Pretty is as pretty does…
I’m what society considers a pretty girl.
I’ve got clear skin, nice hair, a small waist and a great booty. I dress well, wear makeup (but not too much), and conduct myself with plenty of confidence and swagger. I’m done with the low self-esteem and body dysmorphia that seem to come with the territory for women in their early 20s, and I can say that physically, I’m perfectly satisfied with myself. It’s immensely liberating.
But this calm self-awareness doesn’t come from vanity or ego. It’s because I’m told I’m aesthetically pleasing on a regular basis. When I walk into a room, heads turn, not because I’ve said anything particularly intelligent, but because human beings like to look at attractive things.
Anyway, I’ve got two eyes and a mirror. I know how I look.
And yes, I’m aware beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can say with confidence that my physical attributes have helped me get ahead – and I’m not going to apologize for it.
If I think looking particularly beguiling in a professional or social setting is advantageous, I’ll put in the extra effort. It’s a matter of standing out, without looking like I’ve tried too hard. When I achieve this balance, I get more positive attention – not just compared to other women, but men too. In a low-cut dress and a push-up bra, I inevitably climb a few more rungs of the professional or social ladder.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not superficial. I’m smart, hard-working, and extremely well educated. I can hold my own in any argument. But hey – so can lots of people. The advantage I have is that I’m attractive, and I’ve got a terrific sense of humor. Being funny and conventionally pretty is a winning combination, and although looks and charisma aren’t all I need, they do help me get a foot in the door. Yes, there’s an awful lot I’m deficient in, but give me a cute dress, a pair of heels, and a good hair day, and those flaws are masked in an instant.
Here’s the thing about human beings; we like pretty people. And this isn’t because we’re inherently superficial. Research has proven that conventionally attractive people have a distinct primal advantage over less attractive people. (And this applies to both women and men, by the way.)
This bias is particularly evident in the workplace. According to research by Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle published in the Journal of Labor Economics, physically attractive people earn about five percent more per hour than their plainer counterparts. In addition, people perceived as unattractive earn roughly nine percent less per hour than those who are easier on the eyes. To quantify that in numbers, this means that if an average-looking person earns $70,000 a year, their prettier colleague will make $73,500, while their less-attractive colleague will only take home $63,700.
So, why are we inclined to pay more attention (and money) to conventionally attractive people? It goes back to the days when all we wanted in a partner was someone who would produce strong offspring and protect our cave from predators. Attractive people are immediately perceived as more trustworthy, because they radiate health. (Physical symmetry, which is a hallmark of beauty, has long been considered a sign of good health.) Attractive men were thought to be better able to defend the cave, while good-looking women we believed to more easily bear and take care of children.
James Houran, PhD, author of Office Hours with Dr. Jim, lays out the scientific details. Physical attractiveness boils down to a few specific qualities: clear skin and lustrous hair, a symmetrical face and body, and good hygiene. For men, height, muscle, and a well-defined jawline are additional key factors, while women need rosy lips, full breasts, and round buttocks for maximum attractiveness.
“Even if we make a personal decision not to have children, the little monkey man or woman inside us tells us to choose the youngest and healthiest partner among our potential mates, who’ll give us the greatest chance of making lots of babies and perpetuating the species,” states Houran.
Unsurprisingly, women come in for the harshest critiques about our physical appearance, while men can more easily get away with looking slovenly, or just being plain old unattractive. You only need to look at the very public experiment carried out by Australian TV hosts Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson in 2014. Stefanovic wore the exact same suit for a year, and viewers didn’t say a thing; no one seemed to notice. Meanwhile, Wilkinson bore relentless attacks on her styling, even though she doesn’t actually get to choose how she looks on camera or what she wears at a shoot.
The question is, should we rally against this primal penchant for physical beauty as an anti-feminist double standard, or should we stop resisting and simply run with it?
As much as many feminists hate to admit it, female sexuality is extremely empowering, and does not necessarily equate to being objectified. Plenty of women enjoy commanding attention simply by existing. Catherine Hakim, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, actually suggests that professional women use their “erotic capital” – beauty, sex appeal, charm, dress sense, liveliness, and fitness – to get ahead in the workplace.
“Meritocracies are supposed to champion intelligence, qualifications, and experience. But physical and social attractiveness deliver substantial benefits in all social interaction, making a person more persuasive, able to secure the cooperation of colleagues, attract customers and sell products,” says Hakim.
If you can’t back up looks and charisma with a fierce amount of intelligence and integrity, you’re going to flounder. But in an excruciatingly competitive, male-dominated workforce, gaining any means to prove your capabilities is like trying to get blood out of a stone. So my philosophy is this; if you’ve got it, flaunt it, and if you don’t, then fake it till you make it. Just make sure there’s substance behind the sex appeal, and you’ll smash those glass ceilings…regardless of how dirty you feel doing it.
Featured image via shutterstock.com.
Comment: Do you think looks should play a role in getting ahead?
Article originally posted April 2016.