I like to figure things out.

Tanya Thomas

It pays to be pretty

| Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on June 26, 2013

prettywoman

YouTube is not appreciated enough for the educational resource it can be. For me, it’s my go-to guru for everyday mysteries – how does Phelps do the butterfly, what’s the deal with a fish fork, how to pick a lock.

So when the website suggested that I watch a video on ‘ The art of feminine presence’, obviously, I obeyed. It turned out to be an advertisement for classes by Rachael Jayne Groover, who, it appears, makes a living teaching the women of North Colorado how to be women.

Feminine energy, Groover will tell you, radiates from a woman’s ‘womb space’. (That’s supposed to be three inches below the navel.) If a woman really wants to be feminine and attractive – and the video will tell you that’s what women want to be – she needs to be constantly present in her womb space. “Are you in your energetic power field or are you up in your head?” she asks.

Being attractive clearly has its advantages, even if it means having to spend your working day with your head in your womb. Common sense tells us that attractiveness wins more friends and favours. But how much does the bias influence, for instance, your chances at a job? Or income levels? Or several other everyday actions that we assume are free of prejudice?

(I couldn’t find any studies that explain how this correlation works in India, or even in Asia. But I assume it’s safe to use research results from the West, because behaviour is the same even if what constitutes attractiveness may be different.)

One interesting report on the subject was an introduction by Sidney Katz to his book The Importance of Being Beautiful. Katz explains (and several other studies prove) that attractive people get better jobs, higher pay and quicker promotions.

More importantly, our attractiveness bias is at work even if our conscious minds refuse to accept this. In a study he quotes, about 750 college students told researchers it would be ‘vulgar’ to judge a person by their appearance. They would rather go on a date with someone friendly, warm and intelligent than with just a looker. But when the same students were interviewed after a randomly-arranged blind date, they rated their dates solely on physical appearance. None of the other parameters mattered.

The bias isn’t only with opposite-sex attraction. For instance, Katz says that nursery school teachers, who insist that all children are beautiful, still, though unconsciously, grade their students based on physical attractiveness. He also quotes a criminal lawyer who said a stocky rape victim is a less credible witness before a judge than a slender good-looking woman. Even with older people, doctors and nurses give better care to the better-looking, because they are judged to be more cooperative and motivated. Other research has also proved that attractiveness plays a role in access to credit – good-looking people find it easier to get loans, even though they are less likely than their plainer counterparts to pay it back.

While a woman can still work on enhancing her looks, men have to contend with a factor that’s often out of their reach. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book that explains the many ways we make both good and bad split-second decisions intuitively, a study finds that most male CEOs are unusually tall. Gladwell polled about half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list and found that most heads of big business have a height advantage. To quote, ‘In the US population, about 14.5 per cent of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 per cent.’

There seems to be an evolutionary reason for why we trust pretty people. We believe what we can see, and if what we see is an attractive face, we assume that person is also smart, capable, and kind. We pick them for jobs, trust them with more responsibilities, and believe they make better leaders.

So whether women play up their femininity as Rachael Groover suggests or not, this proves why people feel the need to appear beautiful. And most of us, whether we are pretty or not ourselves, like pretty people. The only solution then is to recognise this bias and consciously steer clear of it every time we size someone else up.

But this isn’t just a moral lesson – the bias also has real-world effects. Beautifulpeople.com is a US-based global dating website ( beautifulpeople.com/en-IN in India) famous for rejecting less-than-desirable applicants not only during its online screening process but also at the restaurant door before an actual date. The site announced last week that it has expanded to include a jobs section, so employers can hire beautiful people. Does this mean then, that hiring a person based entirely on their looks, something that has been implicit till now, will soon be justified as company policy?

Would a woman, who is not confident about how she looks, report sexual harassment because she believes, and often rightly so, that no one might believe her? Conversely, would Phaneesh Murthy have escaped the intense media scrutiny he was subjected to if the women who complained against him been ordinary-looking and Indian?

In almost a century of research that proves a physical attractiveness stereotype, very few papers have found a downside to being pretty. One of the few is a study by Israeli researchers Bradley Ruffle and Ze’ev Shtudiner (and covered in The Economist). They found that while hunks always get their job interview, good-looking women were sometimes turned down. The paper’s conclusion points to the fact that HR departments are predominantly staffed by women, who would rather keep the competition out.

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Published on June 26, 2013
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