Thursday, January 17, 2008

Beauty and Success

It may seem obvious to acknowledge that there are benefits to being beautiful, and that they extend past gaining the attention of potential mates. People are attracted to and fascinated by beautiful people, and most of us would admit to being guilty of judging others on the basis of their looks before getting to know them. Science Daily had an interesting article a few days ago about a recent study showing that attractive people often receive better job positions and pay than average looking applicants. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the study found that women were more likely to give high status packages to attractive men than men gave to attractive women.

Unlike discrimination against people on the basis of their race, religion, sexuality, gender, nationality, etc, it's totally legal and often acceptable to discriminate people on the basis of their physical appearance. In positions that require the employee to woo prospective clients or sell a product, it's arguable that attractive people are more likely to impress others and convince them to buy from the company. This might be true, but it certainly feels unfair to those otherwise competent, qualified people who didn't luck out with the beauty gene.

While I wasn't particularly surprised to read that attractive people have an edge in the business world, I found it interesting to contrast it with another popular attitude about the intelligence of highly attractive people, namely that beautiful people are airheads, ditzes or dumb blondes. Television and movies teach us to recognize "the hot girl" as gorgeous but stupid and "the nerd" as intelligent but awkward and ugly. We might be attracted to beautiful people on both social and sexual levels, but I think most people would assume that someone with model looks lacks brains.

The Economist recently published an article reporting that studies have shown that there may be a link between beauty and high intelligence, and that allowing a person's good looks to influence your decision about them is not a bad idea. One study found a correlation between bodily symmetry (a marker of beauty) and general intelligence, while another had participants view photos of faces and guess how intelligent the person was, which a significant portion got correct. Beautiful people earn more money than average looking people, but also bring more revenue to their employers, making it advantageous for a company to hire the more attractive of two equally qualified candidates.

Just as in the Science Daily article, the studies discussed in this story concluded that men were rewarded more for good looks and penalized for unattractiveness than women (men characterized as ugly earned 9% less income than average men, while ugly women earned 6% less than average women). Researchers found that these rewards and penalties varied between countries, as Chinese men and women were penalized more for ugliness and rewarded more for beauty (with ugly women penalized as much as 31% in lower salaries), while attractive British men and women were rewarded only 1% for their beauty.

Finally, researchers found that investment in cosmetics and clothes didn't pay off in increasing one's salary, showing that "that the beauty premium generated by such primping is worth only 15% of the money expended."

Is this depressing news for everyone who's not a Heidi Klum look-a-like? In some ways, yes. I certainly find it disturbing that so much weight is placed on physical appearance, both in personal and professional situations, and that the lucky few who are born beautiful have a tremendous advantage in both areas. On the other hand, I think about how much control we actually do have over our looks. So few people really pay attention to how they are presenting themselves, and many beautiful people slide by on their looks without making the effort to look professional and put-together from head to toe. I would think that in most cases, a sloppily dressed, unprofessional looking beautiful woman isn't going to get a job over an impeccably dressed average looking woman. In response to the article's final point, I think you can throw all the money you want at pricey cosmetics and designer clothes, but until you recognize what flatters you, it's never going to help you look better.

Dressing sharply, looking put-together from head to toe, being healthier (not just in a weight sense, but when you live a healthier lifestyle, your skin and hair reflect it), carrying yourself with confidence and poise... there are so many ways to improve the way you present yourself to the world. I think about the fact that when I'm dressed to impress, feeling healthy and energized, wearing clothes I feel great in and having put time into my hair and makeup, I hardly resemble the way I look when I wake up in the morning. Anyone who's ever seen an episode of What Not to Wear can attest to the fact that a wardrobe/hair/makeup/confidence makeover will make you into a totally different person. While it's wrong not to acknowledge the fact that you can't change your genes or go from average to supermodel, I think everyone can reap (at least some of the benefits that attractive people gain in their professional and personal lives.


a said...

Right on! While I'd never call myself supermodel material, I often received attention for my appearance (shopkeepers saying to my mother, "Is that your daughter? She's beautiful," etc.). My mom, like any mom thinks of her kid, thinks I'm the prettiest thing on the planet BUT always comments that while the genes might be there, beauty usually comes from taking good care of what you've got, from wearing the right bra to getting regular hair trims. I don't know that quote off the top of my head, the one about no one wanting to hang out with beauty when it hasn't left the house in a while and it's all grungy and wearing leggings (die, leggings as pants, die) covered in cat hair. That's very true. Women, capitalize on what you're given! Those eyebrow waxes may just pay off in job offers. Or at least, impressed bosses.

Anita said...

This is an interesting and complicated issue. I've also read of studies showing that even mothers pay more attention to the offspring they feel is more attractive. I agree, taking the time to learn what works best for your own appearance and an overall impression of good health are excellent goals. However, as one ages, things get even worse in our youth and beauty obsessed culture. The knowledge & experience gained with time can and is often eclipsed by youth in the job market. It's all kind of depressing when you think about it.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone should make the most of what they have -- looks, brains, whatever.

I don't begrudge beautiful people. Who doesn't prefer to look at attractive anything vs. not? But beauty doesn't substitute for good work in most jobs.

Gwen said...

Fascinating. A lot of it seems like common sense but I do acknowledge they are exploring the effects of beauty. The most interesting part of your entry is the gender disparity and the cultural differences: I'm really glad that I'm neither in sales nor am I trying to get a job in China!

Still, I think I see the effect in social interactions when you have a swan amongst ugly ducklings - they treat beauty somewhat differently, and I think that is culturally-ingrained and then reflected in the results in China.

Kai Jones said...

Okay, but I'm 46 and I still don't have a clue what looks good on me and what doesn't. How the heck do you learn that?

Princess Poochie said...

The thing that bothers me most is not the assumption that pretty=dumb (or if you like fashion you're an airhead) but, rather, when girls/guys thing that if they are "hot" they can get away with being dumb/ignorant. I want to be pretty AND smart.

If you've ever watched that show Beauty and the Geek you can see there are some girls who don't feel they need to know anything and those who are interested in learning.


annie said...

interesting point. but I find it surprising that investing in better clothes or cosmetics/makeup doesn't help. we see so many celebs and stars look so polished in makeup but look merely average without it on.

MizzJ said...

Great post! I totally agree that looking put together and making the most of your features has more impact than simply being naturally gorgeous. The reason why a "pretty" person may get the job over someone else is usually b/c how you present yourself is like your advertisement to how you conduct yourself in life; if you're sloppy in appearance, it could imply that you're sloppy in other areas. Also dressing/grooming well will give someone confidence and others are attracted to that as well. In the end, maybe a "hot" person will get more attention, but only momentarily - after all, who's going to look at Pam Anderson when she's 70?

lisa said...

Great post Meg! I agree with a lot of what you and other commenters have said. I'm not supermodel material but if I take care of my health and put my best face forward by having healthy hair and skin and dressing to flatter my body type, I can look a lot more polished and presentable.

Anonymous said...

why is it unfair to be judged on physical appearance, which you have only limited control over, but fine to be judged on intelligence, which is likewise mostly genetic? Even education is not equally available to people of all socio-economic classes.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of beauty and symmetry, here's some good examples :