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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Blessing or Curse?

Megan Monahan

My favorite television show is Nip/Tuck, which chronicles the lives of two Miami plastic surgeons. The show revolves around beauty and all its implications. Of all the issues covered by the show I was quite struck by the introduction of a serial rapist who would only attack young, beautiful male and female models. The rapist was dubbed "The Carver" because he would brutally maim the faces of his victims and say to each of them, "Beauty is a curse on the world. It keeps us from seeing who the real monsters are."

This plot point made me ponder how much physical beauty really matters in our society, if it helps or hinders. On one hand, anyone who says being beautiful doesn't make life easier must being inhabiting a utopia that I would be most interested in locating; yet, there are times when beauty can actually cause others to make unfair assumptions about individuals.

Much data has been collected reaffirming the usefulness of physical beauty. In a 1974 study done by Ellen Berscheid of the University of Minnesota and Elaine Walster of the University of Wisconsin stated, "The poetic hope that anyone can be found beautiful by someone be substantiated by the available data ."

Another study found yet another perk of beauty. Physically attractive people seem to make a better impression than those who are less attractive for no reason other than their appearance. In 1972 Karen Dion of the Universety of Minnesota and colleagues published a report presenting a "what-is-beautiful-is-good" stereotype. For their study they showed male and female students photographs of supposedly "attractive" and "unattractive" males and females. The research revealed that attractive people were perceived as having better personalities than their less attractive counterparts. The attractive participants were rated as more exciting, sincere, warm, sociable, kind, strong, and sophisticated. In addition to having perceived superior character traits, the attractive individuals were rated as more likely to be successful in their profession as well as be capable spouses.

There have also been other studies that have supported the benefits of beauty. These studies indicate that people are more helpful toward the physically attractive. W. Andrew Harrell of the University of Alberta in Canada had "attractive" and "unattractive" women ask 216 college men for directions. The results showed that the men were most willing to help the attractive women and gave them greatest amount of help and attention. Also, Ralph Sroufe and co-workers at Old Dominion University in Virginia had "attractive" and "unattractive" associates leave coins in a phone booth. They then approached 180 subjects who found the misplaced money in the booth. This study concluded that the subjects were more likely to admit to the attractive individuals that they had found the change.

People have a greater desire to be well liked by attractive persons, based on these studies, which accounts for why they are more helpful as well and kinder in general to those they deem good-looking. Perhaps they seek validation from these beautiful people because they believe it will be an affirmation of their own appearances or maybe it is just generally assumed that physically attractive people are more important.

For men as well as women various studies have shown that the likelihood of being hired for a job increases if you are facially attractive and not overweight, and not only this, but the salary earned by beautiful people is higher than those less physically appealing. In this manner it seems that beauty is of the utmost importance, but in the past for females in certain fields of work being found attractive by colleagues has caused them to be taken less seriously as well as increase the cases of sexual harassment. For these women, making themselves more masculine and therefore less attractive had been what allowed them to build successful careers in male-dominated fields.

Women who are more attractive are generally thought to possess the stereotypical feminine characteristics such as being nurturing and soft-spoken. These women were not seen as capable leaders and formidable colleagues. By embodying the female ideal they had effectively hindered themselves in the workplace. Here beauty had hurt them by causing them to not be taken seriously. It was common for women to have to don dowdy attire for their jobs so as not to be seen as an object but as an equal. This is where the double standard comes in: people want to hire attractive people but once in the work environment attractive people are not always taken seriously as intellectuals. This then caused many women to adopt a rough exterior that they might not otherwise in order to succeed in a "man's world." Here beauty had traditionally been a distinct disadvantage; however, that may not longer be the case in this age.

A study was conducted in 2001 on women's leadership by Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the Winds of Change Foundation in Menlo Park, California. For the study they conducted interviews with 60 U.S. women leaders, ranging from 30 to 70 years old. Based on these interviews they clearly concluded that the women thrived by being themselves and not by emulating men. They especially found that the women did not have to emulate the men's way of speaking. Therefore, masculine women may no longer be the ideal and beautiful feminine women could soon become perfectly acceptable and respectable workplace leaders.

Though beauty as a hindrance in the job market may be diminishing, extreme beauty is still found very threatening by others in nearly every aspect of life. Those who possess high levels of beauty can find themselves subjected to unfair judgments as a result of their appearances. This phenomenon seems to apply the most to women and especially for teenage girls. Perhaps as a result of women being judged primarily on their appearances females can be quite harsh on these they feel they compare poorly with physically. These are often the girls who have rumors spread about them and are talked about behind their backs in a disparaging manner. Beauty is menacing to those of the same sex and intimidating to those of the opposite sex. On more than one occasion I have found myself thinking girls who look a certain way are shallow and that they must not be nice people. While this almost always proves to be untrue, I still sometimes find myself judging for no reason other than the fact that I am jealous of how they look.

Women will judge other women far more harshly than men ever would and can be extremely standoffish as a result. Just a few months ago I went with two of my friends from high school to visit another friend at her college. One of the friends I went with now lives in New York City and works as a model and the other is attending college in New Jersey. When we all went out to parties at her school my friend who is a model had a much harder time fitting in with other groups of girls. They were less interested in being welcoming, helping her find the bathroom, and other things of that nature. It was an environment much different from what I am accustomed to here in the bi-co since we were at a large state college. This could account for the lack of hospitality, but I definitely noticed that my one friend and I were welcomed into the community much more easily than my model friend. She is rather shy which probably did not help the situation as her behavior likely came across as aloof, but I still found a very noticeable difference in the way we were all received.

The greatest problem with beauty is likely the importance that we place on it. Perhaps without the misconceptions about what being beautiful means about you as a person there would not be such animosity for the beautiful by those who feel they don't measure up and unconditional approval by those who wish to impress. "The Carver" from Nip/Tuck is an obvious example of how beauty can have horrible consequences but in the society of today beauty is an undeniable asset.

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