Beautiful Problems – An Essay by Alexander Schneider

Paris 20 Belleville 035 Rue du Retrait

American television viewers of the late ‘80s might remember a certain Kelly LeBrock in the now-famous commercial for Pantene shampoo, which raised awareness of a specific struggle faced by her and her league of impossibly gorgeous men and women the moment she pleaded “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” (The real message from Pantene, of course, being, “Don’t hate her, since you can be beautiful too, and if you can’t, well, then we guess you’re going to have to hate her.”) Sometimes it takes a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign to make the point, but the troubles surrounding the very beautiful date back at least to the calamity that ensued when a fleet of one thousand ships was launched to recover Helen of Troy’s visage, and the rest of her assumedly flawless body, if not earlier. It might seem illogical: Could there really be a downside to possessing symmetric features, lustrous hair and teeth, an ideal chin, and perfectly-sculpted calves? Although perhaps difficult for the aesthetically challenged to imagine, there come a variety of ailments particular to being utterly good-looking, at least according to research published over the last several decades.

That is to say nothing, however, for the amount of enquiry into the benefits of being utterly good-looking, of which there is a lot. Due to the so-called halo effect, our simple human brains, knowing outer beauty when they see it, ascribe a matching personality, which means beautiful people are subconsciously perceived as more accomplished, amicable, agreeable, articulate, altruistic, and admirable—and that’s only the A’s (1). Beginning in school, better-looking students are more popular with their classmates, and their teachers judge them as more competent and intelligent, reflected in their grading.2 (Hot professors, meanwhile, are given better evaluations by students (3). Attractive people will climb higher on the career ladder and earn more money, possibly as much as $230,000 in a lifetime, blessed with the sex appeal to command attention in job interviews, ask for promotions, and close deals (4). On the campaign trail, beauty, for both male and female candidates, has been linked to a twenty-percent increase in votes (5). On trial, an attractive defendant is likely to receive a more lenient sentence, while an attractive plaintiff will be awarded a larger financial settlement, proving justice is blind in neither criminal nor civil court (6). Even babies spend more time gazing upon the faces of the beautiful (7). Well, so much for the profound innocence of children.

The reader may be wondering where they fall in the beauty hierarchy. Objectively measuring one’s looks is tricky business, a mix of unstable self-assessment and opaque social feedback, and while people tend to present deflective modesty when questioned directly, most consider themselves at least above average, which sounds dubious, statistically (8). (Most people, in fact, consider themselves at least above average in virtually every human characteristic imaginable, including personality, humor, competence, intelligence, and morality (9). Yeah, well, maybe.) Does that mean we are, in fact, less beautiful than we think? Do not despair. If Pantene shampoo fails to alleviate doubt, try a foolproof (in your author’s experience) daily beautification ritual, which involves gazing into a mirror and intoning: “I am whole, I am worthy, I am beautiful.” If that still doesn’t work, you can ask your mother.

Where does that leave all the others who are a little closer to one (on a 1-to-10 scale)? Likely in a better place than the genetically blessed, it would seem. Outside of the visual worlds of acting, performing, and the oldest trade of all, which is fashion, beauty can backfire for the professional woman or man. Recruiters who deem a job candidate of their own sex more attractive than they are will be disinclined to call them in for an interview (10). Women, however, have it tougher: Implicit sexist biases seem to make sure that attractive men are still judged to be better leaders, and can benefit from including a photo on their resume, while a photo of a good-looking woman on a resume will make sure that it has to be sent out many more times before getting a call-back (11). In general, attractive women are overlooked for high-level positions that require authority, and, since human resource departments tend to be staffed by women, an unsavory conclusion seems to be that good old-fashioned jealousy may lead to discrimination against prettier candidates (12).

We can look no further than to one Elle Woods for Hollywood’s take on the corrosive sexist prejudice against particularly beautiful female professionals, but whatever we look like, we all have our day in court. While a judge or jury may be more sympathetic to a comely suspect in general, a suspect who has used their looks specifically for crime may have the gavel brought down on them that much harder. When a man or woman seduces a victim to pilfer their money, the more attractive the swindler, the harsher the sentence (13). Jurors, of either sex, are apparently eager to punish someone who uses their powers of beauty for bad rather than good, which should serve as a warning to the beautiful: Don’t give the world any more reason to count your perfect countenance against you.

More bad news for the beautiful, particularly if you’re feeling under the weather. A doctor may pledge to “do no harm”, but an attractive patient may fall victim to just a touch more harm from their medical provider than an ordinary-looking one in the next bed. Beauty is subconsciously linked to other positive traits, and that includes good health, which means doctors often treat the maladies of the beautiful less seriously (14). They particularly tend to their pain with less care, so if you’re after extra morphine, you may want to forgo under-eye concealer during your next stint at the hospital, since it seems some people just find it difficult to imagine that your beautiful self might have any problems at all, medical or otherwise.

The realm of the beautiful can be a lonely place. (Sometimes literally: Pedestrians move further away from beautiful people on the sidewalk, granting them unwitting power even over visible space (15).) While you might be a magnet for envy, you just as often repel those with an appearance deficit through involuntary intimidation. Who would want to invite the doomed comparison that would result from just standing next to you? Gorgeous people tend to pair up with those who look like them, whether because they want to or simply because it’s easier after scaring off those who didn’t also happen to win the genetic lottery (16). Online dating leader OkCupid—experts on practical data analysis, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, relationships—have found this to be true in the virtual realm, discovering that users with the most flawlessly beautiful photos are not as likely to garner dates (17). People whose looks generate polarized opinions, however, rack up the most messages from other users, perhaps due to less perceived competition for a mate who, while appealing in general, possesses a developing muffin top or bald patch.

It’s not only intimidation that can alienate others. Consider it an occupational hazard, but the beautiful can fall victim to all manner of cruel projections, including assumptions that they are arrogant, unapproachable, or aloof, and that if they have found any success in life it can be credited to their looks rather than abilities (18).  The ugly truth just might be that everyone else is tempted to try and show them they’re nothing special, whether or not they claimed to be in the first place. Oh, and one more thing, beautiful ones: You’re boring. (Or at least conformist and vain (19) —and you probably think this essay is about you.) Also, you’re selfish, uncooperative, and unable to cope when you don’t get your way (20). Though it’s probably not your fault: You’ve been invited to every party by everyone you’ve ever known and asked out on more dates than your pretty little brain can count, personality development not required.

For the beautiful men and women who might be beginning to realize just how hard they have it, take consolation in the fact that your problems, like beauty itself, are ephemeral. Admittedly, it might be painfully obvious now who the haves and have-nots in the world of beauty are: We know that, whether it inspires swooning, evasion, or something in between, one’s level of attractiveness is judged by strangers with a marked, and possibly depressing, consensus of opinion (21). As people get to know each other, however, that consensus invariably vanishes, and judgements about a person’s attractiveness, previously consistent, will scatter across the board (22). So a man or woman, once thought to be lacking in the looks department, can grow to seem much more beautiful to the right people after spending some time with them; the opposite scenario, in which a knockout is knocked down a few or more pegs on the beauty scale, is just as likely. Your beauty, no matter how stunning, will eventually fade into the background, as will its complications, which means you’d better get working on that personality of yours. Like Kelly LeBrock vows at the end of the Pantene shampoo commercial: “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.” That’s a promise.

1 Dion, Karen et al. “What is Beautiful is Good.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24.3 (1972)

2 Ritts, Vicki et al. “Expectations, Impressions, and Judgements of Physically Attractive Students: A Review.” Review of Educational Research 62.4 (1992)

3 Riniolo, Todd C. et al. “Hot or Not: Do Professors Perceived as Physically Attractive Receive Higher Student Evaluations?” Journal of General Psychology 133.1 (2006)

4 Toledano, Enbar. “May the Best (Looking) Man Win: The Unconscious Role of Attractiveness in Employment Decisions.” Cornell HR Review (2013)

5 Berggren, Niclas et al. “The Looks of a Winner: Beauty and Electoral Success.” Journal of Public Economics 94.1-2 (2010)

6 Ahola, Angela S. et al. “Justice Needs a Blindfold: Effects of Gender and Attractiveness on Prison Sentences and Attributions of Personal Characteristics in a Judicial Process.” Psychiatry, Psychology and Law 16.S1 (2009)

7 Langlois, Judith H. et al. “Infant Preferences for Attractive Faces: Rudiments of a Stereotype?” Developmental Psychology 23.3 (1987)

8 Cash, Thomas F. et al. “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall… ? Contrast Effects and Self-Evaluations of Physical Attractiveness” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 9.3 (1983)

9 Alicke, Mark D. et al. “Personal Contact, Individuation, and the Better-Than-Average Effect.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68.5 (1995)

10 Agthe, Maria et al. “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful: Anti-Attractiveness Bias in Organizational Evaluation and Decision Making.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46.6 (2010)

11 Ruffle, Bradley J. and Ze’ev Shtudiner. “Are Good-Looking People More Employable?” Management Science 61.8 (2014)

12 Heilman, Madeline E. and Louis R. Saruwatari. “When Beauty is Beastly: The Effects of Appearance and Sex on Evaluations of Job Applicants for Managerial and Non-Managerial Jobs.” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 23.3 (1979)

13 Frevert, Tonya K. and Lisa Slattery Walker. “Physical Attractiveness and Social Status.” Sociology Compass 8.3 (2014)

14 Hadjistavropoulos, Heather D. et al. “Are Physicians’ Ratings of Pain Affected by Patients’ Physical Attractiveness?” Social Science and Medicine 31.1 (1990)

15 Dabbs Jr., James M. and Neil A. Stokes, III. “Beauty is Power: The Use of Space on the Sidewalk.” Sociometry 38.4 (1975)

16 Watson, David et al. “Match Makers and Deal Breakers: Analyses of Assortative Mating in Newlywed Couples.” Journal of Personality 72.5 (2004)

17 “The Mathematical Formula for Love.” BBC News Magazine (February 9, 2015)

18 Fösterling, Friedrich et al. “Ability, Luck, and Looks: An Evolutionary Look at Achievement Ascriptions and the Sexual Attribution Bias.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92.5 (2007)

19 Segal-Caspi, Lihi et al. “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, Revisited: Perceived and Reported Traits and Values of Attractive Women.” Psychological Science 23.10 (2012)

20 Sanchez-Pages, Santiago and Enrique Turiegano. “Testosterone, Facial Symmetry and Cooperation in the Prisoners’ Dilemma.” Physiology and Behavior 99.3 (2010)

21 Eastwick, Paul W. and Lucy L. Hunt. “Relational Mate Value: Consensus and Uniqueness in Romantic Evaluations.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 106.5 (2014)

22 Hunt, Lucy L. et al. “Leveling the Playing Field: Longer Acquaintance Predicts Reduced Assertive Mating on Attractiveness.” Psychological Science 26.7 (2015)


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