We love a quick fix — life’s bandaids for personal improvement. And when it comes to our appearance, we are particularly susceptible to purchasing things that promise to be the holy grail of beauty and attractiveness, like a magical potion or a wonder-garment. But in reality, these heavily marketed faux-panaceas can put more of a strain on your finances than a spring in your step.
Fortunately, many of the most effective, scientifically-proven ways to boost your appearance aren’t things you buy or wear, and most cost little or nothing. But like all good things in life, they aren’t completely “free”: they do require habitual consciousness and mindful discipline. Here are six ways to improve your look, while powerfully transforming the way you’re perceived by others.
Getting dressed is only half the formula. Adjusting your posture not only transforms the way a garment drapes on you, but also affects the emotional response of people around you. A University of Pennsylvania study found that subtle shifts in posture can alter your perceived emotion, while other studies indicate that emotions like happiness and anger are heavily communicated through posture alone — without ever opening our mouths. The fact that good posture also makes you look taller, thinner, healthier and more confident are more reasons to stand up straight.
Unfortunately, good posture does not come naturally for most of us (especially those of us slumped at a desk most of the day). Take control of your posture: Deliberately align yourself in the mirror; your head should be over your shoulders, lining up your ears, shoulders and hips; pull your belly in and be sure your lower back is slightly curved. Over time, you can move yourself toward more effortless posture by doing regular core-strengthening exercises. Remember that your body is interconnected and the seemingly simple act of standing straight engages many of your muscles.
A Yale study tested how hairstyles and lengths affect perceived intelligence and wealth. The study took the same face and overlaid it with different hair styles. The findings indicated that women with short-to-medium length hair were perceived as intelligent and good-natured (those without any hair were seen as the most intelligent), while those with more feminine styles, like long hair, were perceived as less intelligent — while also seen as the sexiest and most affluent. Further complicating the issue, researchers at the University of Queensland found that blondes earn 6 percent more.
But before you beg your stylist for a bleached blonde pixie, remember that what looks good on us (and how a particular haircut is viewed) changes as we age. Certain cuts are more flattering for aging faces that others. A collarbone-length cut can be versatile and soften your face more than certain shorter styles. Subtle layers can also add character and work with your hair’s natural wave (making it low-fuss). And if you do go for longer lengths, bangs can add an element of polish and precision to counteract the femininity of your long locks.
If you’re not motivated by health, try vanity: We know fruits and vegetables are good for us, but we’re now learning that they’re also underrated beauty products. A study found that participants who ate more fruits and vegetables for just six weeks increased red and yellow skin tones (needless to say, those who worsened their diets grew paler). Another study identified fruits and vegetables as one of the most powerful defenses against skin aging.
Skin reflects inner-health and degrees of aging. And while there’s no shame in our hard-earned laugh lines and other character-building facial lines, looking healthy is always appealing. Eating whole fruits and vegetables is most beneficial, but if you’re busy or on-the-go, make a bottle of veggies part of your daily routine. (They can be pricey, but they’re cheaper than Botox!)
It’s not just fruits and vegetables that give your skin a visual boost. Other supplements have been scientifically linked with healthier skin, as well: Collagen reduces facial lines, green tea polyphenols decrease inflammation and redness, pycnogenol increases hydration and elasticity and fish oil eases eczema.
We’ve all stared in the mirror after a sleepless night and lamented our dark circles. Studies are proving that sleep deprivation affects skin function and aging, with poor sleepers showing increased signs of aging and less resilience from environmental stress factors. Poor sleepers are also more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI).
And beyond its impact on our looks, sleep also radically affects our performance.
You can take control by practicing good sleep hygiene and “hacking” your own sleep: before bed avoid caffeine, sugar and large meals; dim the lights (including computer monitors) and sleep in a dark room; turn off technology or put it in airplane mode; and get plenty of exercise and daylight earlier in the day — and if you’re feeling more adventurous, try a sleep induction mat. Bedtime rituals calm your mind and pave the way for quality sleep and a better tomorrow.
You’re never fully dressed without a smile…but some days you don’t feel like beaming. Nonetheless, it pays to paint one on, even if it doesn’t feel genuine: Researchers have found that even forced smiles increase happiness, lower stress levels and diminish pain. The way we feel and radiate emotions goes beyond our brains and is not only reflected by our bodies, but also induced by them. One study found that Botox recipients who were not able to frown reported feeling happier than those who did not receive the injections. (However, they did not report feeling more attractive, indicating that the spike in happiness was not induced by the aesthetic changes.)
Telling yourself to smile may seem trite, but its presence or absence has subtle-yet-significant social and personal consequences. According to psychologist and smile expert Marianne LaFrance, smiles facilitate social connection, minimize conflict and enhance first impressions.
A smile can go a long way in the workplace, as well: Smiles indicate positivity and openness, and individuals with those traits tend to cope better with challenges, thereby communicating confidence and professionalism. When complications arise or you find yourself in a challenging situation, flash a grin and watch the effect it has. Or if you aren’t feeling particularly attractive one day, convince yourself to smile anyway, and boost your own self-confidence while improving the way others view you.
Imagine the last time you walked down the street, rode public transportation or entered a bar. Chances are, a huge percentage of the people you encountered were looking down at their technology. Our ubiquitous preoccupation with our mobile phones often comes at the peril of our ability to connect and engage with the world around us.
Eye contact is the strongest form of non-verbal communication. Individuals of power tend to stare more directly and intently, while those in more subordinate positions avert their gaze. Eye contact also elevates your perceived attractiveness, trustworthiness and emotional stability. When you are glued to your mobile screen, you are averting your eyes and giving up one of the most powerful tools of persuasion.
In addition to locking eyes, simply detaching from technology and being “present” transforms not only the way people see you, but also the depth with which they can connect. Challenge yourself to put your phone completely out of sight at social events, in meetings or when working one-on-one. Being present, particularly in an era when it’s become a scarce novelty, is one of the most attractive and appealing gifts you can give others — and yourself.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the “thinking person’s stylist.”