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While several recent news stories have featured reports of women being fired or discriminated against because they were too good looking, a new study prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families suggests that looks are a source of inequality– and good looks a source of lifelong advantage – on par with inequalities connected to race, class, and gender.
The briefing report, “In School, Good Looks Help and Good Looks Hurt (But They Mostly Help),” previews findings in a monograph, from a peer-reviewed series from the Society for Research in Child Development titled Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood (Wiley-Blackwell, to be released December 13), by sociologists Rachel Gordon (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Robert Crosnoe (University of Texas at Austin). It is accompanied by responses from several other CCF researchers not involved in the study.
Looks have long-term consequences:
- Women gain an eight percent wage bonus for above-average looks and pay a four percent wage penalty for below-average looks.
- For men, the bonus is only four percent. But the penalty for below-average looks is even higher than for women – a full 13 percent.
- From high school on, people rate better-looking people higher in intelligence, personality, and potential for success—and this often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Most people acknowledge that racial and gender discrimination still exists. In one study, for example, job applicants with white-sounding names got call-backs twice as often as those with black-sounding names. Another study documented hiring bias in favor of men, with identically-qualified applicants being offered salaries 12 percent higher when they had men’s rather than women’s names.
But researchers have paid less attention to the prevalence of discrimination based on looks. Gordon and Crosnoe argue that “lookism” creates inequalities comparable to those created by racism, sexism, and family background. In high school, they write, “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. 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!”
Gordon and Crosnoe’s research suggests that there is a cumulative advantage to being considered attractive that continues to operate long after people’s high school cliques have dissolved. They find that even when people are listening to phone calls, they tend to “hear” more warmth and sociability from individuals they have been primed to think are attractive than from individuals who have been portrayed as unattractive.
The authors acknowledge that there are some disadvantages to the popularity that comes with being seen as attractive. For instance, they note, “Youth rated as more physically attractive are more likely to date, have sexual partners, and drink heavily. These factors, in turn, have negative consequences for immediate grades and later college completion.” They concede that a few studies have identified a beauty penalty for women in certain male-dominated occupations. All in all, they maintain, above-average looks provide people with long-term advantages, while being unattractive is a source of disadvantage. They suggest that parents and schools should pay more attention to countering the effects of lookism.
Sociologist Barbara Risman (University of Illinois/Chicago) applauds the quality of the research but objects to any equation of lookism with racism: “Although looks are in part inherited, babies who are eventually labeled unattractive children do not begin life with the same cumulative disadvantages of, say, African-Americans, who are disproportionately likely to grow up in impoverished communities with inferior schools.” She also reminds us that for men in particular, the disadvantages of being unattractive are often outweighed by other achievements as they age, while even the most attractive women face unfavorable comments on their looks as they age.
Political scientist Carolyn Heldman (Occidental College) places more emphasis on the disadvantages that women in particular suffer when admiration for their looks turns them into sex objects. She reminds us of the curious disadvantage that Sarah Palin — a 2008 Vice Presidential candidate who was rated as highly physically attractive—had even among members of her own party, when they identified her as sexy.
Sociologist Barbara Schneider (Michigan State University) suggests that some lookism may stem from universal preferences for certain facial qualities, which makes it all the more dangerous to deny its power over young people’s lives.
By contrast, sociologist Virginia Rutter (Framingham State University) places emphasizes the variety of beauty standards and beauty biases across cultures and over time.
Finally, psychologist Josh Coleman (private practice) offers advice for parents about how to reduce the impact and practice of lookism.
You can read Gordon and Crosnoe’s briefing report and related expert commentaries by click on the links on the right sidebar.
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Miami, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, at firstname.lastname@example.org, cell 360-556-9223.Topics: Adolescents / Aging / Class Inequality, Poverty, & the Social Safety Net / Work & Family