Matching your external self to your actual self
November 2, 2006 3:12 PM   Subscribe

What physical change or other observable change was most influential in changing how people perceive you (for the better)?

Strangers and new acquaintances seem to perceive me differently than I truly am. It's nothing bad necessarily, but I feel like I'm perceived as somewhat meek, and not sufficiently hip / interesting / whatever.

There's probably a ton of things I could try to fix this, like a personal makeover, learning better body language, making better eye contact, having more interesting things to say, and so on. Frankly though, I'm not interested in hearing anyone rattle off a list for me: I'm interested in what has actually helped others portray a public image more to their liking, and perhaps what books or resources helped get them started.

So, fellow Mefites, what externally observable change was most influential in changing how people perceive you, and how'd you make that change happen?
posted by pricklypear to Human Relations (49 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
Going from being a natural blonde to a bottle redhead effected the desired change in perceived fieriness I hoped for.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:16 PM on November 2, 2006

Well, I had both my jaws broken and reset (in conjunction with having braces to fix an incredibly screwed up bite) nearly 2 years ago. About the same time I grew out my chin-length bob (my hair is nearly down to my shoulders now) and went from dyeing it red back to my natural dark blonde. The change has apparently been quite dramatic -- there were some people at work who didn't realize it was actually me for several months when I got back from the hospital. (I barely recognized myself in the mirror for close to a year, actually.) Some long-standing friends reported a real period of adjustment to recognizing me as me now. One of my exes admitted to feeling a little sad that he'd never see the old me again.

I do perceive a slight difference in how people treat me -- I'm complimented more, for example, and not just on my physical appearance. I definitely feel I'm taken more seriously professionally and socially. I get looked at in the eye more, and get smiled at more. I don't know if this stems wholly from how I look now, or if how I look now has changed how I present myself overall.
posted by scody at 3:20 PM on November 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I hate to say it, but losing weight was a big one for me. Being more on the "just slightly large build" side, as opposed to "fat and cheerful" side, seemed to make a big difference in how I was perceived.

Not fair, but true.
posted by Futurehouse at 3:22 PM on November 2, 2006

People take me more seriously when I speak as slowly as I can (which is still pretty fast) because I think it makes me seem less jittery. I just have to think about it and remember to pronounce every word.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 3:23 PM on November 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cutting my hair shorter and more stylishly effected the desired change in perceived age I hoped for (I'm in my early 20s - I looked like a 30 year old, now I look closer to 25).

I'm presently working on cultivating more open, agressive body language, so that my shyness looks more like coolness and mysteriousness than meekness (for example, not crossing my arms, not fidgeting, looking people in the eye and smiling, offering to shake hands earlier, saying hi to people I acquaintances or strangers I see often, etc)
posted by muddgirl at 3:23 PM on November 2, 2006

Oh, and I'm taken very seriously when I wear a suit, or even 'corporate casual', over the standard California attire of jeans-and-a-t-shirt.
posted by muddgirl at 3:24 PM on November 2, 2006

Standing up straight. No, really! A friend from high school kicked my arse about it more than twenty years ago, and it made/makes a big difference.
posted by spacewrench at 3:25 PM on November 2, 2006

Losing weight--not enough so that people actually said, "My, you've lost weight," but enough for them to squint and say, "You look a little different." Enough to change the perceived shape of my face, which doesn't take much.

Changing my eyeglasses from plastic to metal frames; wearing button-down shirts instead of sweaters and sweatshirts.
posted by Prospero at 3:34 PM on November 2, 2006

Best answer: The biggest difference for me was my own self-image. After a career change, I got into a job where I was far more comfortable - and it showed.
I think that how we feel in our own skins manifests, whether we are concious of it or not.
When I'm in a position of meeting new people (not necessarily at work, anywhere), I try to think about it ahead of time and mentally prepare for how I want to be percieved. The more prepared I am for these potentially uncomfortable situations, the better (more accurately) I feel I am viewed by those newcomers to my life.
posted by dbmcd at 3:35 PM on November 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Two things: About a year ago I finally quit smoking and started running every other morning. I didn't really lose weight, as I've always been slim, but after a few months I started getting a lot of compliments about my physical appearence - and more flirting in general (to the point that I'm now quite happily 'taken'.) I don't think I look too different, just healthier, but the people around me have definitely reacted. It's helped not only socially, but in business as well.

And Second: I more recently changed glasses from metal to plastic. Somehow I look more serious, but also more approachable. I don't think that it's because of the plastic frames in themselves, but because they fit my face better. There isn't a way to "dress success" as much as one should learn to dress (and accessorize) in such a way that is complimentory to one's body type.
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:45 PM on November 2, 2006

Standing up straight. No, really!

Seconded. I went to a bunch of dance classes and stuff, and because dance competitions are all about looking more impressive than the other couples, dance instructors who are also competitive dancers are all about knocking into you how to stand and present yourself and stuff. It takes some persistance though, since you effectively need to reform your physique. Also, the extra dance experience is apparently distinctive (in a good way) when out clubbing :)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:50 PM on November 2, 2006

Best answer: One of the most striking changes I've ever seen in this regard was in a friend of mine. She is extremely bright, but she used to speak in this ... dialect? that seems peculiar to California. She would basically organize her sentences in short, clipped phrases, with her voice going up at the end of each phrase (the kind of intotation you add to the end of a question.) So it would be something like:

I was speaking to my professor about FDR? And the Supreme Court's decision in West Coast Hotel? And we talked about how it abandoned the Lochner tradition?


So she made a conscious effort to abandon this speech pattern, and it made a vast difference. It's not really surprising, as people perceive speech in its entirety - what you say, how you say it, what words you use, how you look while you talk, etc. - and altering any of those subcomponents will alter the total sum considerably.

(Oh - and hair is huge. Seriously. It's about the most you can do to alter your look and, therefore, how you come across to others for under $100.)
posted by Pontius Pilate at 3:50 PM on November 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I had bleach-blond hair for years during and right out of high school. When I decided I was sick of it and dyed my hair red, suddenly people were no longer looking at me oddly if I said something intelligent. I also stopped getting offered rides from strangers when I was waiting for a bus. Being red-headed filtered out all the guys who formerly came up to my friends in bars asking "who's the blond?", as if I wasn't quite sentient. Once I became aware of the huge difference in how I was perceived, I never bleached my hair again.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:55 PM on November 2, 2006 [3 favorites]

I think that how we feel in our own skins manifests, whether we are concious of it or not.

That is the real key. Are you happy being you? Once you can do that, everything else will fall into place. Love yourself. Be proud of who you are.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:59 PM on November 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm generally fairly 'normal' looking & dressing, but a few years ago I had chunks of my hair dyed a bright blue-green.

Even now, when I tell people who didn't know me then, that "i used to have some green chunks of dyed hair" makes them say something along the lines of "I've just completely changed my perception of you." (One person actually said that word for word.)

On a less drastic note: lose weight, stand up straight, have a good hair cut, and buy some good accessories. Seriously. Accessories fit anyone regardless of body shape, and funky accessories seriously give you style points, much more easily than new clothes do. (I personally find it easier to get cool accessories than clothes - but that's because I could stand to lose 15 pounds. Could be different for you!
posted by Kololo at 4:10 PM on November 2, 2006

I lost some weight, but everyone treated me the same. Then I cut my hair very short and all over the place men and women were making eye contact with me and talking to me more. I have no explanation.
posted by stormygrey at 4:11 PM on November 2, 2006

I bought a long wool coat and got the perfect navy blue sweater, started getting my hair cut at the right place in town for my demographic, stopped some of my bad habits, got a lot of exercise...
posted by dobie at 4:19 PM on November 2, 2006

i used to have green hair and people thought i was a lot tougher than i really am, typical really. then i shaved off the green bits to just have short brown hair and people also thought i was pretty hip/punk/euro, especially since i did it right before going to germany for 6 months.

when i had longish (shoulder length) brown hair, i think i looked the most normal- lip ring included- and people treated me pretty evenly. then i buzzed my hair and people started acting weird. it wasn't until i messed up a poor attempt at a fauxhawk/rat tail that makes me look like jeffrey from project runway did i become "hip" again. it's amazing what a bad haircut can do for your cool factor. it's because of that reason that i don't want to get rid of the rat tail.
posted by kendrak at 4:20 PM on November 2, 2006

I got some fake teeth. (I'm congenitally missing my lateral incisors.)
posted by footnote at 4:50 PM on November 2, 2006

Best answer: That is the real key. Are you happy being you? Once you can do that, everything else will fall into place. Love yourself. Be proud of who you are.

Not to derail, but I don't know how realistic this advice is. Look, I am not saying you should be uncomfortable in your own skin, or that you should constantly be feeling inadequate. But the mantra of "love yourself and you'll be fine" is misleading. Your perception of yourself will affect how others perceive you, but only to a point. Others will also judge you on a number of factors that have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you love yourself or not - factors like your appearance, the way you behave and interact with others, your intellect, and so forth. Believing that loving yourself is sufficient will just lead to an unrealistic self-image and a debilitating self-complacency.
posted by Pontius Pilate at 4:54 PM on November 2, 2006 [6 favorites]

I'm a woman. Went from having medium length hair to totally shaved. That was an amazing, huge transformation in how people saw me and treated me - some treated me as "cooler", some as more threatening.

Other than the shaved head, in general, the weirder a hairstyle/color I've had, the more people treat me with respect. I suspect it comes from the perception that I have a very definite personality. But the shaved head thing freaked people out a bit too much. Nice ladies at the bank, who normally would make pleasant chitchat with me even with dyed or weirdly cut hair, just gave me weird looks. It was very interesting; if you're a woman and looking for a huge change, I'd recommend it. (Though not all jobs will be compatible with this)

Getting cooler glasses makes for a big change whenever I've done it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:04 PM on November 2, 2006

Best answer: I lost weight, and started dressing a little more stylishly, and a little more inline with what I liked than whatever was fast and convenient (though this was partially enabled by the weight loss-- a lot more options for clothing when you don't have to hunt down multiple-XLs).

And, there's a feedback loops, too. When you look and act more confident (and that can come from many places, many of which are mentioned here), people treat you differently, and that in turn can make you more confident, as well. For me, I've noticed crazy things like girls looking at me and people at stores and such (especially clothing stores) treating me a lot better.

Exercising has also helped. It contributed to the weight loss, of course, but it also makes me feel better about myself because I know I'm working hard at something and getting results. It gives me a sense of power.

I'm not saying to be cocky, or anything, but appearing confident--in all its ways, shapes, and forms--seems to count for a lot.
posted by synecdoche at 5:19 PM on November 2, 2006

I've had an interesting chance to fiddle with my look in the past few months. I went from college where I had a group of good theatre friends to law school, where I knew absolutely nobody. During the middle of the summer I cut my 6" or so hair into a 6" mohawk. The reaction was marked, and within the first few days of being in town I was known as the 1L with the mohawk.

It's snowing now, and I still have the 'hawk, though it's now somewhat shorter so it can be more managable. During the summer I was working at a law firm where I knew the partners and was generally buried in the file room, so my hair wasn't really an issue. Soon I'll be interviewing for legal jobs, and though I really enjoy having a somewhat "extreme" haircut, I'm under no illusions that I'll cut it before I interview, since some measure of personal expression isn't worth damaging my future career prospects.

When all of the dust settles, I'm not sure that the shaggy-haired "me" is more like my true self than the mohawked "me." I am somewhat of an attention whore, so the 'hawk didn't really hurt. In the end, I'm comfortable with who I am and what I look like, and I do think that counts for something.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:42 PM on November 2, 2006

Two things:

1) Proper grooming. (Good haircut, no ridiculous jewelery, proper fitting clothes, good shoes, etc.)

2) Listen.
posted by dobbs at 5:56 PM on November 2, 2006

I lost 100 pounds. Seriously. Took a long time and a lot of hard work, but it changed how people perceived me AND my confidence level. That was 3 years ago and I'm still adjusting to it.
posted by kdern at 6:03 PM on November 2, 2006

Throughout my childhood, I had my hair cropped real short. Everyone thought I was the over-achiever, the perfect young gentleman, and the goodie-two-shoes. When I realized I never had any say in my haircut, I grew it out. When I realized I didn't need to buy $40 collared shirts from the mall, I found my own style of clothing. It's not that my previous appearance wasn't me, it's more that I wasn't anybody in particular.

Yes, it's a token freshman-year college rebellious move, but it fits my personality so much more. For example, people used to assume from my appearance that I was devoutly religious, which is certainly not the case.

The problem is falling into stereotypes when you try to change your appearance. No one should try to fit in to a particular group of people. It's less about finding a niche group to join and more about finding what's right for you.
posted by themadjuggler at 6:13 PM on November 2, 2006

Paying big bucks for a haircut, after years of cutting my own / Astor Place / friends / random hairdressers.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:29 PM on November 2, 2006

I find that if I keep my beard and mustache closely trimmed, people are much less likely to be hostile or intimidated by me. I know that sounds strange, but it's true.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:36 PM on November 2, 2006

I have received nice compliments in the past that I have "wonderful poise", but I have also battled with insecurities that have led me to be the comedian, or say things that I wouldn't usually say to appear more interesting, or impress others.

I stopped these behaviors, and I find that I have more positive reactions. I have always had plenty of friends, but now I feel that I am taken more seriously, and I receive more invites.

With each encounter I make a conscientious effort to be my authentic self. It is difficult; there are still head slapping moments, but there are also less cringe episodes and regrets on the drive home.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:39 PM on November 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I had hair down to my waist for a while. Then I began to shave it close to the scalp. Mostly what I noticed is that people started trying to buy/sell different kinds of drugs from/to me at clubs. So I echo the hair statements above. Cut it. Or dye it. When I turned mine peroxide for a while a definitely different set of people spoke to me. I am not sure, however, that it makes much difference beyond casual interaction.

For a long-term change in attitude within your peer group, change how you engage people with eye contact. More or less direct - depending on your goal. Also, tending to lower or raise the pitch of your voice when speaking with another is often subliminally interpreted by third party observers as a sign of dominance or submission - this is something that is easy to work on. Finally, you can practice smiling in the mirror so that your eye muscles engage - this can make all the difference between a polite smile and an engaged smile. People that perceive you as being engaged with them will tend to think that your beliefs are in concordance with theirs. Learn to emote fully.
posted by meehawl at 6:40 PM on November 2, 2006

Talk less. Listen more.
posted by SPrintF at 6:51 PM on November 2, 2006

I accidentally bought shoes with heels that make me more like 6'1" than my actual 5'11". The reaction from women (i'm male) is amazing. I get comments like 'have you been wroking out?" when I have been dong anything but. Height is to a lot of women what big boobs are to men, it seems.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:22 PM on November 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

"doing" not "dong"
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:23 PM on November 2, 2006

Realizing that genuine, permanent change for the better is only possible if you believe yourself worthy of it. Nothing happens until you get past that one.

After that, living more consciously (but not self-consciously), noting your behavior in the past and present, and figuring out what you want to improve. Forgiving yourself when you fall short.

Realizing that most people aren't scrutinizing you nearly as much as you imagine they are. Real life generally is nothing like high school. As the great HST once said: "It's amazing how much you can get away with if you don't go out of your way to cause trouble."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:02 PM on November 2, 2006

I lost weight (still a work in progress, but almost 60 lbs so far). Women ignore me slightly less now than they did before. I also bought some really expensive glasses, which did more for my image at work than any actual work I did.
posted by bingo at 8:03 PM on November 2, 2006

If you're slim, gaining weight might actually improve things. It did for me.

Also, Pontius is right in that you will be judged superficially regardless of whether you "love yourself" or not, but attitude, poise, mannerisms, and style all can have a huge effect on how people perceive you, and these are things you do have control over. Someone more comfortable with themselves--and happier--is probably more likely to carry themselves well and to have a style that reflects their inner person.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:49 PM on November 2, 2006

Oh, and if you have a reputation for being meek, might I suggest Kung Fu, karate or other martial art? In addition to being fun and incredibly good for you, they will result in both a body and demeanor that is much more assertive.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:51 PM on November 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

In my youth the most drastic change was going from wearing huge, thick, Coke-bottle glasses (think "Waldo" in Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" video) to getting contact lenses right before my freshman year of high school. Almost immediately the idea that a girl would actually be interested in me became a reality instead of a far-off impossible fantasy. I no longer feared meeting new people because of the (usually accurate) assumption I would be ridiculed for my appearance. I honestly credit contacts for making my high school years far more pleasant than I would have imagined based on my previous history in school without them

As an adult, joining a gym 7 years ago and sticking to a fairly strict exercise regimen was a life-changing experience for me. What going from being soft and scrawny to actually having a body I was proud of did for my self-confidence and self-esteem is something I'm not really sure I can do justice in words.
posted by The Gooch at 10:14 PM on November 2, 2006

I live in Berlin, which is very much a city that dresses down, and I’ve found that when I wear a fitted suit, shave, gel my hair (not too much), I turn more heads and have more women making eye contact. Simple, relatively effective, may not be ideal for you if you’re uncomfortable with suits, and I suspect the dynamic will be slightly different for women.

I learned recently that I’m normally not readable in personal interaction, and I’ve resolved to replace my blank default expression with a smile, since that’s not any more fake than the impression that nothing at all is passing through my head. Hopefully that’ll work out well; I’ve no reports as of yet, though.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:40 AM on November 3, 2006

I so agree about the hair, especially cutting it really short.

I admit I'm a bit of a fanatic when it comes to short hair on women, so feel free to take me with a grain of salt. But I think that when a woman cuts her hair very short for the first time, it sends a strong message, and it's not that you're meek.

It's really not a scary thing to do. But so many women are so afraid of it, that it makes you look brave and decisive. So many women let their femininity get caught up in it ("I'd look like a boy!"--If you look like a boy with short hair, then you looked even more like one with long hair), so the perception is that you know your womanhood is inherent. It's also really fun and way easier to take care of. And if you don't like it, it grows! Just like magic.

And yes--whatever you pay now, go someplace that costs twice as much. But get a referral from a friend. Don't go to a random place. If you live in New York, I can recommend someone.

Also, teeth. Straight and white. But not too white.
posted by lampoil at 4:44 AM on November 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

As with everyone else, very visible changes made a difference. Way back during high school, words like "meek" and "nerdy" described me very well. I spent the summer before college doing research in another city; during that time, I realized that I wanted to change how I looked (and to some extent, who I was.) I thought about who I wanted to be, and what I might be able to do visually to help bring about that change.

I started out by dying my hair - dark blue and red. I got some visible piercings. I started buying a different style of clothing (and occasionally making some of my own) - not going for a certain sort of look, and trying to avoid slavish adherence to any particular subculture, but instead putting together an assortment of stuff I liked. I still have problems - it's still easy to be too quiet, for example, and although I've had far, far more compliments than bad reactions to my appearance, there's a lot of internal pressure to be extra-competent and polite so that people don't dismiss me as incompetent/ill-behaved because of my looks - but I'm certainly more happy with myself than I was back in high school. I can socialize better, I've found it easier to meet new people, and I feel rather more free.

Ultimately, a change in appearance isn't magical. However, if you're looking to change, and you have some idea of what kind of person you want to be, a change in appearance can help you get started - it's like a crutch, in some ways. It's initially something like a costume that provides an occasion for you to behave a little differently, but you wear it until it and the behavior become natural.
posted by ubersturm at 6:31 AM on November 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

Getting a hot, multi-ethnic, multi-tattooed-and-pierced girlfriend (now wife) did it for me. For some reason, the first impression I give is that I'm a conservative, quiet, somewhat aloof guy. Then people meet my wife and, suddenly, I'm the coolest guy in the office. (Of course, that's not the reason I hooked up with her, but it's an interesting side effect.)
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:15 AM on November 3, 2006

3" heels (I'm a 5'2" woman). Also, better fitting and somewhat more fashionable clothes.

For stuff I wish I hadn't done, (not that I had a choice), a good portion of puberty. In my experience, big boobs make people think you're dumb as a stump. Well, some people. It's deeply annoying if you are not, in fact, dumb.
posted by timepiece at 7:23 AM on November 3, 2006

Realizing that genuine, permanent change for the better is only possible if you believe yourself worthy of it. Nothing happens until you get past that one.

Apologies, as I know that I am not answering your question, but this bears repeating. It doesn't fucking matter how you cut your hair or how much you weigh, pricklypear. Love yourself, and more love will flow in. It is all within you, it makes no difference how you look.

Please allow me to quote Mr Rogers again:

It's you I like,
It's not the things you wear,
It's not the way you do your hair--
But it's you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you--
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys--
They're just beside you.

But it's you I like--
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you'll remember
Even when you're feeling blue
That it's you I like,
It's you yourself,
It's you, it's you I like.

I love you, pricklypear, just the way you are. My email is in my profile if would like to talk.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:09 AM on November 3, 2006 [4 favorites]

Seconding heels. I'm 5'8" with a fairly heavy build (size 11 feet) and the heels have always helped produce the impression of me as Amazonlike, rather than bulky. This sounds exaggerated, but people tend to think I'm like, AWESOME. I'm just glammy. A little style, a little gothy stuff or big earrings, a little flash... these things work well. On the downside, I was often told my girlfriends that men were intimidated by me. Oh well, I can do the hitting-on then!

Hey, here's a tip: Picture the superhero version of yourself. Project what you picture.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:26 AM on November 3, 2006 [8 favorites]

The three things I've noticed about myself and my friends where changes have affected how I/they are treated are:
Haircut (as said before, different hair makes a huge difference)
Clothing (dressing more stylishly tends to make people stand out more; it sounds stupid, but I am treated better when I'm dressed in well-made clothing)
Smile/Affect (betraying shyness and insecurity will get a person treated differently than displaying smiles and confidence)
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 9:51 AM on November 3, 2006

The first thing was dropping my thick southern accent when I was 17.

Second was losing 90 pounds between 23-26.
posted by corpse at 10:01 AM on November 3, 2006

Obviously this won't help overhaul your self image or change your life or anything, but I've found that if you normally dress like a kinda average dude/lady, buying some cool sneakers (bright colors! neat designs!) and a tighter-fitting set of t-shirts (not necessarily those cloying faux-ironic ones but just something body hugging) and a boy scout-style belt instantly makes you look kind of "cool" without being too trendy or hipster-y or anything like that. Also seventeenthing the haircut and glasses.
posted by audrey the bug at 2:20 PM on November 3, 2006

Hair and heels. Yup.

My hip-length hair gets a lot of attention, and changing it is the easiest way to manipulate people's perception of me. Barretted back? I'm proper and quiet. Pinned up loosely? I'm casual but kind of sexy. Bun? I mean business. Hanging free and blowing in the wind? I'm a free spirit and don't mind people staring. The reactions are very predictable and consistent. People are frequently incredulous when I tell them I had short blond curls til I was 9--just doesn't fit my personality, apparently.

I bought a pair of knee-high stiletto boots last spring. In general I have a very laid-back, crunchy image and tend towards long skirts or torn jeans with bare feet. Low-maintainence. One of the guys. The first time I wore the boots with a kilt-skirt and walked into a friend's house, he did a double-take and sputtered "What happened to the lower half of your body?!"

They change my posture and gait, make me almost 4 inches taller (which brings the total to 5'11", a not-unimpressive height for a woman), and slim my sturdy legs and big feet to something almost dainty--all things women who regularly wear heels know, but a revelation to me. I feel sexy in them, and play it up.

Those boots and a knee-length skirt are what I put on now when I want to point out that I may be one of the guys, but I'm also a woman. A woman with very sore feet.
posted by hippugeek at 4:47 PM on November 4, 2006

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