument, and I want to make it very clear that I am not arguing against women acting more confident or feeling good or smiling. I think we can all agree that all of those things are good. What I want to say is that feeling confident and smiling and stuff are not the same as beauty, even if they sometimes interact with or inform beauty. What I want to say is that no one should have to feel that she is going to blow her shot at being pretty because she’s having a bad day, or that if people aren’t telling her she’s pretty, it’s because she’s not projecting a pretty enough attitude. And, to push this a bit farther, no one should have to feel that the point of feeling good is looking good.

smiley face


As a teenager, I was confident (perhaps weirdly—but then, I was homeschooled, so I was just weird, period). I’d even go so far as to say I was happy. I wore these fantastic billowy green pants that I’d mail-ordered from the Delia’s catalogue, and my hair was down to my waist, and I was cocky and probably insufferable and I felt totally sexy. I had a really close friend who was going through a rough patch. She was depressed and frustrated and a little lonely. She was also blond and buxom, with delicate features and long legs. We would walk down the street together sometimes and all of the guys would call at her. And all of the guys she knew were in love with her. Random people would come up to her and tell her she was beautiful. Let me tell you something: it had nothing to do with her attitude. And let me tell you something else: the guys weren’t picking up on all of those super sexy fantastic billowy pants confidence vibes I was putting out.

Maybe I was doing it wrong? Maybe I wasn’t thinking “happy happy happy” hard enough?



Sometimes I get letters from women and girls who have never been called beautiful. And it really bothers them. And they tell me that they wonder if they’re doing something wrong. If maybe they’re not projecting the right attitude. If maybe they’re not thinking confidently enough. Because they’ve heard so many times that if they would just change their approach, the world will see them differently. That sounds like a lot of pressure.

I’m all for agency and self-actualization and taking the reins of your life and riding it like a wild stallion with a flowing mane that you just friggin’ tamed because you are a badass like that, but let’s not pretend that’s the whole story. Let’s not pretend that when we work on our dispositions, we’re working on the sheen of our skin and the perkiness of our boobs. Because that’s a little insulting. That implies that beauty is always the end goal, even of confidence, which really has a right to be totally unrelated to beauty.

Maybe we should acknowledge that beauty rules and restrictions and standards are real, and annoying, and there are a lot of them, and they fill up magazine articles and they are plastered on billboards everywhere we look. Sometimes, when we feel like shit about the way we look, it’s because we’re reacting to a world that keeps telling us we probably look like shit. That is a reasonable reaction. Sometimes, we don’t fit into the mold. Sometimes our appearances don’t actually translate as super sexy and gorgeous to the scores of other people we encounter on the subway. This doesn’t mean that we suck and have failed and that there is nothing attractive about us. It doesn’t mean we have to work on being more chipper about our whole, you know, thing. We might already be perfectly confident and proud of other aspects of who we are, and more power to us for that.

Maybe we shouldn’t have to involve beauty at all.



This piece appeared originally on Daily Life, along with another picture of Adriana Lima :p

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Unroast: Today I love the way I look in my bright green underwear that are on their way out. It’s bittersweet. Why didn’t I get three or four of them while I had the chance?



Kate on July 1st 2013 in beauty, body, perfection

26 Responses to “the weird pressure to feel good in order to look good”

  1. Erin Lee responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 10:46 am #

    There is big a difference between projecting your confidence to feel better about yourself, versus projecting your confidence for the world to see you differently (read: ‘prettier’). I actively go for the former. I can’t be sure, but I think they have the same effect on my appearance. Can people tell what your objective is of your confidence? I think not. I just want to feel like I really OWN my pretty skirt or yoga pants, even if my legs aren’t toned… at all.

  2. G. responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 11:00 am #

    Interesting post. I think the problem is that you’re conflating “beauty” here exclusively with “sex appeal.” That’s fair enough, since “beauty tips” and “beauty products” usually are intended to make women more physically attractive according to current societal norms.

    But “beauty” has other meanings, too. People often react to public displays of kindness or tenderness or happiness by saying, “That’s beautiful”. Imagine a small child giving a flower to his aged great-grandmother, for example. In that scenario, nothing sexual is going on. The “beauty” comes from the way the interaction reveals a positive internal state (love).

    When people say, “When you’re happy, that’s beautiful,” they don’t mean, “Strangers will want to bone you.” They mean, “The person you are inside is admirable and inspiring. Don’t let self-loathing eat her alive.” Easier said than done, I suppose.

  3. onebreath responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 11:46 am #

    I think G. (#2) has a good point about what is meant by beauty. It’s a rather nebulous concept and likely means different things to different people. I do see, though, how for many, it is equal to physical appearance.

    I’m reminded of something I read once about people (I think it was women specifically, but I’m not sure) with cancer. With all the popular media focus on positive attitudes, there is a view out there that being positive and “keeping your chin up” can help with recovering from cancer. Which is so cruel to put on someone. Not only are you suffering from a horrible disease process, but now you are also at fault if you feel sad or depressed or angry about it all! Very unfair to people facing a difficult diagnosis.

    I also think the topic of attitude = beauty relates to society’s overall denial of negative emotional states. We have built a world where the only acceptable feelings to show are the positive ones. Thus, it’s not too surprising that we end up feeling bad about feeling bad. In my personal journey, I’m learning to accept the negatives too, as natural and normal. Along with positives too. It’s hard, but possible.

  4. Kate responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 11:50 am #

    In my own defense (and it’s always so easy to defend oneself, isn’t it?), I’m talking about physical beauty here, not other applications of the word. But that doesn’t always mean straight up sex appeal.

    Still, fair point: people might mean a totally different kind of beauty sometimes when they say things about attitude.

    But I think sometimes (maybe often) they don’t. Which is I guess why I wrote the piece :-)

  5. Kate responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 11:50 am #

    I think I read that piece, too. I remember it being really good.

  6. claire responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    dear Kate, Pop Pop, always said beauty is only skin deep, and I imagine he did not think too much of all the fuss people made. CRF

  7. Anne responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    I think some of my comments in the past have been about how attitude really does make a difference in how we are perceived. And I think G. did a good job of explaining that maybe physical beauty isn’t all that we are talking about. Beyond that, though, haven’t you ever met someone new, and the more you got to know that person and how great they were, the more they actually started to seem more physically attractive? At least, that’s the way it has always been for me. And then on the other side of that, sometimes I meet someone who seems attractive at first, but then, the more I am around them and see how mean and cruel they can be, the more I am repulsed by their looks. I do think beauty is a complicated thing, and there are many types of beauty, but I don’t think physical beauty (or at least our perception of it) exists in a vacuum. What we (or maybe just I?) perceive to be (physically) beautiful is very much affected by personality and attitude.

  8. Kate responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    Yeah, definitely!

    I think the point I’m making in the piece is more that it sucks to feel like you need to “change your attitude” to be perceived as more attractive to people, not that beauty is only about one thing and personality can’t ever be a part of it.

    Sigh…I’m wondering if this is just going to be one of those pieces where I failed to make myself clear enough.

  9. Anne responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Well, I think we agree on one thing- “Maybe we shouldn’t have to involve beauty at all.” And I think ultimately, that is what I am getting at as well- that there are things so much more important than physical beauty! Although I think you and I have had very different experiences in life, and in my experience, I haven’t seen people as being quite so focused on physical beauty as you have. I wonder if this has to do with where we are from (a small town in the Midwest for me)? I’m not saying that physical beauty doesn’t matter, or that no one notices it here, but I think maybe people are a little better about getting to know each other around here, and not quite so quick to judge on appearances, so attitude and personality have even more of an effect on people’s perceptions.

  10. Anne responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    And I think that if someone lived in a place where no one took the time to get to know them so that they could see how truly beautiful they were, then they would be extremely frustrated with being told that all they need to do is change their attitude. So I can definitely see your point as well!

  11. Anna D responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    I really appreciate you tackling this issue, and its ok if the piece elicits varied responses…that keeps the conversation going!

    The whole concept of “feeling good” is complex, so I see it as rather natural that how we end up talking about this topic is by focusing on external expressions or manifestations of an internal sensation – the attitudes we show other people and our physical traits. Those are more convenient categories, partly because they’re more objective than what it would take to describe our inner, subjective experience to everyone we meet. Its not a one size fits all topic.

    For the most part we are told that being “happy” (however that’s defined) is better, and we go about attaching value judgments to EVERYTHING we encounter in order to asses it and figure out how it may help us achieve happiness. Happiness is a good thing, to be sure, but its not the only thing or the most valuable thing. I think its important to note the distinction between happiness, an emotional state that’s actually very temporary and situational, and well-being. Well-being is much more holistic, and taps into the full landscape of emotions we experience.

    The other issue that came up for me is the idea of faking it to make it, so to speak. I’m certainly someone who says, “If I’m gonna feel like crap I may as well look good doing it.” I don’t do this to hide my feelings, though, and if someone asks me how I am, I’m honest. To be in public does not require that we only show our positive emotions and save all the uncomfortable stuff for being home.

  12. Kate responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 1:59 pm #


    I always prickle at the “you think about beauty an awful lot!” comment (I’m also having a bad day, so it’s possible that I’m being extra annoyingly sensitive). I write about beauty. That’s what this blog is. But this blog is not ME. It’s not my whole life or everything I think. It’s where I think about beauty. It makes sense for people to react to me through it, as though it’s my whole life, because that’s all they know about me. But sometimes that gets to me. And then, of course, I have to acknowledge that I have no one to blame for this except for myself…

  13. Kate responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 2:01 pm #

    @Anna D

    Thanks for bringing this up, about happiness. Such a good point.

  14. Sheryl responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    I think with people who we know on a longer term, our attitudes and personalities can definitely affect how we see them physically. I have no objective idea of how attractive my husband is, other than thinking back to when I first me him, just because my reaction to his physical appearance is so strongly tied to how I feel about him as a person. I can think of past boyfriends as well who I considered attractive because their personalities overrode their actual physical presentation.

    For people who we know only superficially though? Attitude and beauty have little to do with each other, I think. I can’t wish myself into being the prettiest woman in the world, and no one who isn’t my husband is ever going to think that about me. Even our projections of confidence, joy or misery can be easily misread – people are going to see what they want to see and what speaks to their own experience and internal dialogue.

  15. Vicky responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    I was 16 (now 41) when I realised my nose didn’t fit into conventional concepts of beauty. I like to think it was the result of a school friend dropping one of those old fashioned desk lids onto my face when she caught sight of my handsome brother, but that might be a neat defense. Ever since, I’ve been planning, but never quite got round to having surgery. It doesn’t help that the rest of my family are good looking (did I, the runt, just get the dregs of the gene pool?). I admire the fact that despite the hangups you write about, you haven’t allowed them to stop you from living. It’s time I started doing the same. Feeling unattractive can be so paralysing. I’ve had potential partners, but have always felt unworthy. If I turn my face in a certain way, some photos of me don’t turn out too bad, but I normally avoid cameras like the plague.

  16. San D responded on 01 Jul 2013 at 11:31 pm #

    Beauty is illusive and suggestive. The question should be to whom are you beautiful? Or maybe the question should be whose definition of beauty are you trying to match? We know through art history examples that Venus of Willendorf was considered important (and perhaps beautiful), but a look at that small sculpture today would elicit a laugh from body elitists. Yet, her voluptuous figure spoke about the ability to have children and continue the species, a beautiful notion indeed.

  17. Katy responded on 02 Jul 2013 at 8:07 am #

    I totally get this post, Kate. Every time you pick up a magazine with an interview of an actress, who is inevitably asked about beauty, they so often deliver a predictable line about beauty shining through from confidence, etc. I absolutely get your analysis of this. Of course, we all know that beauty can be defined as many different things, but your blog is about exploring the modern woman’s self-perceptions within the context of living in a society that so widely values physical attractiveness above all other values.

  18. natasha responded on 02 Jul 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    I think I get what you’re saying. I am a confident woman and sometimes I’ll go through my day thinking I’m Katniss or some other fictional powerful but beautiful woman. I feel downright gorgeous when i think that way. One look in the mirror reminds me that I’m not that hot. But who cares, I feel that way inside and have finally admitted that I’ll never achieve it physically – who needs that kind of pressure anyway? It’s funny though, because I also remember being that sidekick not-as-pretty girl to a gorgeous tall blonde friend when we would go out to bars in our younger years. The guys would start out loving her, but after a conversation with me they would ask for my number and not hers. that’s pretty empowering too.

  19. Cami responded on 02 Jul 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    Thank you for writing this! I completely agree with what your saying here and how you gently put this delicate issue This is something we do not discuss in our culture either. It’s like think your way pretty. Ummm it’s a lot harder then that!

  20. Iris responded on 02 Jul 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    “We are implicitly acknowledging that we want to look beautiful, we care deeply about looking beautiful, we should look beautiful. Only now, it’s our fault, psychologically, if we don’t. If we don’t, we aren’t just failing to be attractive, we’re letting ourselves down with our crappy personalities, too.”

    This. Also the confused and angry smileys. Being told by women who fit so many more of the tick box beauty standards (or men! grrr) that it’s all my lack of confidence….Not helpful.

  21. em responded on 02 Jul 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    Sometimes I feel like there’s this ‘second tier’ almost of women who aren’t the ‘real’ lookers, but don’t they have the most cute and happy personality you’d want, or aren’t they the most cleverly sarcastic and funny every time, or whatever way they compensate and ‘win anyway’ with their personalities. Or it’s fitness, or it’s fashion, but there has to be something there to fill in for basically failing to look like a model who floats through life on her looks.
    I know there are places and portions of society where women DO really feel true comfort or freedom, but definitely to look at things overall it feels like they are moving the opposite way. I feel like it’s a pressure of training then rewarding us for being the nicest and most pleasing, most playful and most petable kittens and puppies when we fail to be the most beautiful ones. It can become just something else to be enslaved to and to fail at, if we don’t disengage or establish how to engage with beauty on our own terms. (And even then it can become the supposedly nonconformist quirky individualism where every woman nonetheless ends up with the same exact look as millions of other women, even if they aren’t the ones filling the mainstream magazines and movies….I find no end for my own rambling thoughts on this whole thing.)

  22. Cece responded on 02 Jul 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    You put in words what alot of women feel. I can be feeling awesome in my sweats and track jacket and no one will come up to me. In general I don’t get hit on alot, but there is definitely a difference in how people treat me when I wear some heels and make up. Beauty really doesn’t have anything to do with how you feel, and you gave a good example of the situation between you and your blonde friend. Only in social situations can attitude be a game changer. But even then, the beautiful people still have an upper hand.

  23. Baiba responded on 02 Jul 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    Kate, it was very intereresting to read your post and also all the comments, because all this “beauty is an attitude” thing has so many angles and different people have different experiences.

    In general I am satisfied with my life and my looks. And even being well aware that neither my body nor my face could ever been a magazine cover “material” I like how I look. Sometimes I even risk to be vain and think : “Ohlalah! I am beautiful!” I even don’t need to fake this, it is just how I feel about me (of course there are some days when I am really tired or a bit depressed and that can affect my self-esteem, but thats more like an exception of a rule). So that ovbiously should result in people not being able to take their eyes off of me, complimenting me oftenly, asking me out, etc. But – what a surprise – they don’t. :D The reality is that the attitude won’t turn me into something that would be called stunning by majority of people.
    But that’s ok with me, because I still like me no matter what other unidentified people – society think. The problem I see in this whole concept of “beauty is attitude” is that it somehow leaves no space for a discussion. It is just so easy to tell – it is not about the actual looks it is about how you feel – to someone who is trying to have a confersation about how much pressure to look in a certain way we have, how important the phisycal beauty is. It is easy to avoid those kind of conversations or complaints by just saying things something like that about attitude. And very much I agree to you Kate that it places all the responsability and even blame to the women.

    I also agree to those who said that knowing someone more deeply or affects the way we see them. It is so. And of course it is nice that there are people who think I am good-looking, gorgeous goddes :D and I apperciate that, but that too is not going to change the fact that I look how I look and how others see me.

    Your post resonated to the thoughts I’ ve had lately I just cant describe them as good as you do. So – Thank you!

  24. Claire responded on 03 Jul 2013 at 6:58 am #

    This post really hit the cord for me, it’s a brilliant post.
    the reader who pointed out the difference between beauty and sex appeal has a point too though. I’m in the situation where despite not being a model, I have symmetrical features, big ‘doe’ eyes as you call the, i’m naturally quite slim, I take care of myself, like to dress in a feminine way every day. I also have a sense of humour and i’m often the ‘clown’ of the party. I’m generally quite a happy person -struggling with depression at time, like many of us.
    And yet…. yet…. i seem to have no sex appeal whatsoever. Heel or no heel, dress or no dress, smile or no smile, i’m the kind of person nobody notices in the street. Some of my friends, even less ‘conventionally beautiful’ (I hate saying things like that, sorry it’s stupid, but you get my point) get LOTS of attention eveywhere they go. And I feel guilty about this : I feel responsible for my absence of sex appeal. Can people tell deep down I’m not ALWAYS happy ? Is that why I don’t attract them ? Is it because sometimes I smile and don’t mean it ? Is it because I’ve failed at being one of these radiant people ??
    I’m not sure my comment is relevant… :)

  25. Doreen responded on 12 Jul 2013 at 9:41 am #

  26. Melinda responded on 15 Jul 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    Wow, Kate, thanks so much for this piece…it is both moving and thought-provoking.

    I will say that in my experience, there is definitely a battle between the internal and the external. Sometimes I will have a rare moment when I kind of like the way I look and there’s a bit of acceptance about who I am as a person. But then I’m often reminded by other people that who I am isn’t good enough, and this is what brings me down.

    I had many of these moments when I was growing up and this feeling never really went away, even now at 30. There have been times when people would project negativity onto me and I believe it’s because they viewed me as physically ugly. I know, objectively, that I’m beautiful on the inside. I’m kind, caring, and sensitive. But sometimes when people see you as ugly, they don’t look beyond the exterior to see what’s in your heart.

    To me, beauty is composed of many different elements and attitude is one of them, but I would say you are spot-on with this statement…”when we feel like shit about the way we look, it’s because we’re reacting to a world that keeps telling us we look like shit”. This is definitely true in my case. I didn’t have serious issues with my body image until people around me started making comments about how fat I was, how ugly I was, racial slurs about my hair, etc. Before then I simply viewed myself as a person like any other, with flaws and imperfections, but nothing to warrant such hurtful comments.

    My mother once said that beauty is a state of mind, you’re only as pretty as you feel. But I asked her, what if I don’t feel that way? Sometimes I think people can’t understand if they, themselves have never struggled with low self-esteem and poor body image.

    Sorry if this doesn’t make sense…I guess I’m simply venting about what it’s like to feel like I can never be accepted or measure up.