I predict that the next front in the struggle for equality will be prejudice based on physical features: attractiveness, height, and weight.
I have never worn makeup, and I have often mocked women who do. In my mind, makeup created an artificial face, and I have been a devotee of the natural. “Why can’t women be like men,” I thought, “and live with the face they were given?”
Recently the New York Times had a forum about the use of makeup, “Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem,” with brief essays on both sides of the issue. One was by Nancy Etcoff, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and a research psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has done research into the perception of women’s faces with and without makeup.
Her experiments showed that when a viewer first saw a face with makeup, the initial reaction was positive, but upon longer reflection, the more dramatic the makeup the less trustworthy the person was judged to be.
We asked people to rate photographs of women with and without makeup. Seen very quickly (250 milliseconds), women wearing makeup looked more attractive, likeable, competent and trustworthy to our viewers than those who went without it. On longer inspection, responses became varied and nuanced. Faces with natural makeup were seen favorably but faces with more dramatic makeup were seen as less trustworthy.
This seemed to validate my prejudice against makeup, but then I read her journal article online and changed my mind. Ms Etcoff and her associates cite four different studies showing a strong prejudice against unattractive people in the workplace. Men and women who are judged to be unattractive have a harder time getting hired, earn lower salaries, and are judged to be less intelligent and competent.
The strong motivational influence of facial beauty has been shown in studies of labor markets suggesting that there is a ”beauty premium” and “plainness penalty” such that attractive individuals are more likely to be hired, promoted, and to earn higher salaries than unattractive individuals. Social psychologists have identified a “halo” effect of beauty leading to a range of positive inferences including that the beautiful are more socially skilled, confident and successful. Inferences of another attribute, competence, gleaned from a one-second exposure to faces of unknown congressional candidates predict their electoral success. Players in a trust game invested more money in individuals whose faces were rated as trustworthy, despite the fact that there is no objective relationship between facial appearance and actual behavior.
I knew there is prejudice based on height—short men earn less than tall men—and prejudice against overweight people is obvious (a small study just found that doctors showed less warmth and empathy towards their obese patients), but this research took me by surprise. I realized that many women feel they have no choice but to wear makeup. They have to conform to the expectations of the culture about attractiveness or suffer financially as a result. As a matter of fact, the Times forum included an essay by Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford, who cited a case where a woman was fired for refusing to wear makeup:
…Jesperson v. Harrah’s Casino, in which a female bartender was fired for refusing to comply with the casino’s requirements that she wear makeup and have her hair teased, curled, or styled. She felt that being ‘dolled up’ diminished her authority, and her performance evaluations had been excellent without cosmetic assistance. Male bartenders were subject to no such elaborate appearance requirements. As a judge noted, their ‘undoctored’ faces were good enough.
The prejudice against unattractiveness doesn’t just apply to women, although I would imagine in our culture it is harsher for women than for men. But men suffer from this bias also, and in ways that go beyond employer attitudes.
I’m a fan of Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse,” that aired on Saturday Night Live. Smigel creates a wide variety of short films, including animations and fake educational films. One of these latter was on the subject of sexual harassment in the work place. Two men are shown approaching women at work. A “plain” man, who is insecure and shy, and a “handsome” man, who is confident and bold, both say the same things to two different women. Both women immediately pick up the phone to report the plain man’s “sexual harassment,” while accepting the handsome man’s advances gladly. The film concludes with rules for avoiding sexual harassment complaints: 1. Be handsome, 2. Be attractive, 3. Don’t be unattractive.
Of course there are biological reasons for our opinions about faces. Biologists suggest that features such as symmetry and bone structure are signals of good genetic material. There is also a strong prejudice against unattractiveness in the dating world. Women’s makeup is like a male peacock’s tail display; a glistening red mouth and rosy cheeks signal sexual readiness and fertility, even in a woman past menopause.
Ms Etcoff gives an example of a culture’s negative attitude toward the use of cosmetics precisely because it constitutes false advertising:
As popular agents of self-advertising, cosmetics have been subject to shifting cultural attitudes toward their use. They were apparently considered so good at deceiving husbands In the late eighteenth century, and so feared by them, that the English government proposed a law stating that, ‘All women…that shall from and after this act impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony any of his Majesty's subjects by the use of scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, … shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witch craft and like misdemeanors and that the marriage upon convictions shall stand null and void.’
But there are also shifting cultural beliefs about beauty, and these standards regularly change.
The following passage is from my soon-to-be-released book, We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity:
There is no objective standard for beautiful or ugly. In the nineteen-fifties women with heavy, voluptuous bodies were considered beautiful, but a scant ten years later in the “Twiggy” era Marilyn Monroe would have been considered too fat to be successful as a model.
John Merrick, the Elephant Man, is thought by many to be the “ugliest” man to have ever lived. In David Lynch’s masterful film treatment of Mr. Merrick’s life, we are at first terrified at the freak we are about to confront, then we are repulsed by what we see, and finally we begin to experience what underlies this terrible disfigurement: a helpless victim and a kind, gentle, and beautiful human being. The deformity becomes less important than the inner quality of the man. Although initially revolted by his frightening appearance, we begin to see his humanity and to understand the horrors he has suffered. Through compassion we accept his disease and are able to see the man and not his superficial appearance.
By the end of the film we have come to see Mr. Merrick as a beautiful person, while those physically normal people who have exploited him and treated him cruelly have been rendered ugly (and, though the filmmaker does not ask it of us, with compassion even their “ugliness,” born of ignorance and insanity, would disappear as well).
Beauty, as well as ugliness, is truly in the eyes—that is, the mind-generated reality—of the beholder.
True beauty is selfless, compassionate, caring, appreciative, generous, open, humble, free of artifice, aware of its limitations, non-judgmental, non-competitive, accepting. True beauty requires no effort because it has nothing to conceal and nothing to promote. True beauty is an expression of ourselves as we are, with nothing hidden and nothing to apologize for.
Ms. Etcoff concludes her journal article:
Past studies have shown that attractive people are expected to do better on the job, in school, and in life – and are treated that way – by being agreed with, deferred to, helped, and granted larger personal space…But, as sociologists Webster and Driskell noted when first proposing the idea of beauty as status, there are important differences between attractiveness and other status characteristics such as race or sex: beauty is a malleable characteristic. They predicted that, given the powerful effect of status, ‘attractiveness will assume increasing significance as other characteristics such as race and sex fall into disuse.’
I took this as a warning: because we are so addicted to judging status, now that we have been forced to stop defining people by race and gender our “unattractive prejudice” will get worse. Perhaps this explains our celebrity worship where glamorous individuals from movies and television are idolized. For example, the White House Correspondent’s dinner has started to resemble a Hollywood event with red-carpet-posing of “beautiful people” and glamorous gowns (this Washington Post slideshow of this year’s event has almost no reporters—the photos are mostly of actors and singers, and how many television reporters are currently chosen more for their appearance than for their abilities).
Physical “beauty is only skin deep.” It is time to eliminate our prejudices about physical appearance. This will be hard, because it demands that we overcome some deeply-wired biological programming, but it will be worth it. The prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation were deeply-wired also, and we are overcoming them.