Leslie, a 30-year-old lawyer, walked into her first partner meeting and heads turned. She had a tendency to catch people's eyes -- being 5'8", shapely and stylish -- so today was no different. Apprehensive about the case she planned to present, Leslie felt encouraged by the reactions she sensed in the room. One partner stood up to shake her hand and another asked if she wanted some water. Most everyone appeared to welcome her presence. Two-thirds of the partners were men. All were older than Leslie by at least 5 years.
Whether it's natural beauty, an air of confidence, or a sense of style, some people just have "it": that ability to attract attention in a positive way. Why does it happen? Can it be sustained throughout life? And how does it make us feel -- whether we have "it" or not?
Harvard sociologist Dr. Nancy Etcoff traces the ability to grab other people's attention to its biological roots. In Survival of the Prettiest, she makes the case that we -- meaning both men and women -- are genetically programmed to be attracted to good looks. For hundreds of thousands of years, she says, men have found youthful, voluptuous women appealing because they signal potential fertility and fecundity. Women are attracted to men who are tall, dark and handsome because these qualities suggest virility, strength and the ability to protect a family. "What was biologically advantageous," she writes, has become our "aesthetic preference."
Anthropologist and human behavior expert Dr. Helen Fischer offers neuroscientific evidence that supports this head-turning behavior. She examined brain scans from subjects who were exposed to visual imagery during various stages of love and attraction. While there were differences between the fMRIs of men and women, both showed significantly greater activity after viewing attractive versus unattractive stimuli. Interpersonal attraction, Fisher concluded, is not only measurable, but an undeniable neurological phenomenon.
And this attraction to beauty begins early in life. A study by British developmental psychologist Dr. Alan Slater showed that infants stare significantly longer at faces with symmetrical features, big eyes, set wide apart in round, less angular faces -- a preference that appears to cross race and culture. While we may expect good looks to matter more in developed countries with large media influences, findings show that even greater value is placed on physical beauty in socioeconomically depressed areas where beauty is closely connected to health care and longevity.
The ugly truth? Beauty is unfair. People born with a particular set of genes, who maintain their health, good grooming habits and develop strong social skills are likely to grow into adults that have the "it" quality. And while one asset without the other doesn't guarantee the same result, the fortunate combination of them all leads to measurable advantages in life that are gained without merit.
Daniel Hamermesh, author of Beauty Pays, examined the economic benefits gained by having good looks. Attractive people, he says, are hired more quickly, paid higher wages and bring in more money to the companies where they work. Even in jobs where we may not think physical attributes play much of a role, beauty brings greater financial rewards. For example, homely NFL quarterbacks -- yes, there are a few -- earn less than their comelier counterparts, despite identical yards passed and years in the league. According to Hamermesh's research, attractive people in general earn an average of three to four percent more than a person with below average looks, adding up to approximately $230,000 more over a lifetime.
If that weren't enough, attractive people also receive milder prison sentences and have an easier time getting a loan than plain folks, reports The Economist in "The Line of Beauty." They found that "in America more people say they have felt discriminated against for their appearance than because of their age, race or ethnicity." Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode looks at this inequity from a legal perspective. In The Beauty Bias, she writes that discrimination on the grounds of personal appearance should be banned. She points toward the negative consequences of what some call "lookism," saying that a huge amount of time and money is spent to undo this lopsided predilection -- citing our culture's obsession with fashion, cosmetics and plastic surgery.
Newsweek reported in "The Beauty Advantage" that 57 percent of the hiring managers they surveyed believe that unattractive but qualified job applicants are likely to have a harder time landing work. And more than half of these managers advised both men and women "to spend as much time and money on making sure they look attractive as on perfecting a résumé." The New York Times added in "Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand," that just the right makeup can help those without natural good looks appear more capable and reach cooperate success. For job seekers willing to go further -- and deeper -- there's always the cornucopia of cosmetic procedures to turn toward for help. A trend that is rising at a frighteningly steep pace -- a 446 percent increase in the past 15 years -- use of these procedures are becoming more common as a means to remain competitive, not only personally, but professionally as well. In spite of the many changes resulting from the feminist movement, looks remain the key to a positive self-image in today's world.
If beauty and its rewards are viewed less as a social evil, and more as an interpersonal reality, can we learn to recognize it, rather than resent or envy it? Can we derive the pleasure that physical beauty brings to our senses -- the way beautiful art, dance or music does -- even if it is distributed unequally? Many of us enjoy watching talented performers and skilled athletes without being consumed by jealousy, then why not do the same when it comes to those who display beauty. The answer? Take the green out of envy by moving beyond our otherwise egalitarian values and accept the powerful, yet unfair influence brought by beauty.
This of course does not mean we give up on our own attractiveness. We may not all be born with those symmetrical features deemed beautiful -- the ones that make babies smile, and that light up adult human brains -- but surely we can find other ways to look and feel appealing to ourselves and others. Clearly, we are attracted to our mates even though they may not be classic beauties. (Note that Dr. Fisher's fMRIs showed increased brain activity when viewing our loved ones -- whether deemed attractive to others or not!) And we are awed by our less-than-perfect children who we see as beautiful regardless of their physical features. Surely we can find beauty in ourselves -- and raise our sons and daughters to find it too -- even if our mirrors tell us we look different from today's "it" girls and guys portrayed in the media.
And lest we forget, beauty icons today can end up tomorrow's has-beens if there is nothing but lovely looks behind their allure. Leslie, and others like her, may be blessed with advantages rooted in human biology and anthropology, but we know that heads turn for only so long. We all age, and as we do, we all have to find qualities that make us feel attractive underneath the surface and beyond our youthful looks.
If we accept the undemocratic distribution of physical assets and feel grateful for what we have, we can admire the Leslies of the world -- as they walk into boardrooms, down the street or onto our television and movie screens. Jungian analyst Dr. Arlene Landau describes them as our current-day version of Golden Aphrodite, whose allure has been mythologized since ancient Greek times. No doubt, the power of "it" will continue in today's world and for years to come. But for we everyday men and women, what really matters is knowing that unique beauty -- experienced within and with all its imperfections -- is the one that lasts a lifetime.
Have you experienced beauty discrimination? Or the advantages that beauty brings? Tell us what you think about this topic.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my websites at www.FaceItTheBook.com and www.VivianDiller.com. Friend me on Facebook (at http://www.facebook.com/Readfaceit) or continue the conversation on Twitter.