Good looks confer real advantages in work and school, research says
The researchers also noted that a bias toward beauty in high school does matter. It may create a "self-fulfilling prophecy" or simply boost confidence. The mechanism is unclear. But "while we may think that the superficiality of high school social hierarchies wears off as people age, we find that youth rated as better looking get higher grades and are more likely to attain a college degree than their peers, setting the stage for better economic outcomes through adulthood," Gordon and Crosnoe wrote.
"In fact, the difference in GPA and college graduation rates between youth rated by others as attractive versus average in looks is similar to the differences in academic achievement between youth raised in two-parent versus single-parent families!"
The bias based on looks appears to start early, Gordon said. Some of the social and psychological data shows that "in elementary schools, teachers have higher expectations of the kids who are more attractive. There are methods to eliminate the bias, such as taking names off of papers when grading them," she noted.
There is also a downside to being attractive, the researchers said.
"Youth rated as more physically attractive are more likely to date, have sexual partners and drink heavily. These favors, in turn, have negative consequences for immediate grades and later college completion." They also acknowledge other research that has found a "beauty penalty" for women in male-dominated fields, but they say that, overall, attractiveness helps.
The Council on Contemporary Families gathered commentary from experts not involved with the research.
Lookism is a bad bargain for women, said Caroline Heldman, chair of the politics department at Occidental College. She wrote that "the benefits of lookism in the workplace are overstated for attractive women because beauty actually serves as a barrier for women in corporate and political leadership positions. Not only are sexually attractive corporate managers rated as less competent by their peers and employees, attractive female political candidates are perceived as less competent in the eyes of voters."
"If people really believed that 'everyone is beautiful,' anorexia and facial and bodily surgeries would not be so ubiquitous in adolescent life," wrote Michigan State University professor Barbara Schneider. "Given that young people continue to exclude and bully those viewed as unattractive, the fiction that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' is simply disingenuous and potentially harmful."
Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist, warned against teaching children to define themselves in terms of how they look. "One of the biggest predictors of who succeeds in life, attractive or otherwise, is self-discipline, which involves regulating and managing emotions, learning how to tolerate frustration, maintaining focus without excessive distractibility, and developing the ability to delay gratification.
"Emphasizing and promoting your child’s good looks can actually undermine the exercise of these skills, as many childhood winners of movie contracts and beauty pageants have found to their costs," he wrote.
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