Feeling vs Looking Beautiful: Fashion, Perception, and Self-Esteem

Written by Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer

Beauty as an industry can be a double-edged sword. As it turns out, feeling beautiful or being perceived as beautiful is connected to things like job satisfaction and overall happiness. When we feel beautiful and confident, and others perceive us as beautiful and confident, we are judged as “qualitatively superior, being given the traits of enhanced mental acuity, moral goodness, and interpersonal skills, to name a few.” The confidence element is great, but the beautiful/attractive element can sometimes be a perception based on societal beauty standards, which most of us know have the potential to be toxic and damaging. Feeling beautiful is one thing, being obsessed with looking beautiful can lead to mental illnesses like body dysmorphia and other eating-related disorders (Vashi).

Clothing is another element of beauty for a very specific psychological reason. Socially, we use clothes as a way to organize ourselves and reveal what sort of people, interests, activities, and careers we associate ourselves with. It can also suggest stereotypes or judgments that aren’t necessarily true.

“Howle et al. [47] conducted a study by photographing models in realistic sayings and by manipulating an additional independent variable, a camisole. In their study of subtle clothing changes, participants rated women as less competent when their blouses were unbuttoned as compared to buttoned. Women who appeared ‘sexy’ are judged as less competent, less intelligent, and less moral than those who dress ‘appropriately’ [48,49].” However, in the same vein, clothing items like high-heeled shoes were judged as powerful. It sucks that these women were judged so arbitrarily, but on the other hand, it may seem reassuring that these standards were completely baseless. Why would a shoe suggest power, while a shirt would suggest incompetency?

What we can take away from these findings is that the norms that so often dictate our self-worth and self-consciousness are based on nothing more than assumptions. While it might seem slightly unfair that we unconsciously confirm biases like these, being aware of them helps us to escape them (Kodžoman).

Reading too much into stereotypes and judgments, especially as they’re portrayed in media and advertising, can be detrimental. Studies found “significant positive relationships between exposure to fashion or beauty magazines and (a) overall appearance dissatisfaction and (b) eating disorder tendencies” (Kim). Too much focus on it affects our self-esteem, and self-esteem is a two-pronged phenomenon.

We have implicit and explicit self-esteem: how you internally feel about yourself versus what you say about yourself or how you portray your self-esteem to others. These two states can conflict with one another: being internally confident but externally putting yourself down can sometimes be a sign of perfectionism, or being externally confident but internally insecure can be a sign of narcissism or a defense mechanism.

Research has shown tools like mindfulness meditation to help align these two aspects of ourselves. “Mindfulness promotes observing one’s experiences without making judgments or attempts to change those experiences. Thus, mindful individuals may also be more accepting of their intuitive self-evaluations once they become aware of them” (Koole). Focusing on the clarity of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations helps our conscious perception of ourselves to align with our subconscious perception of ourselves. When it comes to beauty, fashion, and confidence, remember, you aren’t meant to fit clothes or beauty standards. They are meant to fit you.


Kim, Jung-Hwan, and Sharron J. Lennon. “Mass Media and Self-Esteem, Body Image, and Eating Disorder Tendencies.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2007, pp. 3–23, doi:10.1177/0887302X06296873.

Kodžoman, Duje. “The Psychology of Clothing: Meaning of Colors, Body Image and Gender Expression in Fashion.” Textile & Leather Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 2019, pp. 90–103., doi:10.31881/tlr.2019.22.

Koole, Sander L., et al. “Pulling Yourself Together: Meditation Promotes Congruence between Implicit and Explicit Self-Esteem.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 45, no. 6, 2009, pp. 1220–1226., doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.018.

Vashi, Neelam A. “Obsession with Perfection: Body Dysmorphia.” Clinics in Dermatology, vol. 34, no. 6, 2016, pp. 788–791., doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2016.04.006.

Published by Counseling With Leslie

Leslie Stevens, M.Ed., LCMHC is a North Carolina and Virginia board-certified licensed professional counselor. She co-owns a successful practice in Carrboro, North Carolina. Leslie specializes in helping adults navigate stress, depression, anxiety, and perfectionism. Additionally, she is a life strategist, spiritual coach, and writer.

Leave a Reply