Physical Beauty and Its Effect Upon Human Psychology: A New Yorker’s Perspective

As an undergraduate in college I developed an almost pathological curiosity about physical beauty and the way in which it affected one’s life experience. To satiate my desire to know more about the attribute of which Aristotle wrote, “beauty is the best introduction,” I purchased a book by Nancy Etcoff, at the time a post-doctorate fellow at MIT, entitled “Survival of the Prettiest.” In her study, Etcoff delved into the subject of human beauty with a depth and subtlety that seemed unprecedented.

Although it’s been several years since I have revisited the book, I recall that Etcoff cited study after study that showed that attractive people were conferred advantages in life that had a material impact upon their happiness, social success, and professional well-being. By now, conclusions of this sort are mere truisms, and one cannot go a day without reading a prominent academic study discussing beauty and its salutary effect upon the human experience. Indeed, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd appears to have an unwholesome obsession with the subject, so much so that she manages to interject bizarre commentary on beauty and sex into virtually every realm of human existence, including Middle East politics.

One study Etcoff referenced stands out in my mind. She described a scenario in which two groups of subjects, one “attractive” and the other “unattractive,” were individually called into a board room on the assumption they were interviewing for a job. Each person was made to wait in an empty room. The reactions of both sets of individuals were then observed; the study found that the attractive subjects quickly became irascible and impatient, demanding to know where the interviewer was and insisting that they did not have time to endure unnecessary wait. By contrast, the unattractive subjects largely remained docile and patient, and endured without exhibiting the sort of hotheadedness shown by their more attractive counterparts. Various explanations can be posited for the contrasting reactions, but my immediate impression was that because the attractive subjects had been lavished with  attention and adoration throughout their lives, they were not accustomed to being inconvenienced in the slightest (imagine a runway model at an upscale New York restaurant who refuses to wait her customary “turn in line” for the restroom). Conversely, I reasoned that the unattractive individuals had been often shunned and deprived of affection and thus grown used to enduring disparate treatment. Etcoff pointed to a second study whose results were far more banal: when an attractive woman is stranded on the road seeking assistance, passers-by will immediately yield right to render help, while a less attractive woman is left to fend for herself, or must endure significant wait, before she is be cared for. Rather shameful discrimination, to be sure.

Of course, one must not get carried away with these studies as they involve highly subjective judgments about what constitutes an “attractive” vs. “unattractive” person. Moreover, questions may be raised about whether a multitude of experiential variables were properly controlled for, whether the sample size was large enough upon which to base conclusive theories about the contrasting responses and reactions, etc. These cautionary notes notwithstanding, perhaps all of us can intuitively appreciate the point Etcoff was trying to convey, namely that individuals are treated differently, and hence often act differently, based on how others perceive and judge their level of attractiveness. Etcoff calls this phenomenon of disparate treatment “lookism.” For whatever reason, I am not fond of this term, so I shall instead call it “beautism.” However one my characterize it, it is a mentality for which I have developed a profound revulsion, one that I regard as being comparably insidious to racism and other forms of discrimination. I should note that the comments that follow certainly do not apply to all individuals, in the same way that many (most?) people are not innately racist or sexist. However, I do believe that beautism is sufficiently pervasive in American culture to warrant a national conservation.

My personal observations going as far back as I can remember confirm the ubiquitous nature of beautism. Several years ago I came across an editorial photo of Monica Bellucci that I have not since forgotten. Bellucci is dolled up in a highly attractive pose, her face wearing a stoic expression, with cigarette dangling from her mouth. She is surrounded by several well-dressed men, each of whom is rushing to be the first to light her cigarette. If this were a real life scenario, despite being quite aware that he will likely receive no reciprocal benefit for lighting Bellucci’s cigarette, each man is so enthralled by the sheer force of her physical beauty, that he suddenly becomes a selfless being. Go to any exclusive New York venue and one will see men falling over themselves to attend to a beautiful woman’s most trivial need. Again, shameful and highly irrational behavior.

Indeed, I sought to resist this very mentality when I took a job one summer as a theater usher in an upscale Chicago suburb. My job was to welcome patrons with the following greeting: “Hello. Welcome to ***** Theatre, theater 12 on your right, enjoy the show.” Often young junior high and high school kids would approach me and ask if they could enter without paying (the more audacious ones would enter surreptitiously, without my permission, which I respected). At the time a young idealist, I was quite happy to “hook people up” at the expense of power, privilege, and corporate interests and was therefore most amenable to helping the young lads out. However, after reading Echoff’s book, I decided that my decision to allow or not allow one’s entry would be on the based on their attractiveness, but in a manner that was quite contrary to convention. For instance, if a girl and her friends were pretty and well-dressed, by which I would infer they were reasonably well-off, I would insist that they buy a ticket like everyone else. In short, no entry. However, if the girl or her friends were heavyset, or did not fit the conventional archetype of beauty, or were racial minorities (regardless of their attractiveness), or appeared outwardly poor, I would permit them entry without a moment’s hesitation. For those who did not fit any obvious archetype, neither obviously attractive nor unattractive, I would use raw intuition to determine if they were fit for charitable entry. To me, this policy was a way of creating a sense of equilibrium and egalitarianism that had long been denied to some, and unduly lavished, on others. No doubt I made many erroneous judgments and one may question the entire wisdom of my system of discrimination, but I considered the general motive of my actions to be quite just and benign, and do to this day. Since that experience, I have developed a rather uncompromising attitude towards “beautiful” women who feel entitled to break customary rules on account of an expectation that others will reflexivity submit to their beauty. Indeed, I feel perfectly justified in creating a public nuisance when an attractive woman (or self-absorbed man) lacks basic social graces, including refusing to wait their turn in line.

Unfortunately, even grown adults in positions of influence and authority over young people, including teachers, allow themselves to become raptured by physical beauty in a way that sets an awful example to the young. Teachers often favor who they regard as the more likeable or beautiful child, a fact that does not go unnoticed by the child’s peers and which invariably sows deep jealousies and animosities in the hearts of school children. In the professional work place, brilliant men who hold advanced degrees from the world’s most prestigious universities allow beauty to influence hiring and promotional decisions in a way that speaks far more about their profound sexual frustrations than it does about the merits of respective candidates. In my city of New York, particularly the more “elite” circles of obscene wealth and fashion, one will find that people will lie, slander, cheat, abuse, and indeed subject themselves to the most dizzying feats of humiliation, in an effort to endear themselves to the “rich and beautiful.” Moreover, I find that individuals most preoccupied with “celebrity gossip” are often those whose actual experience is in diametric opposition to the life of sex, money, and beauty they so desperately covet. In other words, such individuals lust after a lifestyle and beauty they do not possess and thus find vicarious comfort in monitoring the lives of others who have consummated their ideal.

Facebook also serves as an excellent illustration of beautism: a friend request is sent to a “beautiful” person with whom the requester has scarcely exchanged a word; to showcase one’s social prestige and popularity, pictures are posted with one standing alongside a beautiful person whose combined interaction with the poster does not exceed thirty seconds; wall posts and “happy birthday” messages are plastered on an attractive person’s wall who the writer met once, two years ago, in the confines of a poorly-lit nightclub; “status updates” are written in which people advertise their every movement, gloating about their entrance into exclusive venues, or their physical proximity to a celebrity who knows, or cares, nothing of their existence; and ad infinitum.

Ironically, individuals who are exceptionally beautiful are often less preoccupied with physical beauty and social standing. Rather, it those who are on the cusp of beauty or popularity, or sometimes downright unattractive, who employ a gladiator-like approach to enhance their social standing. Those whose beauty is obvious and unquestioned are admired through no conscious effort of their own, and thus have little incentive to employ sinister tactics to “get ahead.” I was conscious of this fact in high school where I noted that kids most preoccupied with the idea of becoming “popular” would indulge in the most contemptible behavior, often at other peoples’ expense, to endear themselves to their more popular peers. I regarded these individuals as the worse of all. Time Magazine recently reported the findings of a five-year study at the University of California-Davis that confirms this very point (“Why Kids Bully: Because They’re Popular).

Children who are shunned for the perceived unattractiveness, and called “ugly,” “disgusting,” “loser,” “faggot,” and indeed every hurtful invective one can imagine, are precisely those who become so psychologically traumatized that they lash out against their local communities in horrific ways, as Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres illustrate. Read the manifestos and diaries of the young assassins and it becomes painfully obvious that they were victims of constant school-yard bullying. To protect our children against this kind of tragedy, my strong belief is that more onerous anti-bullying laws must be passed by legislators. The 1964 Civil Rights Act confers vicarious liability upon employers that allow a “hostile work environment” to exist in which individuals are subjected to extreme race or gender-based harassment. Lawmakers ought to pass an analogous “hostile school environment” statute whereby schools that allow bullying and taunting to carry on would be subject to vicarious liability of the most serious kind. The mere threat of litigation would hopefully impel the many thousands of schools that have not taken substantial steps to protect young children to implement an organized plan of action that would bring an end to this kind of child abuse.

In his essay, “What makes People Likeable,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “Unless you [] have exceptional beauty or exceptional distinction, the way to be liked is to make the people you meet think well of themselves.” Indeed, despite his unrivaled intellectual and moral stature, Russell’s writings continually evinced a strong sensitivity to human beauty and its effect upon human consciousness. The novels of Victor Hugo, William Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Phillip Roth, Gustave Flaubert, Vladimir Nabokov, Honoré de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, and indeed every writer I have come to admire, show an uncompromising, almost pathological, obsession with their characters’ physical beauty— “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “Lolita,” no surprise the two most revered works of fiction in New York “high” (low?) society, are the most extreme examples of the beauty neurosis. What, then, is cumulative effect of a culture that places such inordinate emphasis on physical beauty? In short, it leads to the deification of debased characters like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, while men and women of genuine intellect and moral courage are scarcely known: Arundhati Roy, Rachel Maddow, Hanan Ashrawi, Hannah Arendt. How many young girls have heard the name of any one of these remarkable women? The sad reality is that, in contrast to other forms of discrimination, beautism is a taboo subject, one that receives scant attention in social commentary on account of its gross political incorrectness and “subjective” character. However, if we hope to ameliorate this social disease, it will take a disciplined effort to undo a lifetime of conditioning through which humans have allowed something as morally inconsequential as physical beauty to dictate how they treat fellow human beings.

I would be lying through my teeth if I said I did not derive immense pleasure from gazing upon the face of a beautiful woman. Indeed, physical beauty engenders within me an almost euphoric high that has no proper analogy in the realm of carnal pleasures. However, while beauty ought to be celebrated as a source of joy, inspiration, and indeed a paradigm of Divine Artistry, one must not allow physical beauty to interfere with one’s sense of justice, fairness, and morality. A continual internal dialogue must be had in which one asks themselves if they are treating someone favorably, or unfavorably, on account of characteristics that have no genuine moral import–race, sex, and physical beauty—or qualities that carry intrinsic human worth: kindness, intelligence, good character, honesty, integrity, selflessness, and perhaps most rare of all, humility.

The Islamic tradition teaches that the Prophet Joseph, peace be upon him, was the most beautiful human being to have ever lived. However, it was his humility, clement nature, and God-consciousness in the face of illicit seduction that rendered him most beautiful in God’s eyes. His is an example we all might aspire to emulate.

See Part Two: Why I Chose to Write About Beauty

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16 Responses to Physical Beauty and Its Effect Upon Human Psychology: A New Yorker’s Perspective

  1. Pree says:

    All in all, excellent commentary and valuable observations about the (perhaps undue) value society places on the superficial. It’s only unfortunate that despite our best efforts, we are unable to curtail many of these personal inclinations towards “catering to” the beautiful/powerful. From my own personal experience, I’ve noticed that the more someone aims to please those with beauty or influence around him, the more he becomes preoccupied with the idea. It’s a self-perpetuating experience. Thanks for a particularly thought-provoking piece; keep it up, my friend.

  2. Omar says:

    Excellent write up–agree wholeheartedly based on my experiences. Unfortunately, arrogance, self-aggrandizement, and disregard are commonly attributes in those that consider themselves “beautiful.” It’s unfortunate that some people who don’t fit society’s definition of good-looking want to be like the beautiful people, even if they have darkened souls.

  3. Amina says:

    Very insightful and well written.

  4. sherif says:

    well said.

  5. Roland says:

    “The Islamic tradition teaches that the Prophet Joseph, peace be upon him, was the most beautiful human being to have ever lived. However, it was his humility, clement nature, and God-consciousness in the face of illicit seduction that rendered him most beautiful in God’s eyes. His is an example we all might aspire to emulate.” – AMEN Brother, Amen. Truly Joseph was a beautiful physically and Spiritually.

    As a Christian man I try to emulate the ways of Jesus in many areas of my life, it is a hard walk, nevertheless, NOT impossible :)

  6. Pingback: Why I Chose to Write About Beauty | Blood is No Argument

  7. rawia says:

    Abid, for an interesting discussion on how beauty (which is sometimes considered a woman’s weapon) is actually used to dominate women, I’d recommend The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I’m not a huge fan of Wolf’s and at times, I think her analysis removes women’s agency from the equation, but nevertheless, her take is instructive. She basically argues that artificial standards of beauty are a tool used to undermine women and perpetuate the patriarchy.

  8. Rosalie says:

    Kudos

  9. Anonymous says:

    This is definitely a pervasive subject. Unfortunately I really do think that our unjustly positive immediate reactions to beautiful people will ever change.

  10. Bilal says:

    real eye-opener!

  11. Pingback: NYC Nightlife: Everything You Need To Know Wednesday

  12. Very true, quite an intelligent analysis. I remember back at school ,esp in the youngest years the cuttest kid in the class was teacher’s fav and how it resulted in his/her utter hotheadedness and sometimes eventually also turned them into ‘beautiful’ little bullying monsters. Kids are innocent creatures, they would obviously fall fool to such excess attention, but still leaves me aghast how can elders be so insensitive/brainless/naive to prompt that.

  13. John says:

    Your system of discrimination was dumb, something I’d expect from a young intellectual. Unfortunately, you didn’t wield the power to decide who could or could not enter without paying. You’re like a police officer defining the law. Your job was to serve, not to give preferential treatment based on your limited understanding of how a person’s phenotype influences certain life circumstances. You had limited data and you made a hasty generalization. People like you are the reason we need definable laws (which much wiser people “create” and have enforced).

    Other than that, I like your post, you’re a good writer (I have great taste with regards to literature), just be careful with your philosophy career and don’t quit your day job.

  14. John says:

    I’m kidding… about your philosophy career.

  15. John says:

    I used to be a great writer, until depression atrophied my brain into mush… Being a greater writer means you have to care enough to maintain the thoughts and memories in your mind, depression seems to suck the very mind from you… pruning effect I suppose.

  16. wonderlandinati says:

    Reblogged this on wonderlandinati.

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