What is it like to be pretty? When we think of someone beautiful, we tend to assume that his or her looks privilege has to be accompanied by some negative consequences, to balance things out. Beautiful people get too much attention, which is tiresome; beautiful people get sexually harassed more often; if she’s pretty she can’t also be smart; real beauty is found on the inside—we are told. Because people are often taught that everyone is equal, some resort to mental gymnastics to try to convince themselves that pretty people must be lacking in something. Just as we often say that money can’t buy happiness, despite evidence that wealth is correlated with life satisfaction, people are often reluctant to admit that beauty is a net positive for the individual.
The popular narrative suggests that beauty is subjective. Beauty standards tend to vary depending on the culture and time. However, objectively beautiful traits do exist. For example, evolutionary psychologists have found that averageness, symmetry and sexual dimorphism affect cross-cultural standards of beauty. Attractiveness may be important to mate selection because it is a sign of health. Tall men are also perceived as more attractive partners and this might be because they are seen as stronger, more physically imposing and better protectors of women. A low waist to hip ratio is considered sexually attractive in women, possibly because it signals youth.
In fairy tales, the heroine is often young and pretty, while the witch is old and ugly. Some recent movies and books have tried to subvert this trope by making the villain conventionally attractive too. However, the perception that ugly equals evil remains. Indeed, studies have found that attractive people are seen as kinder and more trustworthy than less attractive ones. These stereotypes can cause real harm. For example, ugly people may receive harsher sentences than beautiful people perhaps due to the assumption that a person who is pretty can’t be that bad.
People often assume that if someone is pretty he or she cannot be all that smart. One prevalent stereotype contrasts the handsome but dumb jock with the ugly but smart nerd. However, according to a 2004 study, beautiful people actually might be smarter on average. The authors provide evidence that intelligent men attain higher status than less intelligent ones; that higher status men are more likely to mate with beautiful women; and that intelligence and beauty are heritable. If all this holds true, logic dictates that beauty should correlate with intelligence. Another study has also found a positive correlation between intelligence and bodily symmetry.
The halo effect starts at an early age. Prettier kids are often more academically successful. Researchers Margaret Clifford and Elaine Walster found that the child’s physical appearance was strongly linked to how intelligent the teachers perceived the child to be. Another study found that more attractive students got lower grades in online courses than they did in traditional ones, which suggests that their looks might have influenced the grades they were assigned.
This kind of discrimination continues in the workplace and is even present in politics. A recent study of US politics found that the more attractive candidates had better results in the 2016 midterm elections. Tall people are also perceived as healthier, smarter and better leaders and being good-looking is associated with greater confidence and better oral skills: qualities that are linked to salary raises. Another study even found that discrimination on the basis of physical features is more prevalent than racial discrimination when it comes to call-backs for job interviews.
Evidence suggests that good-looking people are not only more likely to be married, but also more likely to have multiple children. Attractiveness is also apparently a more important factor in our dating decisions than traits like personality, intelligence and education and less attractive people are more likely to be virgins during early adulthood than more attractive ones. Despite the stereotype that physical attractiveness is more important in women that in men when it comes to being sexually selected, some research suggests that women prefer the most attractive men for both short- and long-term relationships.
One hypothesis is that this discrimination is related to the power of first impressions, which can affect the way we perceive and treat others. It can take a lot to change our attitudes after the initial impression has been formed. Indeed, one study found that candidates who made a better first impression received more internship offers and higher interview ratings. According to researchers in British Columbia, beauty can make a more powerful first impression than other factors. They asked 75 men and women to have short conversations with people they had never met and then rate their attractiveness and personalities. The better looking people were perceived as having better personality characteristics.
Beauty is a billion dollar industry for good reason. Many people will do everything in their power to look good: from spending hundreds of hours at the gym to undergoing plastic surgery. However, despite what we’re told, not everyone is beautiful and it’s not only the beauty on the inside that counts. Lookism is one of the most prevalent yet unrecognized causes of social inequality. Good looks—like intelligence and being able-bodied—are largely determined by genetics so, of course, no one should be punished for being attractive. However, pretending that looks don’t matter will not help us address the injustices surrounding pretty privilege.