A lot has been written on the subject of beauty bias, and I am not sure I have anything clever to add. All I know is that it gets to me sometimes.
I have been on the wrong side of beauty bias on many an occasion, along with the three women I am closest to in the whole world. One has alopecia and started losing her hair in her teens. One is unusually tall and has dark skin. The third started going grey in her twenties.
All four of us have struggled with weight related issues, and all of us have been fighting low self-esteem for most of our lives. Whether it’s our hair, our faces or our figures – we have never quite fit in with society’s version of what is attractive.
The thing is we are all good people. We are kind and compassionate. We are respectful towards others, loyal, and act with integrity. Those who know us will tell you that we are loving and nurturing. And we all have a pretty great sense of humour. On paper, all four of us are quite the catch.
But none of us feel beautiful. We spend our lives trying to modify ourselves so that others will consider us more attractive and therefore more likeable. Because the two are very much linked together.
Beauty bias in children
If you get a chance, read “The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law” by Deborah L Rhode. It’s a fascinating read, and in her book she talks about the many ways in which beauty affects us from childhood.
She cites numerous studies that demonstrate that appearance affects us right from the get-go. Apparently, infants stare longer at attractive faces. Can you believe that? Newborn babies are able to recognise “beauty” when they see it.
Both parents and teachers give less attention to less attractive children, and have a lower regard for them. And how do you suppose children react to this? Unsurprisingly they take this kind of judgement to heart.
So they start to believe that attractiveness equals better personality traits. They prefer their attractive classmates as friends, and will chose them over less attractive ones.
Since weight and beauty go hand in hand, it is little surprise that overweight children are considered less attractive. Obese children are far more likely to be teased and ostracised, which can lead to a whole host of mental health problems throughout their lives.
How beauty bias affects our development
Does any of this sound fair to you? Right from the start, children are being taught that beauty gets you preferential treatment. It makes you a better person. It gets you more friends. And they allow themselves to tease and bully those who aren’t as attractive as they are.
By the time adolescence hits, self esteem has already become wrapped up in beauty. Rhode explains that girls place greater emphasis on looks than they do competence, and are frequently dissatisfied with their appearance.
This dissatisfaction can give rise to a whole host of issues including depression, eating disorders and self-harm. So, from an early age we have learned to judge ourselves on our own appearance.
Unless you are blessed with the right genetics, you end up with lower self-esteem, less confidence and begin to make poorer choices that you carry into adulthood. In essence, you are doomed to fail.
What is beautiful is good
I guess it comes as no surprise that beauty bias affects adults too. It’s not like we turn eighteen and stop caring about our appearance! The thing that astonishes me is the extent to which attractiveness affects our lives.
In her book, Rhode talks about a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as “what is beautiful is good”. Apparently “less attractive individuals are less likely to be viewed as smart, happy, interesting, likeable, successful and well-adjusted”.
They are less likely to get married, find a job, get promoted, or receive a fair sentence at a trial. One study showed that college aged students would rather marry an embezzler, a drug user or a shoplifter than someone who was obese!
Rhode goes on to explain that “in the workplace overweight people are seen as less likeable, less well-adjusted, and as having less self-control, self-discipline, effective work habits and the ability to get along with others”.
Overweight or less attractive people earn lower salaries and bonuses, irrespective of how smart or competent they are. Obese women are more likely to live in poverty.
Some research finds that attractive politicians get more than twice the number of votes as unattractive ones, and attractive college professors get better student feedback than their less attractive counterparts.
How beauty bias affects me personally
Is any of this starting to sound familiar? Unconscious bias comes in so many different forms. It’s not just weight that affects the beauty bias either. For women, it’s age. For men, it’s height. And for ethnic minorities it is darker skin and less European features.
All this really sucks for me and my closest friends because between us, we’ve got most of these covered! Being overweight has had an impact on the way that people have treated us throughout our lives. So is it any wonder that it remains a touchy subject?
When a doctor tells me that I need to lose weight, I don’t hear the health benefits. I just hear one more reason why I have been failing at life since before I was old enough to understand it. It’s impossible to be objective about something that is so much more than a number on a scale.
My weight is one of the first things people notice when they see me. It affects my mental health, my ability to succeed and provide for myself and my family, and the way people treat me. It affects every area of my life, to a far greater degree than people realise.
Beauty bias and weight loss
It’s very hard to put all that to one side and find a way to move forward. But you know what? That’s exactly what I am going to do. Because I am smart, happy, interesting, likeable, successful and well-adjusted. I do have self-control, self-discipline, effective work habits and the ability to get along with others.
I don’t care what other people think about me. What really matters is what I think about me.
College students may rank me lower than a drug user or a shoplifter, but I have people in my life who love me for who I am. People who value me as far more than the sum of my wobbly parts. In fact, I’ve been happily married to a man I met in university and he thinks I am all kinds of fabulous, so suck it college students!
If I have to work twice as hard to get a promotion or for someone to recognise my talent, then so be it. That’s the way it has always been. I’ve always had to work hard, because I have never been a conventionally attractive person. If I’ve come this far, then losing a few stone will be a piece of cake.
And now I want cake. Damn it!
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