Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Price of Beauty

Sandra Parshall

So here’s yet another long feature, this time in the December issue of Psychology Today, about research proving that beautiful people have an easier time getting ahead in the world.

Ho hum. What else is new?

Actually, I did come across something new in a sidebar. PT blogger Heidi Grant Halvorson reports on studies showing that beautiful women may be held back if the people deciding their fate are other women. Psychologist Maria Agthe looked into ratings of applicants for graduate scholarships and found that both males and females tended to give higher ratings to attractive members of the opposite sex – but the women responsible for judging applications penalized females who were beautiful. Halvorson points out that many ordinary-looking people don’t want gorgeous members of the same sex around to make them feel inferior.

This isn’t new information in the sense of being previously unheard of. We all instinctively recognize that reaction, don’t we? The desire not to make ourselves look bad by standing next to someone who outshines us. But I’ve never seen it presented as a studied, proven occurrence that can affect the course of educational and professional lives.

It’s just one more piece of proof that we’re at the mercy of our biology. Standards of female beauty are universal: youth, beautiful skin (a sign of good health), symmetrical features, and an hourglass figure (whether the culture values thinness or rounder figures, men want to see a waist). All these attributes indicate a woman is a good bet for passing on a man’s genes. A guy meeting an attractive woman for the first time probably isn’t consciously thinking I want her to have my children, but some primitive instinct is responding in exactly that way. Youth is all-important. Any older woman can tell you that past a certain age she became “invisible” to men. If she’s plain, she’s probably always felt that way. Although it’s dismaying to see proof that some women penalize others for being attractive, it’s hardly surprising that ordinary women don’t want to invite comparisons with beauties.

Even with other females trying to hold them back, though, attractive women often do better in their careers than equally talented and intelligent plain women. Good-looking men also tend to fare better than the ordinary or the ugly. As reported in Psychology Today, economist Daniel Hammermesh discovered that over the course of a career a handsome man will earn $250,000 more than his least attractive peer.

And yet.

When they’re looking for a passing romance, a fling, women may go for the best-looking guy at the bar. But when they have marriage and stability in mind, women don’t care as much about looks as they do about other factors that make a man a good mate. We’ve all seen beautiful women on the arms of ordinary or downright homely men. (Remember Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis?) What’s going on there? Simply stated, it’s the innate female desire for security. A plain man may become irresistible if he dresses in tailor-made suits and drives an expensive car. Those things spell status, and whether we like it or not, study after study has shown that women want to marry men who can offer them a stable, comfortable life.

Psychologist James McNulty at the University of Tennessee analyzed the relationships of various couples and found that the most supportive pairings were attractive women with less attractive husbands. In the least successful pairings, the husbands were more attractive than their wives. McNulty observed that a very attractive man may have trouble settling down and feeling satisfied with a single mate, and might resent missing “opportunities” with other women.

All this being true, it shouldn’t be surprising that some women in positions of authority will try to hold back other women, even the most capable and  talented, if they happen to be attractive. Still, it’s a sad thing to think about. It gives new meaning to that line from the old shampoo commercial: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”


Anonymous said...

Jealousy/envy in any form are often found to be at the root of all things bad.

Steve Liskow said...

Interesting and intriguing information. I find that many of my female characters see other attractive women as rivals, and the jealousy often becomes a key ingredient in the mix.

Along the same line, William Mastrosimone, who wrote Extremities, a very disturbing play about rape, related an interview with a defense attorney who told him that his standard procedure when defending an accused rapist was to get as many WOMEN as possible on the jury.

His reason? "Women attack other women...Women tend to blame other women for being raped because {they} have accepted the male myth that some women like it...It's a way of distancing themselves from their own fear."

I don't know if it's true, but it adds a really disturbing dynamic, and that's always good for the writing, if not for life.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've heard many women say they prefer a male boss because other women are too hard to work for. If this is true, I don't know how women can ever hope to achieve equality with men in the workplace.

Alyx Morgan said...

I actually was surprised to learn this. Not that "plain" women are jealous of "attractive" ones, but that they would pass one over if she were more beautiful than the hiring manager.

How surprising (& sad) to realize that insecurities play such a deciding factor in so many things.