Commentary: Lookism in context with other -isms
Barbara J. Risman
Professor and Head, Department of Sociology
University of Illinois-Chicago
Gordon and Crosnoe’s important new book clearly identifies a widespread but often overlooked source of personal inequality. But we might want to distinguish between prejudices and biases attached to physical attractiveness and those characteristics that are ascribed, such as race, ethnicity, or sex. For one thing, although looks are in part inherited, babies who are eventually labeled unattractive children do not begin life with the same cumulative disadvantages of, say, African-Americans, who are disproportionately likely to grow up in impoverished communities with inferior schools. And while attractiveness is surely influenced by our genes and the bodies we are born with, it is also something we can manipulate through haircuts, dental work, clothing styles, weight gain or loss, and even whether we slouch or stand up proudly.
Furthermore, people do not lose their race, ethnicity, or gender advantages and disadvantages as they age. But as men age, unattractive looks become less and less of a barrier, as career success and wealth accumulation confer increasing amounts of social status. As women age, by contrast, they become considered less attractive – even those who were seen as most attractive in their 20s and 30s. Many women resort to plastic surgery to preserve their youthful advantages, but this only delays the inevitable – and often subjects them to ridicule, whether about their supposed vanity or about the obviousness of the procedure.
No one should be judged by their sex, their color, or whether they are attractive. Yet these prejudices–racism, sexism, and lookism–probably develop differently, and also differ in appropriate remedy. Much of the struggle against racism and sexism consists of combating the prejudice of others against women and minorities. In this case, we must pay particular attention to countering the pride of those who are seen as attractive, not just out of respect for others, but because the privilege of attractiveness often backfire as people age.
Commentary on Lookism: A Bad Bargain for Women
Chair, Politics Department, Occidental College
Better looking people have more friends and sexual partners, receive higher grades in high school, and are more likely to attend college. But even attractive American women are ultimately disadvantaged by the personal and professional toll of growing up in a culture that values physical attractiveness.
Beauty has long been the primary yardstick for determining a woman’s social status in U.S. culture, while men are first and foremost valued for their professional and financial achievements. In other words, men are valued for what they do, while women are valued according to (mostly) immutable physical characteristics.
Girls/women who grow up in a society that places a strong emphasis on female beauty tend to chronically monitor their appearance in terms of how others see them. Psychologists have linked this self-objectification to lower self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, lower cognitive functioning, and lower grade-point averages in college. So while attractive women may see some social and economic benefits in certain settings when they are young, the compulsory drive to be attractive comes at great personal expense to nearly all women over the course of their lives.
The benefits of lookism in the workplace are overstated for attractive women because beauty actually serves as a barrier for women in corporate and political leadership positions. Not only are sexually attractive corporate managers rated as less competent by their peers and employees, attractive female political candidates are perceived as less competent in the eyes of voters.
This was especially pronounced in the 2008 presidential election where Republican voters who considered Sarah Palin sexually attractive evaluated her as less competent and, as a result, were less likely to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. Some studies even suggest that when people perceive other individuals as sexual objects, they actually show less concern for any pain and suffering such individuals may undergo!
Commentary: Eye of the Beholder? Not so fast!
John A. Hannah University Distinguished Professor
College of Education and Department of Sociology Michigan State University
firstname.lastname@example.org; 517 432 0300
Today’s social media include images of attractiveness and popularity that seemingly are racially and ethnically neutral, increasingly less weight conscious, and ascetically accepting of all facial and bodily differences. Television shows such as Ugly Betty and Mike and Molly and films such as Bridesmaids have featured stars who deviate from what is usually viewed as attractive in the mass media, suggesting that a more democratic view of attractiveness is emerging.
But research shows that even babies respond more positively to caretakers with pleasing symmetrical faces. And despite the new “everyone is beautiful” idiom, adolescents remain very concerned about living up to the standards of their peer group and very judgmental of those who do not. Gordon and Crosnoe show us that these early distinctions follow us through school, and that friendships and even grades are associated with attractiveness. Those deemed unattractive have fewer friends and opportunities for socializing.
If people really believed that “everyone is beautiful,” anorexia and facial and bodily surgeries would not be so ubiquitous in adolescent life. Given that young people continue to exclude and bully those viewed as unattractive, the fiction that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is simply disingenuous and potentially harmful.
Commmentary: How Parents Can De-emphasize Looks
Psychologist, Private Practice
San Francisco, CA
While being attractive confers many benefits throughout life, it’s important that parents don’t focus on those benefits, either by praising a child’s good looks rather than actual accomplishments or by ignoring the many traits that can outweigh looks for a less attractive child.
One of the biggest predictors of who succeeds in life, attractive or otherwise, is self-discipline, which involves regulating and managing emotions, learning how to tolerate frustration, maintaining focus without excessive distractibility, and developing the ability to delay gratification. Emphasizing and promoting your child’s good looks can actually undermine the exercise of these skills, as many childhood winners of movie contracts and beauty pageants have found to their costs.
Parents with highly attractive children may need to help them develop some degree of humility, along with respect for the positive qualities of those who are less attractive. While it’s common in adolescence to form peer groups with others of similar levels of attractiveness, parents can encourage teens to participate in other groups organized around different commonalities, such as similar skills or interests.
Parents can help teens with below average attractiveness by encouraging them to focus on arena where they can develop confidence and a supportive peer group. This might include academics, athletics, the arts, music, hobbies, or participation in political organizations.
Commentary: The sneaky side of lookism
Professor of Sociology
Framingham State University
email@example.com/206 375 4139
Gordon and Crosnoe’s work confirms that people considered “better looking” get more advantages in life—at work, in social life, and even internally in how they feel—than people who are considered less attractive.
However, it is important to understand that beauty does not just lie in the eye of the beholder, but also in the social standards and values of people’s communities and cultures. Ideal body shapes in 17th century Dutch painting, for example, are really different from the bodies featured in David Hockney’s images–or Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. The goddesses idealized in 15th century Hindu paintings differ from Italian versions of the Virgin Mary in the same time. To adopt a phrase, all attractiveness is local.
These local norms of attractiveness also create local norms of bias, since beauty ideals for women or men have never expressed anybody’s reality. Today, models tend to be tall, thin, and cut, leading some women to starve themselves, exercise compulsively, or seek plastic surgery, while some men resort to steroids to add muscle. In some African cultures, the ideal of female beauty involves being so much heavier than most teenage girls naturally are that their parents prevent them from exercising and practically force feed them in hopes of making them more marriageable. Today Americans think being tanned is attractive; in the 19th century, even the faintest hint of a tan was considered ugly — a white norm that spread so strongly in many minority communities that it eventually gave rise to the “black is beautiful” campaign.
Treating attractiveness as an objective quality obscures cultural variations, as well as class and racial biases, that help produce standards of beauty. And treating beauty as a natural endowment obscures the fact that living up to the standards of one’s era often takes time and money that aren’t available to people equally.Topics: Transition - Adolescents to Adulthood / Work & Family