The Enlightened Caveman


Changing Your Cover – Appearances – Part 2
February 13, 2005, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, sometimes you can, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Whether or not this statement is true, the fact is that sometimes, lots of times, people will try. Furthermore, it’s usually really tough to tell who’s “thin slicing” based upon looks, and who’s not. As I mentioned in the last post, I think there’s a real value in understanding that a unknowable, but significant, percentage of the population is actively caught up in judging books by their covers.

They’re deciding who they’ll be courteous with, who they’ll ignore, who they’ll be afraid of, and who they’ll open up to, all based upon appearances (at least initially). And, for the most part, these are not rogues and lunatics. These are not simply people who occupy the fringes of the depth bell-curve, people who can and should be dismissed. An unknowable subset of these people only use this technique as a filtering process. They are open-minded and intelligent enough to modify their assessments with the acquisition of more and more data. For whatever reasons – maybe they’re extremely busy, maybe they’re inundated with books that bear out their preliminary cover assessments, maybe they’re fearful of social situations – these people modulate their up-front human interactions using the shallowest of information. We could fault them for it. But what if, in doing so, we miss the chance for deep and meaningful concurrence? What if, and this applies most to high delta people, we limit those whom we take seriously so much that we’re virtually guaranteeing ourselves loneliness? Thankfully, just as it takes infinite courage to really be a pacifist, it takes more than most people are willing to give to take a truly hard-line against appearance-based prejudice. Most folks, myself included, give in.

So, here we have an interesting question. If we acknowledge that we play along with this shallow game in certain circumstances, in lots of circumstances, then the question is how much do we give in? How much should we be willing to change our covers to plant the judgement we want in the minds of the judges, the ones we secretly despise for operating in such a way?
In America, it’s pretty much accepted that our teeth matter, and not just for health reasons. How else do we explain the massive industry that is orthodontia? It’s a given, once you get to even a modest socio-economic level, that your kids will get braces if their teeth are screwy. (Sure, some people are against this. But I think most folks, if they can afford it, are happy to be able to do this for their children.) The point is that getting braces is expensive and not altogether painless or trouble-free. Yet, we do it. We cower to the shallow beast of appearance anxiety and tweak our covers. The same is true with respect to fashion.

The big fads come along, and the masses get on board. One friend, a sales executive in the medical device field, works for a guy who is about 50. This guy, the owner of the company, is always teasing him about his clothes, the square-toed shoes, in particular. He says they’re “trendy” and that my friend is a boob for buying into the trend. My friend, being 35, single, and quick on his square-toed feet, comes back with a witty retort:

Say whatever you want, Pal, but I’m hunting ladies at all times, and it is essential that I do not limit my selection. I’m after that long-term relationship, which means I have to sift through the market to find what I’m looking for. The fact is that the kind of girls I’m pursuing have guys after them all the time. They make the first cut based upon appearances. If I’m Mr. Traditional, like you, in cap-toed shoes and pin striped suits, I come off like a dud – an insurance salesman or an accountant. Any girl who’s gonna be able to handle me for the long-haul is going to write the dud off in two seconds. So, to make the cut, I look the part. Then, once I’m in the door, the tables turn, and I’m making the next cut. Get it? So, mock my shoes all you want. Just know that when you call me at 8am on a Sunday morning and you go straight to voice mail, it’s because I was up all night banging a hot chick that likes square-toed shoes. That’s the only trend I care about perpetuating.

Now that is one enlightened caveman. Say what you will about the morality of his endeavors, but there’s no denying that he has a good handle on how to manipulate reality to his own ends. Fashion is like that for some people. I’ll wear some conservative variation on the faded-front jeans, but not because I feel I just have to be in style, but because it sends the message that I care about my appearance and that I’m aware of what’s big these days. That shaves a bit off my appearance delta, you might say. And look at it this way, if my plan backfires and someone dismisses me because I’m wearing trendy clothes, then there’s a good chance they’ll really object to some of my more outlandish views on the world. It’s a self-correcting system, I figure. Anyhow, all I’m saying is that the cover change, in itself, isn’t shallow or the equivalent of selling-out. But what is?

Some would say cosmetic surgery is beyond the line. I know women with capped teeth who absolutely abhor the thought of getting breast implants. Hmm. Is there really that big of a difference? Like it or not, a female with a nice chest, all other things being equal, will get noticed more than one with a modest lower neck. And the surgery, silicon scare aside (yes, scare, as in, not real), is pretty routine and is cheaper than veneers. And what about liposuction? How many people have saddle-bags or love handles that will not go away no matter how much they diet or exercise? What’s wrong with them having a doctor wave a canula to make it all disappear? Of course, the funny thing is that many proponents of cosmetic surgery will say, “But I’m doing it for myself. I just want to like what I see when I look in the mirror.” Suuuure. Whatever you have to tell yourself. But again, their delusions aside, I’m saying it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to want to change your cover, strictly for the benefit of the cover judgers in society.

It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. What do you get in terms of delta reduction, and how does it compare to the costs? This is the part many folks miss, I think. There’s an aspect of the appearance delta concept that must now be revealed – the ideal appearance, the one to which ours is compared to compute the delta, the one that gets us a free ride in terms of interpersonal acceptance (in particular circumstances of interest), includes an assessment of how hard we’re trying. You get points off (that is, your delta grows) if it looks like you’ve gone too far in changing your cover. You look needy. This is why the girls who get the massive DDD boob jobs actually diminish the field of acceptance, rather than expand it. This is why the guys who shave every hair from their bodies, for no practical reason (like say an Olympic swim competition), come off as odd-balls. This is why massive lip jobs, repeated face lifts, and botox-induced expressionless faces rarely yield the desired return on investment. These people just end up looking funny. So what to do?

If you’re going to change your cover, and I’m not saying you should, you should aim to change it so that strangers can’t tell. Girls, get reasonably-sized boobs for your frame. If guys really can’t determine if they’re real, but they break their necks trying, you’ve probably hit the target. Same thing for guys – if you’re driving a 10-year old Toyota, you might rethink the giant fin on the back. (Yes, the appearance delta applies to cars, too. But that’s another discussion.) But there’s still more to this.

Another complication to consider is what people you know will think. If you conduct your inner-circle affairs with an avowed disdain for appearance-based prejudice, then you may find it hard to explain changing your cover in any dramatic way. Maybe you could acquaint your closest friends and family with your enlightened rationale for the change, and maybe they’d understand. Or maybe there’s nothing you could say to make them understand. Maybe their view of you would be tainted forever. Who knows? I would simply argue that no substantial cover change should be undertaken without reflecting on this.

In the end, if we’re going get what we want out of the social side of life, the side that, more than anything else, determines the tenor of our happiness, we have to decide how much we’re willing to give in to this shallow, appearance-oriented game. We have to decide where the line is drawn, and we have to be careful to get what we pay for. Even if we can rationally justify the desire to improve our frail and thin lips, there isn’t much to be gained by looking like a duck. Unless of course, our desire is to be accepted at the ritzy spa for desperate housewives. That, too, is another discussion entirely.

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