Is it Vain to Want to Look Better? How Far is Too Far?

measuring tape

Like most people, I started working out because I wanted to look better and feel better about myself. 

I was 16, had just spent four years with braces, had plenty of acne, and recently got cut from the basketball team. Let’s just say I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin, and my confidence was certainly lacking.

So, I figured if I could build some muscle and get stronger, it would be an opportunity to change how I was viewed by others. I saw stronger, bigger people who had the confidence and charisma I lacked, and set my sights on becoming them through exercise. This is what got me started, and kept me going for years

Now, over my dozen years or so learning about health and fitness, and now 6+ years of building Nerd Fitness, it’s been a personal odyssey to learn what truly creates lasting healthiness, self-confidence, and happiness.

To say I’ve learned a lot would be an understatement. 

Just as you can be in poor shape and lack confidence, so too can you be in incredible shape and still be miserable and lack confidence.

Molly Galbraith, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong and one of our interviewees in the Nerd Fitness Academy, wrote a fantastic article about her experiences as a fitness model and how it didn’t result in the happiness she expected.

In interacting with thousands upon thousands of people through Nerd Fitness, I’ve realized we don’t strive to look a certain way just for the sake of the look. Instead, we also want achieve a certain status in our social groups, be seen as attractive, or sometimes just fit in. Feeling out of place or at the bottom of the totem pole isn’t very fun.

Although I started out aiming for a certain look, what I was REALLY after was happiness, confidence, and self-respect. 

Wanting to look good can be a strong and positive force in getting us started and keeping us moving forward. It was for me. And I’m sure it is for MANY Nerd Fitness Rebels. 

Even today, I do still focus on taking pride in my appearance and wanting to look the part of a guy who owns a fitness company! However, it has taken a back seat to the joy I get from exercise and the excitement I feel from making strength gains and continually leveling up in the gym.

Along with having fun and seeing progress, it’s helped build a level of self-confidence (and inner strength) I had always lacked.

As Henry Rollins said: “I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-confidence.”

All of that to say, I don’t care what helps you get started with exercise, even if it’s a purely physical goal of wanting to look better.

However, if we’re not careful when using JUST external appearance as a singular goal all of the time, things can go too far down the path to the dark side. One day, we could wake up and realize that we’ve pushed the whole “confidence and happiness” thing to the side in favor of unhealthy and unsustainable behavior all for the sake of a smaller waistline. D’oh!

The line between confidence and obsession

measuring tape

If you’re familiar with BroScience, you know it’s a parody account of a gym meathead who tells us what life is like as a superficial bro.

In the following video, he cracks an all-too-real joke: “the day you start lifting is the day you become forever small.”

If you’re easily offended (a poor allocation of resources), fair warning on bad language:

When your goals are 100% focused on appearance, there’s a very real possibility you can take things too far down the other end of the spectrum. Instead of seeing the improvements you’ve made and being excited about progress, you instead start to notice each and every imperfection.

Before NF Team Member Staci became a deadlifting superhero, she lost a tremendous amount of weight the wrong way and almost did serious damage to her body. Because her focus was COMPLETELY on her aesthetics, she was willing to sacrifice her personal health to get there. It didn’t matter how much weight she lost; she was never satisfied, because there was always something else to “fix.” 

It’s no surprise body image posts like this are so popular on Reddit  – so many of us are insecure about our appearance, and are striving for the perfect body. Just like money can’t really buy you happiness, a perfect body won’t buy you happiness either!

If you’re getting in shape because you hope it will solve all of your problems of low-self worth or unhealthy comparisons, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed or putting your health in danger:

  • If only I had a six pack, then I’d be happy.
  • If only I could fit into these pants, then I’d be happy.
  • If only I looked like that person, I’d be happy.

Because we tie our happiness to the appearance we don’t have, we are never satisfied while chasing the unattainable: We all harbor these unrealistic expectations for ourselves and for others, thanks to the wonders of the internet. We see perfectly framed (and photoshopped) magazine ads, or instagram photos, or “Famous Celebrity” in “Big Action Movie” and we become disappointed with our reality. This can lead to us seeking shortcuts or unhealthy fixes (steroids, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, diet pills, etc.).

Thus, we need to be constantly vigilant in battling down these conventional-wisdom, empire-created illusions! Wherever we are, we wish we looked like the bigger guy or skinnier girl next to us at the gym, and they in turn wish they looked like the person next to them. And that person wants to look like somebody on Instagram.

After all, most of what we deem attractive are just social constructs. We made this point strongly in our article on body image, and what is ” beautiful” seemingly changes by the decade!

Finding the Right Balance


So with all of these things luring us into not being good enough, how can we avoid focusing on our imperfections, while still wanting to improve ourselves? 

Sixteen-year-old Steve assumed how he looked physically changed how people viewed him, which in turn would in change how he viewed himself.  

He had it backwards.

I’ve since come to realize that how strong and happy I became changed how I viewed myself, and how I carried myself and interacted with others, which in turn changed how people viewed me.

If you want to use external appearance as a source of motivation, and that’s what got you started, go for it! Just don’t lose focus on the two major goals:

  • Healthy – You get a clean bill of health from your doctor and no issues physically.You are transforming in a healthy, sustainable way. 
  • Happy – You can do the activities you want to do without your body holding you back. You feel confident in your own skin. Whatever “look good naked” or “look good in a bathing suit” means to you. Bulky, thin, orange, green, whatever! Male or female, you get to determine what your personal ‘look’ is.

That means it’s okay to feel confident in your skin – RIGHT NOW! Make sure you understand this isn’t just about your body fat percentage or bicep size or thigh gap.

Yes, it can be great to use others as a source of inspiration or motivation, and it’s okay to hold yourself to higher standards, but know you are not them and not in their situation and do not have their genes. But if you’re building long-term habits, try to put your focus on the process – find a way to exercise you can fall in love with (and how it makes you feel).

No matter what, know that YOU need to set your standards for what you expect of yourself. If you’re a new parent, or a busy single mom of three, your expectations will most likely be different from a supermodel or fitness professional – and that’s okay!

As long as you understand what a healthy goal is for you, leveling up your body is great (that most likely will not be 5% body fat and chiseled abs year round)! Regardless of who you are and what you do, remember: Haters gonna hate.

Healthy and Happy


This is a huge topic almost everyone has struggled with; we’re hardwired to compare ourselves to others.

Wanting to look better can be an awesome motivator – helping people shed hundreds of pounds and transform their lives. When used properly, it can be a fantastic tool to get us started and keep us on track.

But when this source of motivation grows beyond our control, it can poison our self-esteem and self-worth, no matter if you have six pack abs or are 100 lbs overweight. In the process, we can find ourselves pulled down even further than where we began. 

We plan to dive into this topic a bit more over the coming months, and would love to hear what you think: 

How do you hold yourself to a higher standard without setting it impossibly high?

Have you found a way to improve yourself without nitpicking your flaws or comparing yourself to the person next to you?

Let’s hear it in the comments!



photo source: Joseph Jansenn: runner, Phil Gradwell: measuring tape male, Charlotte Astrid: measuring tape female

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