Preening includes anything done to maintain our physical appearance such as fixing our hair, washing our bodies, wearing clean, matching clothing, brushing our teeth and so forth. In an evolutionary context, preening signifies that we are healthy and in a good state of mind. Have you ever thought about why birds usually have white under-feathers especially around their rear ends? It has been speculated that it is a health advertisement displaying and that the carrier of such a feature has good genetics. Unhealthy animals of any species will usually show symptoms of their sickness with some form of intestinal looseness or diarrhea which would surely show against a wide backdrop! Birds therefore show their health by keeping a clean rear end. They also preen by bathing in water and dust to keep themselves free of ticks and other nuisance hitchhikers. Humans are no different than any other animals as we also require sufficient energy to maintain our bodies.
A case in point is what happens when humans fall mentally ill. It has been noted around the world that when people suffer from illness personal grooming is the first aspect to go. When minds are busy with more pressing matters it shoves looking good aside. Homeless people and the severely depressed will wear un-kept hair, dirty clothing and ignore showering. They will lie around for hours on end but when they do finally take foot, their posture will be slumped, shoulders rolled inward, torsos bent at the waste and their head will droop as if they carry the “weight of the world upon their shoulders.” They will succumb to the forces of gravity rather than defy it such as what we see with the exuberant who seem to have a “bounce in their step.” This is why it is so vitally important to keep a well cared for appearance to signal to others that we have proper mental health. A lot can be surmised about a person from wearing torn and soiled clothing, especially in public. Like manners, preening tells others that we respect their thoughts and opinions, and that we wish to belong to a functioning society.
Preening can be a good thing as described above, but done inappropriately can be seen as rude. Picking lint so as to detach oneself from a conversation is one such way. When grooming is done in this way it dissociates a person from a conversation by removing agreement indicators, eye contact and attachment. Another happens by removing dirt from under the nails, clipping them in public or other more unmentionable grooming rituals, which are unsightly and a turn off. However, preening such as adjusting a necktie, fixing the hair, smoothing clothing or applying lipstick done in a courtship setting, indicates interest and a desire to impress in a positive way. When preening is performed on someone else, it shows a desire to be close. This is done when mothers clean their child’s dirty hands and when lovers catch a piece of food that has missed their partner’s mouth.