Stones piled in a zen manner in a pool of water


My friend Jane recently had dinner with Jennifer, a woman we hadn’t seen since high school.

“She looks amazing,” I gushed, looking at the photos Jane had posted on social media from that night.

“It’s her hair,” Jane said. “You are obsessed with hair.”

I looked at the pictures again. Jennifer’s hair was my own personal #hairgoals--straight, smooth, and perfectly highlighted. She had the golden locks of my salon fantasies.

“I am,” I said. Jane and I laughed, acknowledging we had a similar exchange about hair probably hundreds of times in the more than thirty years we have been friends. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about my hair. The first thing I notice about myself or anyone else is their mane. I judge old photos of myself based on how smooth and blonde my hair looks. To this day, I feel good or bad about my appearance based on the condition of my tresses.

Jane doesn’t have the same strong feelings about hair. But she pays attention to her own weight and notices if someone we know has gained or lost 20 pounds. Me? I usually don’t register a difference.

Most of us have those elements of appearance that weigh heavily in our minds. I have one friend who hasn’t worn a tank top since she was a toddler because she dislikes the way her upper arms look. (I’ve seen them and they look very normal and fine.)  Another friend went to a medical spa, worried about the wrinkles forming around her lips only to be told by the nurse that the lines were barely perceivable. “All the hours I spent worrying about those and turns out even someone paid to sell lip fillers didn’t think they were worth treating,” she said. “Why was I so obsessed with them?”

I’m not sure why. A good therapist could help tease out the overlapping influences of personal experiences and media messages that cause so many of us to fixate on one aspect of our appearance or body, giving it a significance greater than it deserves.

By the time we reach our middle age, most of us logically understand that the way we are perceived is not dependent on any one element. I know that the entirety of my physical appearance, clothing, voice, energy, smile (or lack thereof, depending on the day), movement, enthusiasm, and other aspects of who I am as a person combine to give others an impression of me.

Perhaps we take comfort in focusing on one small aspect of our appearance because it’s easier than tackling these bigger elements of who we are. A good hair day is easier to manifest than a positive attitude. It’s easier to get highlights than to commit to a yoga practice or find joy in life. Yet, ultimately, these bigger changes will have more of an impact on how others see us than any micro-element of our appearance. And they are more likely to leave us fulfilled.


October 06, 2023 — Mary Catherine Horgan

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