Blinded by Beauty

By Shyama Parui

In America's fierce 2020 Presidential race, where we were bombarded with news stories, advertisements and countless political posts, our role as voters gained greater weight than ever before. Under these tumultuous circumstances, when you were casting the ballot, did you consider that a candidate's win might depend on his or her looks? Would it shock you to know that historically, votes seem to favor the “better looking" person?

As ludicrous as that sounds, our tendency to prefer conventionally attractive individuals expresses itself both explicitly and implicitly. My suspicion though, is that we don't readily admit to it and often are not even aware of the “beauty bias." I had first heard of this psychological behavior years ago in my undergrad Psychology class at St. Xavier's College. That topic grabbed my attention partly because as a teenager, our awareness of self and other's beauty is heightened. It has resurfaced in discussions with my kids, who are now adolescents. In the age of Instagram, innumerable filters, and Kylie Cosmetics, it appears that the influence of beauty is exponentially growing.

This bias though has existed since time immemorial and across cultures. Our religious epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata depict majority of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses as strikingly beautiful. Shakespeare's sonnets that intertwine love and beauty are well known. On the flip side, nefarious characters are the very definition of ugly; think Voldemort, the evil force from the Harry Potter series and Mogambo, the archetypal villain from the Hindi movie, Mr. India.

Our encounter with the perception of attractiveness starts at an early age and depending on where we stand on that scale, it may or may not work in our favor. The Halo Effect of good looks affects how we assess other qualities in the same person. Think of that cute five-year old, with big eyes and an irresistible smile, who gets away with all the mischief. By contrast, the buck toothed or overweight kid from across the street may be incorrectly blamed as the troublemaker. Women from my generation are likely to remember their most popular classmate as the prettiest one. She was the one who also received the most roses on “Rose Day" in college. And perhaps, your brother pointed out that the local “hero" got his first job before the average looking ones. These were obvious messages similar to the number of “Likes" in the world of social media. While it elevated the status of a few, those considered unattractive probably suffered unfair treatment. It is likely that their strengths were overlooked, or they were not offered equal opportunities for success. Sadly, in some cases, their confidence was crushed as they became the butt of jokes. Comparisons by “aunties" who point out differences between brothers or tell you that it is sad that you didn't get your Mom's beauty genes can leave a lasting effect on a child at an impressionable age.

Subtle reactions or even unintentional comments on our part may affect the person at the receiving end of our words and actions. For example, hiring managers often show confidence in candidates who “look the part" for a specific job or leadership role. While gender and race exacerbate this problem, when we associate physical attractiveness with competence, knowledgeable and other positive attributes, we are likely to make poor decisions. While that may not always be the case, those lacking a gorgeous face may have to work doubly harder to demonstrate intelligence, confidence, and other qualities that are most relevant to success on the job. Praise in the form of adjectives like “hot", “stunning", or “sundar" is unfortunately a double-edged sword for women in the workplace. Experts have found that while it may be an advantage in certain jobs, it becomes a weakness in roles that are traditionally male dominant such as pilots or in the armed services. Our biased world mistakenly thinks of strength and beauty as mutually exclusive.

Introspective and observant individuals can sense how they are assessed by the opposite sex, friends, and family members and the value they place on those assessments vary. However, what matters most is the inner dialog that goes on in one's head. You may be your harshest critic or biggest fan. Being on the extreme end may not lead to a well-adjusted life but we may be doing a disservice to our mental health if we allow the evaluation on one aspect like appearance become the sole criterion of self-esteem.

Outward beauty is far from being a prerequisite for success and perfect looks are never an absolute requirement. The responsibility of conveying this to society, especially its young members, rests on our collective shoulders as parents, teachers, and leaders in the business world. Unless we take steps to increase awareness and avoid prejudice, the beauty bias will continue to raise its problematic head.

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Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com