Maverick Life


Beauty bias: The ‘physically attractive’ are still getting a better deal

Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi, of South Africa, waves onstage at the 2019 Miss Universe Pageant at Tyler Perry Studios on December 08, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

Even though there is no evidence of a link between looks and competence, a favourable bias towards physical attractive people is still evident.

As serious and consequential as the political landscape is, it occasionally blesses us with comical moments; the kind which, like the scripted acts of stand-up comics, reveal a truth about society, exposing cracks in a carefully constructed veneer.

One such memorable moment took place just outside the Rand Magistrate’s Court, back in the Maimane years, on 26 October 2018. Protesters wearing the familiar blue Democratic Alliance T-shirts, and who were there supposedly to protest against Duduzane Zuma (he was in court that day to face a charge of culpable homicide), suddenly turned into fans when they saw him step out of the courthouse.

They could be seen running towards him screaming, excited, charmed, trying to take selfies with the son of former president Jacob Zuma. If beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, these besotted beholders seemed to agree strongly about his physical appeal. Duduzane Zuma made small talk, one of the admirers screaming: “He is talking to meeee!”, before excitedly following up with, “Ngizophum’ eTV?” [Am I gonna be on TV?], never mind her DA T-shirt and her DA mandate.

More recently, on Sunday 26 January 2020 at the ANC’s 108th birthday celebrations in Port Shepstone, the young Mr Zuma’s entrance once again caused a stir as he was mobbed for selfies and videos. The tweets followed: “Let’s just agree that Duduzane is national bae”, “#DuduzaneZuma should just be our next president, I wouldn’t mind voting for him, he is so appetising”, followed another. And like the 2018 DA protesters-turned-adoring fans, some tweeps were prepared to cross party lines for the faux hawked Zuma: “I am an EFF supporter but shame I would sleep in the ANC T-shirt if it was handed to me by Duduzane #Duduzane #duduzanezuma” and so on it went as the hashtag made it to the number one position on South African Twitter trends.

Our bias towards perceived beauty or attractiveness is nothing new. There are decades of research on the subject, especially when it comes to how it affects our perception of a person’s ability, and that in turn affects labour and wages. Dr Gordon Patzer Ph.D has made a career out of studying our relationship with beauty. He has authored six books and numerous papers on what he calls the “Physical Attractiveness Phenomenon”. According to Dr Patzer’s research: “How others perceive and respond to the individual, and even in the individual’s personality development is strongly influenced by the attractiveness quotient of the person. Generally, the more physically attractive an individual is, the more positively people perceive the person, the more favourably people respond to the person, and the more successful the person’s personal and professional lives are presumed to be. Through self-fulfilling prophecy, also known as the Pygmalion Effect, some attributions convert into reality in the lives of people depending on their higher or lower physical attractiveness.”

A 2005 study from the Harvard University library, by Mobius, Markus M and Tanya S Rosenblat, titled “Why Beauty Matters”, found that although such assumptions may not be rooted in the reality of a person’s actual capabilities, “physical attractiveness raises an employer’s estimate of a worker’s ability”.

A seminal 1994 study by Daniel S Hamermesh and Jeff E Biddle, and titled “Beauty and the Labour Market”, found that: “Other things equal, the wages of people with below-average looks are lower than those of average-looking workers; and there is a premium in wages for good-looking people that is slightly smaller than this penalty. The penalty and premium may be higher for men, but these gender differences are not large. There is some evidence that the labour market sorts the best-looking people into occupations where their looks are productive.”

The study also found that among men, those considered less attractive earn 9% less than those seen as average-looking, while the best looking earn 5% more. In women, the least attractive earn 4% less than the average, while those perceived as most beautiful earn 5% more.

A later 2011 paper by Philip Robins, Michael French and Jenny Homer, that sought to build on the research of the above paper by accounting for grooming and personality traits found that those two traits only made a difference in wages in occupations where a pleasant personality and good grooming might be considered to help increase productivity. For example, in occupations where employees might be dealing directly with customers, and therefore be vulnerable to their biases. Otherwise, even in 2011, the conclusions of the 1994 study stood; in general, the labour market continues to reward those who are considered to be physically attractive with higher wages and greater access to opportunity. There are also other variables, as the above studies also cite that “beautiful” people tend to be more confident, even though that does not necessarily translate to their abilities, and employers are often attracted to their confidence, and believe them to be more capable.

However, it’s not all better wages and an endless stream of validation for those considered “beautiful”. The University of Colorado in 2010 explained that when it comes to leadership positions, attractiveness “has been shown to negatively affect the selection of female leaders”, and that in interviews, interviewers who are the same sex as an interviewee that they consider much more attractive than them, might show a negative bias.

Attractiveness is also not a simple matter of looks and various cultures around the globe’s biases. According to research published by Frontiers in Psychology in 2017, voice and scent also play a large role in what one might consider attractive. There have been numerous studies on different concepts of beauty within different cultures, as well as the changing ideals of beauty over time within a culture. However, the spread of technology and advances in mass communication have also had an enormous effect on what is considered beautiful.

In the 20th century, whether through movies, television, advertising, or beauty pageants, ideas of beauty based on Western ideals became the global beauty standard. It is worth questioning if beauty is really still in the eye of the beholder in the arguably monocultural era of the global village.

There is, of course, no evidence of a link between looks and competence, whatever the perceptions of job interviewers and customers might be. However, based on a body of studies available on the subject, it would seem that modern civilisation is yet to get past beauty bias, pretty privilege, beauty premium, whatever you choose to call it. Admittedly, much of the content of the studies quoted in this article come from American institutions, and the response might be completely different in the South African as well as the greater African context. And as excited as Mzansi Twitter might be by Duduzane Zuma’s physical appearance, tweets are not exactly what one might call empirical evidence. ML

If you have done research on the subject or would like to share more ideas on the matter with us, please leave a comment below and we will reach out. 

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