From the cradle to the grave, we are constantly reminded that « what truly matters is the inside« . Ironically enough, we live in a society that sanctifies tanned and flawless skin, thigh gaps and flat stomach for women, while men are politely asked through invasive advertisement to bodybuild their abs and pecs to be given the right to feel « manly ». What society does not tell us, but what we all seem to know implicitly, is that physical appearance can radically transform one’s existence.
« Beauty« , will you claim right away, « is in the eye of the observer« . You are partially right. If a British study has proven that our own appreciation of beauty is shaped by our past experiences and interactions, proving therefore that there is a « learned » appreciation of beauty that explains why you can endlessly debate on « whether the-guy-with-the-blue-jacket is hot or not », there is also strong evidence of the existence of a universal beauty. Universal beauty, as I call it, mostly lies in the symmetry of the features (although studies show that having a slightly asymmetric face can be even more seducing). And guess where symmetric features come from? You got it, genetics! You therefore have no power on your level of attractiveness – defined at your birth and reset at your death – in spite of all the makeup your face can bear. Sadly, your physical appearance is more than a « slight detail » and it can significantly affect the way you interact with others, and how they perceive you in return.
Let’s start from the cradle. Time Magazine has revealed that « unconditional motherly love » was proven not so unconditional in the end. Indeed, mothers have more facility to feel attachment for their babies when they are beautiful, and they are also more likely to spend time playing with them. On the contrary, if their baby is « ugly », they will focus more on learning than on playing. At school, discrimination goes on. A study shows that beautiful children tend to get higher grades (a comparison between a set of graded copies without the picture of the child and with the picture shows a significant difference in the grading processes, with a positive correlation between beauty and higher grades, while more ugly children had their grades lowered).
And not only beauty affects the way others see you, it also affects the way you see yourself, and how you behave. Feeling gorgeous because you are treated as being so undoubtedly boosts your confidence, and thus your ability to socialize and take responsibilities. Children that are made to feel uncomfortable with their physical appearance from a young age tend to develop a form of « learned helplessness » that results in tendencies to shyness and difficulties in socializing. Ever wondered why the popular ones in high school are always beautiful? The answer lies in the double legitimation of their capacity to « rule » and influence others. « External » legitimation, as humans tend to unconsciously associate beauty with positive characteristics, such as intelligence and honesty, and « internal » legitimation, as the handsome ones interiorized that they have the natural ability to be respected and listened to.
The big deal is that such a « futile » matter, as some would call it, has some serious repercussions on social hierarchy. Countless sociologists have worked on the way physical appearance influences one’s social status, starting with employment opportunities. There is considerable empirical evidence that the more attractive the individual, the greater the likelihood that that person will be hired, regardless of their qualifications. A study done by Pfeifer even noted a positive correlation between physical appearance and wages, as « beauties » tend to get more premiums and job promotions. It is estimated that, in the United States, « ugly » men tend to earn 9% less in income than the average, while « handsome » men get 5% more than average. This « halo effect », operates in countless fields. I was astonished to find out, while reading an academic paper (« Beauty as a status characteristic »), that beautiful people also tend to receive more help when they are in distress, are less likely to be asked for identification when buying alcohol, and a variety of privileges that arise from the randomness of genetics. But « what truly matters is the inside » uh?
Again « correlation is not causation », to quote Mr. Mottet, meaning that there is no absolute rule of beauty (fortunately) that constrains people to stay alpha or beta all their lives, just as in Huxley’s dystopian « Brave New World« . This article is merely an attempt to trigger a collective reflection on the way we integrate and consider individuals around us, sacralizing those that naturally « have it all » and seeing no social interest in getting along with the « uglies ».
Nathalie Le Pennec