The Communicative Implications of Personal Appearance
Personal appearance, or the way we dress, groom, and present ourselves physically, communicates meaning. In an age when our society gives lip service to the cliché that beauty is only skin deep, one might surmise that personal appearance represents a secondary and superficial value, one to which few people devote attention or time.
In interpersonal communication, the appearance of the participants establishes their social identity. By our appearance cues, we often send messages designed to construct a social reality or social identity for ourselves that we could not and would not want to construct by verbal means (Kaiser, 1990). Thus, the judicious person will not say to another person, “I am trying to impress you” or “I am trying to dominate you,” but the same person will routinely and repeatedly communicate such messages visually by the kinds of clothing he or she chooses to wear.
Why Personal Appearance is Important
Studies show that personal appearance matters much, and personal grooming plays a huge part in our perception of a person’s attractiveness for both men and women. Attractive characteristics are defined as “those characteristics that make one person appear pleasing to another.” Even though we may say we shouldn’t judge by their looks, it seems that is exactly what we do.
Our personal appearance has a pervasive impact on our self-image and on the image we communicate to others. As such, it is a major factor in shaping our behaviour and the behaviours of those with whom we interact. Indeed, we seem not only to place a significant value upon personal appearance but also to do so with amazing consistency and across cultural perspectives (Langlosis et al., 2000).
Bloch and Richins (1993) recognize that many advantages accrue to physically attractive individuals in our society. They write that “attractive individuals are better liked, get better jobs, have increased self-esteem, and have more social power as compared with unattractive persons” (p. 467).
There is a a prevailing physical attractiveness stereotype in our society that is based on the assumption that beauty is good. Indeed, the stereotype extends to include professionals, college students, both genders equally, and various job contexts (Hosoda, Stone-Romero, & Coats, 2003).
Physically attractive persons are more likely to do well in the interview process (Watkins & Johnston, 2000). Even attractive males and females in film are portrayed more favorably than their unattractive counterparts (Smith, McIntosh, & Bazzini, 1999). Adams and Crossman (1978) captured the essence of the physical attractiveness stereotype when they wrote that:
- Enough information is available to support the existence of a wide ranging physical attractiveness stereotype. ... The message is that beauty implies goodness, talent, and success. Therefore, attractive people should be able to walk with their heads held high since everyone sees them in a socially desirable way. Also, when they are perceived as failing, this is construed merely as a case of stumbling but not falling.
This stereotype is even stronger today, and the bias is not reserved for just adults. In a recent study, Griffin and Langlois (2006) found that both attractive adults and children are more likely to be viewed favourably than unattractive persons. Their study suggests that “beauty as bad” hurts people more than “beauty as good” helps people.
Personal Appearance in Public Speaking
Personal appearance also plays a huge part in public speaking, especially in the aspect of delivery. There is a basic standard for acceptable personal grooming in public speaking situations. That standard is the speaker’s dress should be appropriate to the occasion. If the occasion is a formal one, the speaker is expected to dress formally. If the occasion is casual, the speaker’s clothing should be less formal (Cindy Griffin, Invitation to Public Speaking).
A speaker who shows up at a formal occasion in a T-shirt and shorts not only displays a lack of audience analysis but is likely to lose credibility. Similarly, wearing formal business attire to speak at a casual gathering is also inappropriate. In short, be sure your clothing matches the style and tone of the occasion.
According to Cindy Griffin, “Another standard for appropriate grooming in public speaking situations is to wear attire that is neither too revealing nor too restricting. As fashions change, standards for acceptability change. More than 100 years ago, displaying bare skin in public was considered very unacceptable. Today, the amount of bare skin or body that can be exposed or accentuated is stunning, and many celebrities accept awards and make speeches wearing almost nothing at all. Because most of us aren’t a movie star or a pop star, when giving a speech in public, we want the audience to listen to our message and not be distracted by our appearance. Dressing simply and tastefully does more than help your audience pay attention to your message. It helps us move about comfortably and freely as we deliver our message”.
Personal appearance is a complex combination of social norms, cultural and generational influences, and personal style. Your personal appearance should match your communicative objective, which is to have your words and ideas taken seriously by the audience. Delivery begins the moment the audience sees you, so pay careful attention to your personal appearance and present yourself appropriately for the occasion at which you are speaking.