by Victoria Lim
Contributing Author, journalist and a fitness enthusiast with a B.Sc. in nutrition
The discourse on the role of physical appearance within our society is longstanding and unavoidable. We are, after all, creatures whose perception largely depends on the visual, and no matter how insightful or progressive an individual may be, it is this visual perception that significantly affects our thought patterns, our understanding of the environment we’re in, and our perception of others. But the underlying question is, to what extent does it shape interpersonal relationships and how much bias do we hold toward physical appearance – both our own and that of others? Lastly, is this something we have control over?
Our attraction to the attractiveness
The positive bias toward physically attractive people in our society is by now well-established, as are the general beauty standards that different cultures promote. We have finally come to admit that people are treated differently in social settings as a consequence of their physical appearance, precisely, a consequence of how attractive they’re deemed to be. Examples can be found mainly in the workplace, where more attractive people often hold better positions and are treated with more respect and kindness, but in other social settings as well, where those who are perceived as better-looking are readily attributed positive traits. Beauty is glorified and heavily praised, it is the ultimate ideal to aspire after; it is the basis of every “first impression make all the difference” motto.
Lookism as a phenomenon
Our personal regards toward human beauty are one thing, but when physical appearance holds such an important role within professional settings, the matter becomes rather alarming: it becomes a matter of discrimination. Not by accident, the term “lookism” was coined to mark an alarmingly obvious phenomenon within the workplace and not rarely other social settings. By definition, lookism is “prejudice or discrimination based on physical appearance and especially physical appearance believed to fall short of societal notions of beauty.”
The term was coined in the 1970s when what is known as The Fat Acceptance Movements sought to shed light on the social attitudes toward overweight people and weight discrimination in general. Now, it is referred to more often than ever, as there is a growing number of companies facing legal challenges due to discrimination of employees based on physical appearance.
The tentacles of lookism
Admittedly, customer-facing sectors (meaning any business that involves upfront communication with clients) can hardly be blamed for using to their advantage our hardwired tendency towards the “halo effect,” and that’s a truth that we have generally conformed to. But issues arise when lookism becomes the tacit norm across all industries, with employees outraged that their physical appearance affects their professional life when their profession should essentially be completely detached from such bias. It is the all-too-known, revolting stereotype of pretty secretaries and yuppie culture. Because, let’s not forget, lookism is not just about placing a high value on physical appearance for the sake of it; it’s about what that appearance is prejudiced to portray – wealth, social status, competence, education, good health, sexuality, and most important of all, confidence. This ultimately makes it a monster of sorts, with numerous tentacles of cultural and social discrimination wading in the waters of the workplace.
The irony of it all? You can also be deemed too pretty for the job. Good looks and a polished appearance can be perceived as a threat to others in the workplace, or they can earn you the status of “pretty face with no brains” before you even get a chance to speak for yourself.
Attractiveness and well-being
So, what can we learn from all of this, and can we use that knowledge to our advantage in any way? Before we can ask these questions, we need to establish what it means to be physically attractive and whether those who possess this trait are more satisfied than those who don’t. These two things are inseparable, and not in the simplistic way you’d expect them to be.
First and foremost, studies have proven that being attractive by objective societal standards is irrelevant to subjective well-being and self-esteem. You may have very likely encountered an example of this in your own environment. Attractiveness does not equal happiness, even when it comes to advantages within social settings. There is, however, a direct correlation between subjective well-being and an individual’s own perception of how attractive they are. In short, those who perceive themselves as attractive are, not surprisingly, more confident and thus generally more positive (we will avoid the term “happy” because it is a terribly relative one).
With this in mind, it is no wonder that people turn to classic cosmetic procedures, to correct a physical trait that usually represents a great obstacle to their self-esteem. Otoplasty (or “ear pinning”) is a specific example because many parents sign their children up for this procedure, with the child’s psychosocial development as a primary concern. We bestow a lot of importance to our facial features and symmetry in general, and this is not always because of societal standards, but because of our own perception of ourselves, our own subconscious perception of beauty. This does not have to be viewed as a negative thing; as we mentioned at the beginning of this article, we are, after all, visual creatures. Our faces do not have to be even close to the societal standards of beauty, but we have to like them enough on our own to exude confidence. Some have no issue with this in the first place, while others may turn to surgical corrections to achieve peace of mind. Whatever works, the point is that physical attractiveness is deeply rooted in confidence, and often, confidence can replace it. For many women and men as well, getting “made up” is not a desperate effort to be prettier, but a way to bring out this confidence and complement it.
Any kind of discrimination needs to be fought, and lookism in the workplace is one of them. But there is a limit to countering lookism in other social settings, because it is so hardwired into our brain, and we have to admit this to ourselves. We do need to control it, each of us individually because the aforementioned halo effect is a product of ignorance. With knowledge of this phenomenon, we can strive to not just treat people equally but not to make misleading assumptions about them based on their looks. This is much harder than it sounds. It may not be easy, but it is an effort that we owe to each other as humans. In other cases, we can use lookism to our benefit, when met with those who are not as ready to outsmart their own brain. Remember, there is no universally ugly, although there might be universally pretty. So, the next time you’re in a situation where you’re making a first impression, don’t underestimate the psychology behind a look and use it to your best advantage. Confidence first.
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