Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder or the <em>Beholdee</em>?

Clearly there is a distinction between feeling attractive and looking attractive and between looking good to oneself as opposed to looking good to others.
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Sometimes I find the comments written after blog posts as informative as the articles themselves. I certainly had that experience as I read the lively exchange that followed a piece I wrote here a couple of weeks ago called Beauty Tips for the Body and Soul. The article described the four most common answers to, "What makes a woman really feel beautiful?" a question I used in a survey to research the qualities that most reliably led to the experience of attractiveness. The post described results from the survey; with confidence, flexibility, the ability to smile and a lack of self-criticism topping the list. At the end of the post, I asked readers to tell me which beauty tips worked for them and if they had suggestions for others. Their comments taught me a lot.

Some bloggers agreed with the results of the survey, noting that the list resonated with their own personal experiences. Some offered additional tips, writing that there was much more to beauty than the four items described in the article. Others strongly disagreed, saying I had it all wrong. For example, one person wrote that they associated confidence (a quality on my list) with haughtiness and that it was a turnoff to them. Another pointed toward the important distinction between women who smile (also on my list) versus women who genuinely appear happy, the former having little to do with true beauty, the latter being what it was all about for them.

As I read close to two hundred plus comments, it became increasingly clear that the question asked in the survey could be answered quite differently depending on how it was interpreted and who was responding. As one blogger wrote there is a "gap between perception and self-perception" and "beauty to one person is different than beauty to world at large." Another put it well, when she asked if I meant,"Beauty as one sees oneself? As members of your own gender see you? Members of the opposite gender? A particular person?"

Knowingly or not, these comments highlighted the complicated experience of beauty, a topic discussed in my book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change," and one that I felt deserved a follow-up post here. Clearly there is a distinction between
attractive and
attractive and between
looking good to oneself
as opposed to
looking good to others
. And there are even more differences when these issues are discussed by men versus women and by those under 50 or over 50. Below is a compilation of responses I received -- from men, women, young and not so young -- sorted into categories based on these different perspectives. I think you will find them quite enlightening.
  1. What makes women look attractive (from a female perspective)? Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common response was "youth" -- youthful skin, teeth and hair topped the list. Remember, this is what women say looks attractive, not what makes them feel attractive. Women, especially Baby Boomers, tend to see youth as beautiful and aging as not, possibly the result of cultural pressure to appear younger than their age. Interestingly, this differs, as you will read below, from what makes women feel beautiful. Younger women more often wrote "looking natural" as the key to attractiveness (which may, in fact, be equated in their minds with youth). Women of all ages mentioned a great smile as the next most important feature, adding that a smile had to look genuine to look beautiful. Some wrote that having white teeth and full lips helped. Following a great smile came blue eyes and long lashes, stylish hair, shapely legs, long neck, full breasts and good sense of fashion.

  • What makes women feel attractive (from a female perspective)? Instead of youthful looks, the quality that was most often cited by women when it came to feeling attractive was appearing genuinely happy. Over and over women wrote that they felt beautiful when authentic joy showed on their faces and bodies. And this was true for women of all ages. The shift from looking to feeling attractive moved women from the external to the internal, from a focus on the physical to the positive feelings that made them attractive to themselves. Added to the list was feeling passionate, confident, purposeful, competent and feeling fit. Being loved was also important, more often for the older set. Interestingly, appearing young was rarely mentioned by women when it came to feeling (not looking) beautiful
  • What makes women look attractive (from a male perspective)? Men ranked a great smile first as the quality that made a woman of any age look beautiful to them. Youth rarely came up on their list. A healthy and radiant demeanor came next. Good skin, long hair, a voluptuous body, great legs and good posture were also mentioned. Older men seemed to focus more on the physical aspects of beauty seen on women's faces, while younger men talked more about women's bodies. Male responders almost never mentioned the kind of physical attributes typically associated with model-like looks -- perfect, symmetrical features or thin, angular bodies.
  • What makes men attracted to women (from a male perspective)? This is where it really got interesting. It became clear that this perspective brought out a very different response from bloggers and was more about the chemistry of beauty. The most important quality that made older men attracted to a woman was her interest in him. For younger men it was a woman's ability to be engaging, a quality that is somewhat similar to what older men wrote about. Generally, making a guy feel good about himself seemed key to a man being attracted to a woman. Other qualities they listed included being non-judgmental, optimistic, genuine, happy, relaxed, flirtatious, warm, fun, sensual, witty and bright. Notice, these are aspects of a woman's character (not physical assets) that are similar to those that makes women feel attractive, but not necessarily those women believe make them look attractive.
  • Obviously, there are more questions that can be asked about beauty and no right answers to the ones that have been raised. Yet the very act of asking them sheds light on how complicated the whole issue is. What we do know is that the standards of beauty are much wider than the narrow one portrayed in the media. In fact, the responses described here support the notion that beauty truly is in the "eye"
    "I" of the beholder.

    Offer your reactions to these questions so we can continue the discussion about what beauty means to you? And please fan me here, "friend" me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter. I would like you to be part of the conversation.

    "FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" by Vivian Diller, Ph.D., with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. As models turned psychotherapists, Diller and Sukenick have had the opportunity to examine the world of beauty from two very different vantage points.

    For more information on the book, authors, and events, please visit

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