The Beauty Bubble: Do ugly people have harder lives?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
The Beauty Bubble: Do ugly people have harder lives?

Attractive people earn more, have better jobs and live happier lives. So, if beauty is such an asset, can we fake it? Jordan Baker investigates.

Beautiful people don't know how good they've got it. In their world, strangers give flowers, compliments flow like water and there's always a taxi available.

Not only do they sail through life with fewer of the irritations that plague the rest of us, but they also earn more, get better deals on mortgages and rise up the job ranks faster. What's more, they're happier.

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In terms of economics and evolution, the benefits of beauty are beyond doubt. So, academics are now debating whether we can improve our ride through life by making ourselves appear prettier, or are we stuck with the face we were dealt.

The key to beauty is facial structure, scientists have found. We subconsciously link symmetrical faces with strong immune systems and respiratory health — qualities we want to pass to our offspring.

In a group of 100 people, we may disagree about who is prettiest, but we'll tend to agree on the most attractive 10 per cent, who will all have even features.

Symmetry helps attract a more appealing mate, but its benefits don't stop there. Professor Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas, has investigated the financial benefits of beauty and found that looks have a bigger impact on our lifetime earning power than education.

In his book, Beauty Pays, he says beautiful people are more likely to get jobs, raises and promotions, and suggests that, over a lifetime, the best-looking workers will earn about 10-15 per cent more per year than the ugliest.

We're all to blame for that inequality because we prefer attractive sales assistants, good-looking politicians and handsome teachers. Interestingly, the ugliest men have a harder time in the workforce than the worst-looking women.

Controversially, Professor Hamermesh doesn't believe confidence or weight influence someone's beauty. Only age and obvious obesity have any impact on your God-given genes.

Plastic surgery doesn't help, either. "It is not worth the money," he tells The Weekly. "It doesn't change your beauty very much, as a lot of it is due to facial structure and it's hard to change that."

Professor Hamermesh believes there's nothing we can do about our levels of beauty — not even choosing a flattering frock or getting a professional blow-dry.

Professor Hamermesh is so concerned about the disadvantages ugly people must suffer in the workplace that he has called for their rights to be protected under law, in the same way we protect people with disabilities.

He admits, however, that identifying ugly people who need protection might be hard, not least because of the difficulty in choosing those ugly enough to need it.

Sociologist Catherine Hakim agrees with the perks of beauty, but disagrees with Professor Hamermesh's belief that we're stuck with what we've got.

In her new book, Honey Money, she argues that women have a complex power of attraction at their disposal, which they seldom use and perhaps don't even know exists — the power of erotic capital.

Erotic capital is not, as the name suggests, just about sexual power — sex appeal is just one component. It also includes beauty, self-presentation, social skills and confidence.

Her theory is that a woman can immediately lift her attractiveness by improving her grooming, slimming down, working on her manners and how she carries herself, and learning the arts of flirting and charm.

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"To some extent, beauty seems to be an attitude of mind," she says. "The French have a concept of 'beautiful ugly' or 'handsome ugly'. Self-presentation skills trump genetics."

Even when it comes to erotic capital, beautiful people still have the advantage. If they grow up in a world in which people consistently respond warmly to them — "the bubble", as comedian Tina Fey once described it — they're likely to be more confident and have a rosier view of life.

Read more of this story in the November issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.

Your say: Do you think beautiful people have easier lives?

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