Better to spend more on looking good than doing good?

On Tuesday 10 November, I spoke in a debate at the Oxford Union, organised by the Oxfordshire Community Foundation. This is the text of my speech.

The motion for debate: “This house believes that there is nothing wrong with spending more on looking good than doing good.”


Good evening, Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you will observe, I have come dressed in a fine £150 suit, an elegant shirt from the Charles Tyrwhitt range, a tie out of the top drawer, shoes from Russell & Bromley, and hair styled by Toni and Guy. Total price £250. I enjoy wearing good-looking clothes – but I have no interest whatsoever in owning lots of them – and I’m hopeless at choosing which.

But that’s not important is it, compared to my face. Not pretty. Not looking good? Could do better? Severe burns at 18 made my life here as an Oxford student in the early 1970s extremely challenging. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money through the brilliant NHS were spent on getting my face to ‘look OK’.

But not good enough, of course. Because as prevailing orthodoxy would have it, without a good-looking face, I am doomed to three nasty effects: I won’t feel good inside, I won’t be liked by others and, with scars as good/bad as mine, I’m likely to live life in the shadows. I would be well-advised, you might say, to spend a lot more on ‘looking good’ – certainly much more than I do now! Not just on moisturisers but on major reconstructive and cosmetic surgery, perhaps even on a face transplant.

We live in a culture which has swallowed, hook line and sinker, the theory that ‘looking good’ brings big rewards. It also imposes a nasty stigma on people like me whose face doesn’t fit the norms of the day which is profoundly unfair.

In this culture, we are bombarded daily with slickly presented messages which tell us why spending massively on ‘looking good’ is not just good for our psyches but absolutely vital for them. If we don’t aspire to the spotless, wrinkle-free, age-less norms of appearance, our sex lives will be poorer, our self-esteem lower and our job and career prospects diminished.

The facts suggest that over 50,000 people spend £0.5bn on cosmetic surgery and that in all, £70bn each year is spent on ‘looking good’. That’s over £1,000 per person in the UK.

So on generous assumptions and including the cash-value of volunteering, £35bn a year is expended on – or given to – doing good. About half of what is spent on looking good. And by less than the half the population.

So why am I against spending of so much – and certainly any more – on looking good? For three reasons:

First, because I think the link between ‘looking good’ and being successful, feeling good and being loved is far more tenuous than is claimed and can be positively dangerous.

I work with many psychologists and they confirm that self-esteem and self-confidence are hard to acquire for most of us. Research suggests that parental support, academic achievement and the development of skills in sport, art, theatre and many other ways all combine with the quality of friendships, especially in adolescence to create our sense of self-worth. But some people’s self-esteem is heavily dependent on their looks.
Self-confidence too is gained by your ability to manage the many social encounters you have. That means your social skills have to be pro-active and your ability to deal with the judgements of others robust and resilient.

Do looks matter? Yes, of course they do… in the first five minutes of a new encounter, people do take a note of what you look like. But as Professor of Social Psychology, Michael Argyle of this great University showed years ago: when we meet someone, our first impressions are 54% determined by their overall appearance, dress etc, 34% by their gestures and body language, 8% by what they say and how they say it, and 4% by their face.

So looking good does matter but the idea that after those first five minutes, your facial looks – not your facial expressions or the quality of your eye contact – matter more than a little bit, I dispute. Sexual chemistry too is not about superficial face-value judgements – No, it’s a whole body, mind and spirit experience.

Incidentally, if you want a crazy sort of proof that there is not a very reliable correlation between ‘looking good’ and happiness, have a look at the Hollywood divorce statistics!

But psychologists also tell us that the over-zealous search for looking good has very dangerous unintended consequences. Some of those who strive to get a perfect body image do so at a severe cost to their own health. The epidemics of eating disorders, over-exercising, body dysmorphic disorder and self-harm are all obsessive behaviours designed to achieve or reacting to a frustrated search for an illusory perfect good-looking body. Research by Girlguiding found that one in five girls aged nine to 10 said the way they look makes them feel most upset, and 39% of girls say they experience demeaning comments about the way they look every week.

These are the unacceptable social costs of our ‘look good’ economy imposing massive costs on the health system most of which are preventable. The culture promoted by ultra-thin models and air-brushed faces is dangerous and needs countering. The ‘look good’ and ‘eat lots’ economy is unconstrained. Commercial pressures are hard to resist.

So there is definitely something ‘wrong’ with spending on ‘looking good.

Second, I dislike a culture which believes that looking good is not just a nice-to-have but also makes you morally good too. Research shows that many people believe it. Which is hard enough to swallow. But it’s the flipside which I detest.

Our culture perpetuates the nasty stigma that looking ‘not good’, with facial scars especially, means you are likely to be immoral, a villain, a weirdo. This lazy and nasty equation is seen not just in Bond and Elm Street films but in children’s online games too. The baddies in Moshi Monsters have names like Freakface and Fishlips who is characterised as a ‘one-eyed blob of badness’. Last week Children’s BBC gave Guy Fawkes a facial scar that – according to a Fawkes biographer – he never had.

Guy Fawkes with a mysterious facial scar - his leading biographer says there's no record of that scar.

Guy Fawkes with a mysterious facial scar – his leading biographer says there’s no record of that scar.

Encouraging spending on ‘looking good’ legitimates children in schools today being ridiculed because of their scars or birthmarks. We want our culture to respect ‘face equality’ just as race equality is coming to be.

But the third and strongest reason why I am against spending so much – and more and more – on looking good is that the monies could be put to so much better use.
Although when you watch BBC Children in Need this Friday and Comic Relief you might not think so, altruism, philanthropy and volunteering are all in retreat at a time when the need for them are rising.

With the state pulling back from so many areas of life and with more severe austerity cuts in the offing, charities are facing increasing pressures on their services – and there are so many causes to which people could give to or devote time to ‘doing good’.

Which can work miracles to people’s self-esteem and self-confidence. By volunteering to support elderly people in their neighbourhoods, getting a team together to raise sponsored money for a good cause, or finding out about how women survive after acid attacks in India or Britain and raising funds for their rehabilitation… All great ways to feel good… that you are doing something worthwhile.

So, Mr President, I strongly oppose the motion tonight: there is a great deal wrong with spending more on looking good than doing good – it is dangerous, allows stigma and prejudice, and is a waste of money. We are all the poorer because of our society’s excessive search to look good.

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