THE BLOG

Underneath the Surface of 'Looks Aren't Everything'

05/09/2013 11:36 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2013
Getty Images

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

TEDTalks bring to mind creative people presenting innovative ideas and imaginative inventions. It isn't the forum you expect to hear a model suggest we not begrudge her because she is beautiful.

Yet in "Looks Aren't Everything," Cameron Russell does just that -- and more -- with the kind of refreshing candor rarely found in today's beauty culture. Modeling, she says, is a hollow experience, based on the undemocratic distribution of perfectly symmetrical features leading to unfair and unearned advantages. Beauty is paradoxical; superficial and at the same time powerful. Meaningless, yet full of meaning.

But Russell barely touches the surface of the consequences the beauty paradox has on our culture, a subject I know a bit about. You see, like Russell, I am one of those who benefited from the genetic lottery; first as a professional dancer and then as a Wilhelmina model. Being a ballerina, I trained my body to produce perfect movement. As a model, I used illusion to construct a perfect image. For both, I relied on the fortune of good genes. Like Russell, I felt ambivalent about "cashing out" on being "a pretty white girl," but it's what I did.

Fast forward and I now work with others with similar backgrounds -- young models, dancers and actors -- whose youth and good looks are tied to their personal and professional success. As a psychologist, I help them deal with returning to everyday life after they age out of their careers. As a researcher, I study the impact our youth and beauty culture has on the people who are swept up by it.

While Russell uses her modeling experience to create an interesting TEDTalk, there's so much more to this so called 'superficial' issue. Let me add a few more observations:

1) It's critical that we distinguish between beauty and attractiveness. While beauty may be genetically determined and distributed to a rare few, attractiveness is an interpersonal experience and can be achieved by everyone. The former is static -- like a still photo -- while the latter is fluid and can change over time. Attractiveness is based on the positive perception of oneself or others, on the way a person's external features mesh with their internal ones and reflects who they are as a person. Attractiveness can come in all shapes, sizes and is ageless. This difference underlies Russell's observation that some perfectly featured models may appear beautiful, but actually feel insecure about their looks. Attractiveness, unlike beauty, is more than meets the eye.

It's a courageous start to understanding the bias toward beauty and its impact on our culture. Perhaps one day I'll delve deeper into this topic in a TEDTalk of my own. Although, as an aging ex-model without "a deck stacked in my favor," I just may have missed my chance! -- Vivian Diller

2) Russell also suggests that beauty is unworthy of the envy it inspires. But she doesn't explore why beautiful people stir such cruel and hurtful envy, whereas those blessed with other genetic advantages (e.g. perfect pitch, artistic aptitude, athletic prowess or a high IQ) rarely do. Professional singers, dancers and athletes I work with often attribute their talent to inborn natural ability and their fans eagerly applaud their success. Yet, when it comes to the attention beauty brings, it is dismissed as unfair, silly and shallow. Why the discrepancy? Are we all entitled to perfect beauty, or has this belief been promoted by our culture? Perhaps we cope with unattainable beauty by devaluing it, or by doing whatever it takes -- money, time and even surgery -- to achieve it. Interesting questions that deserve further discussion.

3) Psychosocial research shows that beauty creates social and personal advantages; attractive people get better jobs, higher salaries, bigger loans and shorter jail sentences. The bottom line, according to Daniel Hamermesh, is that Beauty Pays. But, there's an assumption that good looks lead to increased happiness, a finding I have yet to see proven statistically. Girls (and some boys) scour magazines trying to emulate the models they see, basing their ideal image on digitally altered photographs. What teenage girl doesn't equate happiness with looking like a cover-girl? What boy doesn't dream of attracting one? The fact is, striving toward unrealistic images has serious deleterious effects on many young people today. By the age of 13, about 1 out of every 2 girls say they struggle with their bodies, a number that rises to 78 percent by the time they are 17. By age 10, 80 percent start on their first diet, many who begin a lifetime battle with their weight. Recent statistics reveal that close to 24 million Americans (90 percent are females between age 12-25, 10 percent are male) suffer from some form of an eating disorder. Modeling may be superficial, but the "beauty = happiness" equation runs deep.

4) Russell briefly touches on the homogeneity of beauty. She sites research that reminds us that most models are Caucasian, ultra tall and very thin. But what about the excessive focus on youth? There may be AARP and More, but how many men and women over fifty make it to the covers of most other magazines? A handful? Okay, maybe two? Meanwhile, there are millions who are struggling to redefine what it means to be attractive at age 40, 50 and beyond -- a challenge highlighted as boomers hit midlife. The fact is, when it comes to beauty, aging levels the playing field. The very advantages gained by having good looks can ultimately lead to disadvantages later in life. Linking one's self-image to physicality -- whether it's beauty for women or brawn for men -- makes an aging appearance trickier. From prom queens and quarterbacks to wallflowers and nerds, we all age. And at some point, few can rely on their looks to fuel their self-esteem. In fact, those who didn't -- or never could -- often find themselves better equipped to use other traits for an ongoing positive sense of self. Russell appears to be preparing herself for that inevitability, by already recognizing the importance of more that just her physical attributes in life to come.

All in all, I admire Russell for tackling a subject so often viewed as unworthy of an intellectual discussion. It's a courageous start to understanding the bias toward beauty and its impact on our culture. Perhaps one day I'll delve deeper into this topic in a TEDTalk of my own. Although, as an aging ex-model without "a deck stacked in my favor," I just may have missed my chance! So let's continue the conversation here.

What do you think about "Looks Aren't Everything?"

Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), 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 website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.