The Beauty Bias: How Attractiveness Affects Our Lives

There’s more to a person than appearance, but being "hot or not" shapes the way people experience life—from birth on.

February 14, 2018
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We live in a world where physical appearance is very highly regarded. Victoria’s Secret models, Hollywood stars, and young pop singers are worshipped not only for their talents but also for their good looks. Many of us spend countless hours and dollars trying to attain an appearance even slightly close to these famous figures.

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The obsession isn’t slowing down, either. Plastic surgery is on the rise, with facelifts increasing in popularity by 4 percent from 2015 to 2016.

But what about those who don’t have to try? As much as we might try to emulate the high cheekbones and button noses of some of those Victoria’s Secret Angels, many were merely born that way. Ever noticed that their makeup routines are often very minimalistic? When you’re blessed with features that are traditionally considered attractive—such as facial symmetry—you don’t need to do much to enhance them.

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What must it be like to grow up knowing that you’ve won the genetic lottery? And what causes the rest of us to admire and pursue that same level of natural beauty—the ultimate level of attractiveness—so relentlessly?

The Ugly Witch and the Beautiful Princess

There’s a growing trend of not telling little girls they’re pretty. In an article for HuffPost, author Lisa Bloom argued that doing so sends a message that their looks are a reflection of their worth.

Deborah Best, PhD, is a psychologist specializing in gender stereotypes among young children. She says that the emphasis on appearance starts young.

“Children are exposed to the importance of physical appearance and attractiveness from a very early age,” says Best. “Without really thinking about the implicit messages they send, parents, family, and friends often comment on a newborn’s appearance. ‘What a pretty baby! She’s going to break some hearts!’; ‘Look at those strong legs! He’s going to be a football player!’”

In graduate school, Best studied under influential child psychologist Harriet Lange Rheingold. According to Best, Rheingold observed parents utter the above judgments in the nursery and said parents were more likely to discuss girls’ appearances than boys’.

“Adult comments on children’s physical appearance indicate to children how important it is to ‘look good’,” continues Best. “These subtle messages tell children that appearance is important and also suggest that those who are ‘better looking’ are also better people.”

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Even classic fairy tales follow this narrative. Cinderella, like so many other stories, features a beautiful girl tormented by a hideous villain (in this case, her stepsisters). In The Ugly Duckling, the protagonist is only accepted once he matures into a beautiful swan. In fact, he tries to end it all when the beautiful birds won’t accept him.

They’re even bombarded in the toy room. Barbies and Bratz dolls perpetuate an unrealistic standard of appearance for girls; boys’ action figures feature unnaturally chiseled jawlines and bulging biceps.

Try as you might to keep your kids away from such problematic depictions, they’re still going to grow up and see the idolization of beautiful people in their favorite films, TV shows, and music videos. They quickly begin thinking that to be rich, famous, and admired, you must be attractive.

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As children become more self-aware, these external influences can cause them to question their own perceived attractiveness. If they don’t believe themselves to be beautiful enough, they may very well develop a dangerous complex.

The Pros and Cons of Being Hot (Or Not)

Young girls and boys quickly associate being good-looking with happiness and value. But is life really better beautiful?

Growing up attractive certainly has its benefits. According to the Council on Contemporary Families’ briefing of a study in the journal Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, good-looking high schoolers are more likely to experience popularity and an overall sense of belonging. They even receive better grades, perhaps due to closer relationships with their teachers.

In David R. Shaffer’s book, Social and Personality Development, he cites a 1979 study which found that “attractive youngsters may become progressively more confident, friendly and outgoing,” whereas their less-attractive peers become more introverted, per the CCF briefing.

However, the Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development study found that many students with below-average looks, less slowed by a social scene, were able to focus more on their academics. Meanwhile, the advantages their attractive classmates experienced were more likely to be put in jeopardy by a distracting lifestyle involving heavy drinking and dating.

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So it seems that attractiveness doesn’t guarantee success, but how does attractiveness it affect the way we’re treated?

“Highly attractive children benefit from the more positive evaluations of competence, more attention, and from more positive and less negative interactions with peers and adults,” says Best. “In contrast, less attractive children certainly see the differential treatment and incorporate such evaluative information into their self concepts.”

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In one University of Tennessee at Chattanooga study, researches asked a group of 18 children to evaluate 12 photos of children with “varying degrees of attractiveness”—those levels of attractiveness established, in part, by five additional children. Attractive features were things like “straight teeth, toothy smile, large eyes, longer eyelashes, clear skin, or nicely groomed hair of a popular style”; unattractive features were things like “crooked teeth, facial scars, blemishes, or moles, ungroomed hair, dirty or unkempt appearance”; average features sat somewhere in the middle.

“In general,” the study found, “physically unattractive children were assumed to be dirty, have lice, and exhibit behavioral problems compared to the physically attractive children.” This bias was especially strong when it came to female students.

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Says Best: “There is clear evidence of the ‘beautiful is good’ stereotype. Unattractive individuals are perceived to be dull, uninteresting, less intelligent, and less trustworthy.”

Indeed, a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study shows that people perceive traditionally attractive people to “possess more socially desirable personality traits” and “lead better lives” than traditionally unattractive people. This prejudice, Best says, starts in infancy:

“Infants as young as three months of age show visual preferences for faces based on attractiveness, and between six and 10 months they categorize faces based on attractiveness. These early perceptual preferences lead to [children] differentiating between extremes of attractiveness and making judgments that agree with those of adults. Beginning in preschool, children also show a preference for more attractive peers and make more positive attributions about them. By middle school, the attractiveness bias, particularly for girls’ attractiveness, is quite robust. Children show more positive bias toward attractive girls and more negative bias toward unattractive ones.”

Yet bias doesn’t always favor beauty. The briefing of the Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development study referenced research that identified “a penalty of attractiveness for women in certain male-dominated occupations,” including one study which found that wearing a flattering dress “reduced perceptions of women’s competence for managerial positions—though not for secretarial positions.”

Further, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study found that people in the “unattractive” and “average” group were perceived to be more competent parents than those in the “attractive” group.

What can be done?

If Tinder has taught us anything, it’s that people do derive pleasure from judging people’s looks—and not always in a good way. You might feel like that’s a sure sign that people really are just shallow jerks. But when you’ve been raised to place such an importance on appearance, it’s hard to shake that old mindset.

Just think about it: How many of your hang-ups are based on actual “flaws” in your appearance, not things society has taught you to obsess over?

But as much as we’re influenced by the world around us, we can take initiatives to curb those influences. We can be conscious of how we judge ourselves and others; we can derive happiness from no one’s concept of beauty but our own; we can derive happiness from things beyond beauty.

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This is easier said than done for those of us who struggle with self-esteem. Rebuilding your self-image and learning to derive confidence from something besides appearance is a slow process—there’s a reason therapy is often referred to as an investment. Alexa Suter’s essay on her own “Ugly Duckling” experience shows how deceptive our self-perceptions can be. She talks about being unable to accept compliments, recognize flirtation, or understand people staring at you (surely they’re challenging you and not checking you out).

But just think about it: How much of your hang-ups are based on actual “flaws” in your appearance, not things society has taught you to obsess over? Remember the thigh gap, the practically unattainable “ideal” women strove for in 2013—even when experts warned of its dangers?

Not long ago, it seemed like ultra-thin was in. Nowadays, the more voluptuous look is favored. While it’s a good thing that being underweight no longer holds as much value, there’s nothing “body positive” about feeling like you have to drastically change your body to mirror the curvy figures you see on Instagram. It’s impossible to keep up, and it’s unhealthy.

And as for our kids? It’s more important than ever: Teach them the importance of compassion and self-love. Provide them with slightly more realistic images of body standards. Teach them not to judge others based on their appearance. And make sure they know that they’re more than their looks.

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In the meantime, Best believes that change is already on the way.

“For many years in Western societies, being thin, young, and physically attractive have been highly valued characteristics,” she says. ”In recent years, with the obesity epidemic, advertisements and commercials are using more diverse models to sell products, particularly products that are appropriate for larger sized individuals. Perhaps exposure to these varied models, along with programs that emphasize characteristics other than attractiveness (e.g., STEM programs for girls), will change views of attractiveness as well as help to emphasize the value of other interpersonal characteristics.”

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