Privilege Blog

Building Attractive, With Helpful Intent

In comments on my post about attractive vs. pretty, several readers asked for a series about Building Attractive. Here goes, with the caveat that this will rely on personal opinion, hypotheses and confessions, as true as I can make them .

How to build Attractive? I wish I could dive right on in to clothes and makeup. To hairstyles, and eyelashes, and high-heeled loafers. But that would be inauthentic, and inauthentic is the least attractive thing of all.

To my way of thinking, which is all we’ve go to go on right now, here’s the first step:

Live with helpful intent in your body.

In other words, albeit less suitable for a poster on the home office wall, you’ve got to do what you can for your health.

I use these words very carefully. I am not saying that health problems preclude attractive. You can be attractive in a wheelchair, with hair loss, with an incurable skin condition. I center myself on Carly and her optimism all the time. Intractable health conditions make Attractive harder, but not impossible.

I believe that evincing an intent to take care of yourself matters more than any specific set of physical results. We’re talking exercise and diet. You knew that. And I’m not going to tell you anything wholly original. This is simply my particular approach.

To act with helpful intent towards our bodies, we must let them do as they evolved to do. Your body was made to move around. Therefore,

Move around as much as you can.

I hate playing sports. Golf makes me cry, so does tennis. Can’t run to save my life. And yet I had a reasonably active childhood, swimming, romping through fields, and tussling with my brother and sisters. In high school and college I danced, preferring leotards to volleyballs. After graduation, in London and New York, I joined a gym for once a week weight-lifting. Now I walk to work, half an hour each way.

So while I’ve never worked out like an athlete, moderate exercise is a lifelong habit. Here’s what I know. Make movement something you’re stuck with.

  • do it on the way home or on the way to work
  • build it into what you have to do, i.e. bike to the grocery store
  • sign up for a class you’d feel bad or dumb for skipping

You don’t have to do 30-day this or furniture to road races that or Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am anything. But if you actually enjoy running, or lap swimming, or tennis, enjoy.

And then nutrition. Here are my personal weight and diet details. High WASP ancestors shudder in horror at the disclosure, but I speak up in hopes that the information will be useful. Entertaining at the very least.

I was a skinny kid, until I went off to France the summer after my freshman year of college. They fed us well, in Le Buisson de Cadouin, on bowls of cafe au lait, bread, butter, and chocolate all around. When I returned, I weighed 130lbs. At not quite 5′ 6″, skinny no more. Was I fat? No. But I didn’t feel like me and I went on a diet. To this day I remember carrots.

I dropped down to 117.5lbs. Where I spent the rest of my obsessed, dieting, and eventually bulimic college career. The bulimia fog lifted one day in Manhattan, a year after I had graduated. “Why, ” I thought, “Don’t I just eat what I really want?”

Focus on eating well, in place of self-denial.

And so I have done, ever since. The trick has been in deconstructing what I meant by Really Want. I’ve focused unifying body and mind, so feelings don’t recruit body to a subversive battle with the mind. Gotta line up the troops. When I ask myself, “Do I Really Want this,” I want the all the parts of self to answer with one voice.

As an aside, it’s quite likely that privilege eased my path to comfortable eating. My mother was home to cook for us every night. My father’s doctor had told him to lower fat consumption, due to high triglycerides. So we ate poached fish before it was fashionable. Broccoli. Fruit. Judicious cookies. No candy. My native comfort food is on my side, as is a genetic tendency towards muscularity.

If your food of origin doesn’t support health, you have to replace your family’s food preparation strategy with your own. Re-parent. But isn’t that the task of much of adulthood?

My nutrition strategy now as follows:

  • avoid bad hunger after meals (eat comfortably to satiety for lasting fullness)
  • revel in good hunger before meals (snack consciously, drink a lot of tea)
  • save room for chocolate and a glass of wine
  • stuff your face with vegetables. Eat meat. (I support those of you who are vegetarians 100%)
  • cheese is recreational, as are carbohydrates

This translates to what I ate the other day, in case you feel like replicating my strategy or find these things comical. Which they are, from the right perspective:

  • a piece of whole grain toast with chocolate peanut butter, and two cups of English Breakfast tea with milk
  • 2 cups of ginger tea
  • a breast and a half of chicken, a bunch of steamed cruciferous vegetables, a small French roll
  • some Altoids and 10-20 jellybeans
  • many glasses of water
  • cup of brown rice, and reasonable servings of 5-spice tofu, kung pao chicken, green beans, and ma po tofu that involved small second helpings for satiation
  • 3 squares of dark chocolate and 2 of milk
  • 1 glass of fume blanc

If lunch is big, dinner is small. The day above involved more sweets than usual, meetings were probably at fault. I now weigh 123 lbs, in the morning. Yes, I still keep track, but yes, I’ve shrunk closer to 5’5″ over time. Slender is part of my own Attractive algorithm, there are other approaches. I mean in no way to prescribe behavior or state. My approach makes me feel more self-generous than deprived.

I will say in closing that we cannot deny the social pressure on American women to be thin. But Attractive demands no particular weight. To each her healthy own. We can focus on treating our bodies well, and we can build Attractive on a foundation of kindness towards ourselves.

Kindness, while not always indulgent, is always forgiving.

Images: me. Note that I include self-photos not as examples of attractive but to break up all the text and add emotion. The other models around here, suitable for moody pictures at least, are on strike. If anyone would  send me some evocative self-portraits, indicating a liminal state, I’d love to use you instead.

Thank you also to Janet for sharing her story, giving me sufficient guts to share mine, and Sal for her always kind body messages..

68 Responses

  1. Love your advice – beauty and skin health definitely begins on the inside. Your tips are so easy to do – if you do them! You look fabulous!

  2. Inspiring reading. I’d add the way people walk to “movement” – slouched shoulders or a waddle can ruin the pleasure of watching an otherwise gorgeous woman go past. When deep in thought or worried I walk with my head hanging down which only helps to increase that bump at the top of my spine. The ground is never that interesting anyway.

    1. Once in university I had a friend comment that I always walked with my head down. Since then, I am incapable of looking down while walking because I’m so aware of it. It was like a revelation.

  3. I’ve never been much of a candy eater myself, although my mother was. I agree with your approach to eat to satiety for lasting fullness; I try to avoid eating between meals, and how we eat now helps immensely with that. In fact, I’m going to post about that tomorrow; stop on by, because I think you’ll find it very interesting.

  4. Good on you for sharing details we might prefer keeping private, as often that is the only way to communicate a bigger picture, they are part of that whole and can’t be excluded, at least not IMO. Perhaps my support is selfish, as once again it proves my contention we were separated at birth. I am just an inch or two taller, and was an underweight string bean until the first extended trip to Europe in my teens when I came home twenty pounds heavier, an unheard of experience, also the first time I collided with a weight issue. Everyone thought I looked great. Except me.
    Your entire post makes sense, from the exercise issue to the consumption topic, all of it makes sense. Thank you for being candid about a very. tough. topic.

  5. I’ve got some work to do! This is an eminently sensible and, once again, bravely honest post, but I’m stuck on your response to being 130 pounds at 5’6″, which is 10 pounds lighter than I am at 5’4″ (which my last medical showed I’m not, quite, anymore, having added a slight shrinkage to other indignities of age). Of course, that’s not where I was in my 20s, and of course, I’m much more muscular now, being a fairly serious distance runner, but out of all the sensible commentary here, that’s what I couldn’t help seizing on. And castigating myself for the difference between our daily diets. I know with absolute certainty that this is far, far, far from your intent, and I know the work is mine to do (and by work, I mean self-acceptance rather than immediately leaping into a diet). Still. Powerful stuff, this is, with such deep roots.

    1. Oh I would find a tradeoff for your fitness and legs for my weight to be eminently reasonable. It’s a deal I would be happy with.

    2. I feel like so much depends on your body type that height and weight are only part of the equation. I am just under 5’6″ myself and for much of my life was 110 lbs. (Naturally, eating whatever I wanted and not exercising–unfortunately, because I was what they call “skinny-fat,” or no muscle tone). I weigh about 10 pounds more now.

      Anyway, I have very small bones, so I think that’s why my weight has mostly been on the small side.

      However, my good friend looks TINY and she is 5’3″ and 130 pounds. She has had people come up to her to do an intervention about her eating disorder, because they are convinced she’s like 90 pounds, and she’s gotten on a scale to prove she’s not. Even she finds it baffling, but I think she’s mostly muscle.

      That’s why I don’t pay that much attention to weight anymore, but maybe that’s an excuse as I age!

  6. Wonderful thoughts Lisa.

    Dealing with my left hip replacement and a 2nd major back surgery within a 2 month period this year; plus rehab, has me really looking at healthy lifestyle. Like you I do enjoy my glass of wine in the evening, not all evenings, however if I want!

    Art by Karena
    The 2012 Artist Series

  7. No doubt, being health-conscious enhances the attractiveness one has. However, I know women and men who do as you suggest, yet are not *physically* attractive (except to their mothers). Put bluntly, it ain’t happening.

    Unfortunately nutrition and exercise do not mitigate the infelicitous assortment of facial features or body proportions some are dealt. The single most important factor that determines where one is on the attractive/pretty/beautiful continuum is determined by genes.

    I know some persons who are not *physically* attractive but have such life force and charisma that they are irresistible. (Doesn’t the term “attractive” imply we want to attract someone or something?) You don’t really notice their looks or fitness. The route to this brio, this form of received beauty, seems to come from their life force, rather than diet or exercise, important as those endeavours are.

  8. I’m at the mirror, perfecting my best liminal looks in preparation for having an oil painting of myself done just for you. How that must lift your day…

    As to keeping thin, to your wise advice I merely add “keep very busy”.

  9. What an inspiring post! Good for you. My Mother is also quite active – intense gardening on 8+ acres will do that to a person I am sure. I enjoy my 10-minute walk to work from where I park, and always keep up the pace if I am walking around the office or to lunch.

  10. This is an interesting post.

    I’m battling with a serious flare up of a chronic illness, which is lasting many months longer than I could have imagined.

    It’s giving me a run for my money in terms of feeling attractive, eating well and exercising. I eat well, better than I ever have, to get through the day, but I have no healthy glow.

    More importantly, it has distorted my sense of myself in my own body, which is typically central to attractiveness – être bien dans sa peau.

    At the same time, it has given me a consciousness of these things that I didn’t have before. I suspect I’ll come out on the other side inhabiting my body more comfortably than before.

    As this drags on, I’ve stopped waiting to get better (well, I’m still waiting) and am trying to connect with where I am right now. Meditation seems to help with this.

    Anyway, this is a particularly personal comment for me, but this has all been on my mind so I’ll go ahead and post it.

  11. Thank you for your post. Following ” the rules ” does not seem so difficult.
    But I too believe in the ” inside glow ” a person either has or then does not have.
    Even following ” the rules ” mentioned, won´t make someone lacking ” the glow “, the personality, attractive, even how hard he/she tries.

  12. Doing what we can – for our health – and health includes our emotional health, our well-being, our ability to contribute and participate and love and nurture.

    So often, the focus is on fitness so we may delude ourselves into a sensation of time standing still or in order to look a certain way. I’m all for being fit, for looking good, but doing what we can is the reality for most of us.

    It’s very difficult to reach midlife without living through illness or accident or injury. These are our stories. They steel us, they make us more tender and giving; they mark our bodies and at times limit our capacity. That doesn’t make us lesser people or lesser women. It does require us to expand the conversation to be more inclusive and more realistic.

    A wonderful post.

  13. Per usual, I’ll walk away from your blog today thinking about your posts, and making sense of it in my life/perspective, whatever! Pretty vs. attractive…. You are 100% right. They are not one in the same. Attractive, to me, is more about “knowing thyself” and staying true. Pretty is for flowers and dresses.

    As far as diet and body image and all that is concerned, don’t you just wish you could visit your teen-aged self? I sure do! I spent so many years as a ballet dancer wishing my breasts into submission. Years, hoping I could have a straighter center instead of the hour-glass shape I do have. Finally, and I think this was after I really committed to exercising regularly, I realized I have simply got to work with what God gave me. And it isn’t bad! How simple! I can never be 5’11” (the height I was told just the other day is the “ideal runway model height”. Ugh, no kidding, right? However, I was standing in a mall in the Mid-West, and not Chicago…). I’m 5’9″ and that’s all I can be. I’m always going have a DD cup size and a teeny waist, not well proportioned to my hips. These are not terrible circumstances, please don’t get me wrong! That makes it even worse…wasting all that time wishing for another body! I should have been enjoying it the way I am now.

    So, no matter how cheesy this sounds, be the best you can be. Work hard to achieve your own personal best and then enjoy it. THAT is attractive to me, because I think accepting your personal best and working for it makes one truly confidant and nothing is more attractive than a quiet air of confidence.

  14. P.S.- I hope you know how inspiring your honesty is. What a lovely role-model you make, in so many ways. :)

  15. Gosh, barely room for one more voice BUT here I am.

    The weight is a tough one. I’m 5’1/2″ and a stopped smoker.

    To remain a size 2, my comfortable size, i have added a 25-30 minute walk to work, plus endless dog walks, 1 night per week at Zumba and 2 nights at the gym.

    I’m just barely holding my own though and I want my waist indent back.


    Posture, of course, is all and a good diet is necessary.

    I don’t drink alcohol and I’ve cut waaay back on sugar. Still I struggle.

    Aging not for the faint of heart.

    xo J,

  16. Such good advice! I am taking it all in. I haven’t been looking after my health as well as I should, headaches and a few bouts of flu has led to loss of appetite in the last few months.
    In the last 3 weeks I have cut out wine completely and my appetite is returning. A healthy snack at 5 instead of 2 glasses of wine. I feel so much better and a friend yesterday asked me if I had an eye lift done!
    I don’t miss it (incredibly as I didn’t think I could live without it) and I am sleeping so well and am headache free.
    I guess it is good to stop and survey oneself occasionally, like your a-ha moment long ago in Manhattan.
    Thank you Lisa.

    1. You’re welcome. Cutting back from 2 glasses of wine per day to mostly 1 has brought me all sort of benefits too.

  17. Exactly! The journey from within, to each is different. My childrens’ schedules now allow me time to refocus. A dear friend’s Mom who suffered an untimely fall resulting in broken bones and broken spirit has redirected my focus. I run for purpose now, when once I ran for adrenaline. Great post!

  18. Grandma always said “a good attitude does more for your face than any make-up”. And just making sure your clean, neat, and comfortably dressed for the weather can make anyone more attractive!

  19. Ooooh, what a grammer error! I meant you’re, of course! My high church great aunts are spinning in their graves about now.

  20. Nothing less than a masterpiece.

    Thank you SO, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

  21. I’m a big proponent of fitting “exercise” or rather movement into my daily life. We live on the second floor of our home and on those days I dread the stairs, I remind myself of all the physical good that comes of it.

    I eat lots of carrots…and hummus. In fact, I eat more things based on beans than I eat meat. Glad to see a bit of sweet in the diet.

  22. I think you picked good basics for attractive. Getting out and moving around gives you a fresh perspective and gets plenty of oxygen to your brain so you can think more clearly.

    I think the ability to maintain a weight is a good skill to have.

    The Times had an article about a woman who helped her young daughter who weighted too much for her own good change her diet and lose weight, and the reactions of people in the comments were surprising to me. So many were almost outraged that a mother would put a daughter on a “diet.”

    If you mother doesn’t teach you how to not turn into the broad side of a barn, who will? It’s not about being model thin or a human coathanger, it’s about eating to live, not living to eat.

    I looked through your typical day and wonder where you’ve hidden your calcium intake.

  23. Lovely start to the series. I also believe that being active and keeping in good shape is a great starting point. Even if you can’t dress expensively a trim body, good overall muscle tonus and alert eyes will make you stand out.

    I walk to work, too, 45 minutes each way down- and uphill and do Iyengar yoga. Feeling strong and relaxed fosters selfacceptance and peace of mind and makes it easy to contact people. Definitely a stepping stone towards attractive.

  24. youthful = fertility
    healthy = attractiveness
    youthful + healthy = sexy

    One can aim for looking youthful, but whether it is worthy goal is up to the bearer and whether it is successful is up to the audience. Looking healthy seems a more attainable goal and substantive goal. Too often sexiness is mistaken for beauty or attractiveness and it is easy enough to get muddled up amongst the many marketing messages we receive.

    1. I have a whole post in mind on sexy and non-fertile, but yet more High WASP boundaries will have to fall. All to the good, I suppose:).

  25. Dear Lisa,

    Loved this post! I think one of the most attractive things ever is enthusiam. I always find women who are passionate about things so attractive. Happiness is wildly attractive too.

    Some of the most attractive women I know are far from youthful- my Mum is almost 70 and has a white bob but looks beautiful and is very attractive because she lives life with such joy and spends her time doing things that make her really happy.

    I don’t really do formal exercise but I MOVE and stay really busy. And of course I never ever whinge about not having enough “time”.

    What are your thoughts on the article in this months Vogue about the lady who put her daughter on a diet??? It’s non stop in the media here.

    Keep up the good work.

  26. English Breakfast Tea is my morning nectar of choice, as well. I’ve managed to get the husband hooked and we’re going through boxes at an alarming rate.

    Great post! It’s a shame that such a common sensical approach to health isn’t more widely followed.

  27. Interesting – I thought that your deconstruction of attractive would start with being interested in something outside of yourself, as I think that’s what makes people truly attractive.

    1. You know, I had a line about emotional and mental health, how that’s the most important health of all, but felt presumptuous in writing it, and deleted. Who am I to talk about such a big topic? But I think I’ll have to address the non-physical component in some way that doesn’t feel too audacious. Thanks.

  28. You post was exactly what I needed today. After 40 years of bad eating, I resolved to eat well, and all that it implies, in the best sense. I, too, was the 5’6 starving college girl (5’6-104lbs), and now the classic unhappy and overweight middle age woman. Neither end of the spectrum works, so I am going to follow a sensible eating plan, and include your nutrition strategy as well. Thanks for all the inspiration!

  29. @ Fuji:
    If “youthful + healthy = sexy”, what does aging + healthy equal for you, not in marketing terms, but in your own perception?

  30. I have been working on many of these ideas.
    I have been reading the ideas of Dr. Esselstyn at and trying to incorporate some of them if not all. I also ride a bike to get groceries (I need a bigger backpack) and have a 36 inch trampoline and a set of weights that I used when jumping on it. Since I have begun this exercise program, I have lost over 20 lbs and hope to lose 35 more. I definitely feel much better and recommend a moderate exercise program to anyone who can follow it. It doesn’t have to be complicated and expensive. It can be very simple.

    1. I really like jumping on the trampoline with weights. They are 5 and 8 lbs. It gets me amazingly fit and I can just pull it out in my own home and go to work – no driving to a spa – no complicated expensive equipment – 15 minutes each day yields amazing benefits. It’s only 36 inches wide and widely available.

  31. I like what you say because it’s simple and sound. And if all the parts of one’s self aren’t on board at decision-making time, consistently, things tend not to work. Wholeness is an excellent focus.

  32. So after thinking about this all day, I think I disagree with you. Think about the actess Gabourey Sibide and the character she played Precious. Gabourey is definitely much more attractive than Precious. And it’s all attitude and how she carries herself.

    1. I think Sibide is a great example of showing intent to care for oneself. Her intent may not get all the way to body weight, but the intent is most important, you are right.

  33. Carbs recreational? I think I can live with that. What a great perspective. Thought of you while on my trip and wondered how you handle the cold weather up there. Maybe next time we could actually met for recreational carbs and a pot of tea. I would love that.

  34. Now this is the ideal Saturday early afternoon post.
    Move around indeed. Been doing that since birth, sadly. Seriously. I dance ballet, walk an hour daily, in the warmer months I ride in the woods with friends. Excellent advise in the above post.

  35. @Duchesse

    I think the projection of health as attractive and/or beautiful (health=attractive). In my opinion age is not a factor at all. What I define as the projection of health is spryness – both physical and mental.

    In my opinion, appearing fertile (sexy) is overrated. It seems important to carve out the difference between attractiveness/beauty and sexy. And appearing sexually active is different than appearing fertile.

  36. Oh, I thought of an example –

    Miucccia Prada – I think she is beautiful. Obviously both physically and mentally spry to live the life she does. Not sure how old she is.

    Donatella Versace – In my opinion she is aiming to look young (fertile) and it isn’t working so well. She does, however, appear physically and mentally spry and is attractive for those aspects. It’s just that by aiming to add youthful/fertile into the picture it seems to hinder her overall appearance. Again, just my opinion of course.

    1. I think a deep examination of fertility and its impact would be useful. Anyone game?

  37. Taking care of yourself is always attractive. As much as we’d like to pretend that the superficial shouldn’t matter, it does, and it’s what we first present to the world. People who don’t think so, are fooling themselves.
    Great first post on what should be a wonderful series.

  38. Hello Lisa, thank you so much for referencing me here. I checked my stats and noticed that so many of my visitors had come from your blog. Your advice is wonderful – I love your food advice. I too am a big believer in eating well and for happiness and health.

  39. Great post Lisa. I agree with all of this. Thank you for the link to Carly, what an inspiring blog. I loved Duchesse’s comment. While in Paris I had a bad dream about my skeleton. Mostly everyone there is smaller boned. In the dream I was in store with racks of skeletal parts to shop for smaller bones. I woke up in tears. All of my life I’ve struggled to accept having large, wide feet and other odd proportion issues because of the basic frame I inherited.

  40. P.S. My name is not Jeff. I’m not sure what gremlin added that to my latest post!

  41. Lisa,
    The main reason why I stopped my daily blogging was that I was already sitting in a chair in front of a computer 9-10 hours a day. Adding another hour a day for reading blogs and writing posts was making my middle age spread even spreadier. In spite of working out with a trainer once a week, I haven’t become any trimmer.
    I haven’t seen 123 lbs in a decade, and I’ve accepted the fact that I probably never will again. My youthful slenderness is part of my past, like the chanel and valentino suits that I used to wear. I’ve made peace with it.
    But I’d love to be able to walk to and from work like you do…but it would require a move. Maybe it’s time for me to get another rescue dog….and start walking again…or give up my red wine…

  42. I just found this post- thank you for your honesty.

    Taking care of yourself inside and out is so attractive. I’ve been thinking about tackling this very topic on my blog for some time, but it’s difficult- you really navigated it with class and finesse. It’s great that your daughter has a really good role model to look up to when it comes to health.

    I’ve always been really thin. My mom (after three children is tiny) and so are most of the women in my family. People always ask me if i’m ok, but it’s just my body type. I eat a healthy vegetarian diet, walk everywhere and go to the gym and dance class 3-4 times a week. I feel better when I’m physically active and after working long hours it’s a relief to do something physical.

Comments are closed.