A sexy Megan Fox look-alike wearing a revealing black dress stands beside an average looking girl in jeans and a T-shirt at a bar. Who gets served first? The answer is pretty obvious. The sultry brunette will probably get lustful stares from men and jealous glances from women. Most likely, she won’t leave the bar without at least a few requests for her digits. The other girl? Well, with Miss Fox’s twin in the same vicinity, Average Jane will be lucky to get chatted up by just one member of the opposite sex.
It is common knowledge that our society values beauty, but to what extent? Sure, an average-looking guy probably won’t score with a Perfect Ten, but just how important are looks outside of the dating world? I decided to find out for myself.
It was late on a Sunday afternoon when I first arrived at Best Buy and I looked unattractive, to say the least. My face was bare with not even a hint of mascara or a trace of Chapstick. I had my baggy grey sweatpants stuffed into my imitation UGG boots and my oversized sweatshirt added ten pounds to my 5 foot 4 frame. My hair was pulled back into a messy bun then tucked beneath an old baseball cap. I looked like the kind of person I usually see and wonder to myself, Did they look in a mirror before they left their house?
I stood in the computer section, pretending to compare the differences between the sleek, yet more expensive HP and the stylishly designed Dell. I have an Apple and am hardly in need of a new laptop, but I put my acting skills to the test. After ten minutes had passed, I began to get frustrated and started to pace, trying to make eye contact with an employee – any employee. One young man dressed in khakis and the signature royal blue polo caught my eye, then turned around to help a couple who had just arrived. After being completely ignored for twenty minutes, a different young man wearing the same blue polo approached me and asked if I needed help. He was friendly and answered all of my questions fully, but rarely made eye contact during our conversation.
My second experience at Best Buy was hardly the same. To begin with, my outfit screamed confidence instead of misfit. I wore a dress that hugged every curve and revealed more leg than I would usually show on a Saturday night at the bars. My black patent heels were high enough that balancing was an act not for the first-timer. My face was artistically layered with makeup and my hair perfectly teased and curled. Cheekbones had been chiseled from the rest of my face with a few sweeps of blush, smoky shadow defined my hazel eyes and carefully applied lipstick in Bronzed Peach made my otherwise thin lips pop. On most of the days of the week, I am a mascara and Chapstick girl, so this new look was like seeing a high-maintenance twin for the first time.
As I passed through the store entrance, I was greeted with a friendly “Hello” unlike the day before and I was helped within my first few minutes of being there. Though my questions were answered fully even during my “ugly experience,” I noticed more eye contact and felt as though I were more respected when I was dolled up.
I tested my experiment in other environments as well. Immediately after dropping a mountain of art history flash cards in the library entrance, a cute stranger came to my rescue. The previous day, when I was sporting my sweatpants getup, two girls walked around me and I am sure I heard muffled giggles. Eventually someone came to help me, but didn’t say a word even after I thanked her.
The barista at my favorite coffee shop chatted with me about weekend plans when I was wearing lipstick and heels, but with no makeup and sweats instead of a dress, I was handed my scalding drink from an emotionless co-ed.
Patrick Boltinghouse, Des Moines-based makeup artist and owner of Vanity Glamour Cosmetics, believes that confidence plays a large role in a person’s attractiveness, and makeup is just one aspect of appearance.
“I know that confidence doesn’t only come from makeup,” Boltinghouse says. “Hair, clothes, jewelry and makeup boost confidence but the rest comes from within.”
Boltinghouse points out that a lack of confidence may have affected my experiment. While clothes and makeup may have made people more comfortable approaching me when I was dolled up, Boltinghouse notes that I most likely felt more confident than when I looked as if I just rolled out of bed. He has a point. It is only logical to assume that feeling attractive will boosts one’s confidence.
Now, I am not claiming that my experiment was scientific by any means. I would consider myself more of an artsy person than a scientist, and even I know that there are variables and margins of error that need to be accounted for in all research. I do, however, believe that this experiment, no matter how accurate, recognizes some very common patterns in society.
Samantha Liametz, sophomore in journalism, business and communication studies had an experience similar to my own. She remembers walking into a small clothing store in Ames after lying in a tanning bed and according to her, she looked “a little ragged.”
“I was ignored the entire fifteen minutes that I was in the store.” Liametz says. “The two employees acknowledged other customers and proceeded to have their own conversation while paying absolutely no attention to me.”
Liametz recognizes that in a society that values beauty, she will be paid more attention if she spends time on her appearance. Liametz dresses much differently for her internship at the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation than she would for a regular day of classes. On days Liametz drives to Des Moines, she chooses heels instead of sneakers and swaps in her yoga pants for skirts.
“When you are preparing for an interview you are always told to dress up and look your best,” Liametz says. “That in itself tells you that you’ll be taken more seriously if you look good.”
Dr. Alicia Cast, associate professor in sociology, believes that society treats beautiful people better than those who are seen as unattractive.
“We tend to associate all sorts of positive attributes with people who are attractive,” Cast says. “We tend to think that they make better spouses, have better jobs and are socially and professionally happier than the rest of us; or at least more so than unattractive people.”
In the world of social psychology, society’s perception of beauty is a topic often researched. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study in which fifty-one male and fifty-one female undergraduates at the University of Minnesota participated. The study analyzed interactions between men and women who had never seen each other in person. Instead of seeing the woman he was talking to, the male participant was given a photograph of a female who was rated by other college men across the country on a scale from one to ten. Only the photographs of women who received the highest or lowest attractiveness ratings were used. Men who thought they were interacting with a very attractive female were noted as being more “confident and animated in their conversation than their counterparts.” The women they talked to appeared to be “more sociable, sexually warm, interesting, independent, sexually permissive, bold, outgoing, humorous, obvious and socially adept than their counterparts in the unattractive target condition.”
This study concludes that often times, society encourages attractive people to possess positive attributes because we assume they have them. Though this research was conducted in 1997, more than a decade ago, Cast points out this type of societal trend remains relatively unchanged through time.
“On some level or another, attractive people probably are more outgoing, more sociable and more friendly, but it isn’t because they are innately that way,” Cast says. “It’s because we treat them that way.”
It isn’t only adults that treat attractive people differently. Even as children, we are programmed to differentiate between “ugly” and “pretty.” Seemingly innocent cartoons perpetuate the message that attractive people are more valued in society.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” This well-known line from Disney’s “Snow White” emphasizes the importance we place on beauty at every age. The main characters in cartoons and fairy tales are well-liked and are often portrayed as attractive while the villains are usually unattractive.
This obsession with appearance isn’t only apparent in the United States. It is a worldwide infatuation. The Western Mail, a United Kingdom-based newspaper published an article in February 2010 for which they surveyed nearly 7,000 children between the ages of 10 and 15 years old. The findings show 17.5% are unhappy with their appearance and 16% are not satisfied with their confidence.
“[Children] are no different from the rest of us,” says Cast. “They learn these cultural messages very early on – this association between goodness and attractiveness. I think this message is particularly strong for young women.”
Boltinghouse believes that makeup can be an effective tool to get noticed in our looks-conscious society. He sees makeup as a celebration, an escape and a way to express oneself to the world but realizes that some women don’t share the same excitement for cosmetics. In his ten years working as a makeup artist, Boltinghouse has worked with many women who do not want to wear makeup at all, but realize they will be treated better in society if they do.
“I tell them to not look at it as makeup but as a facade for the world,” Boltinghouse says. “It doesn’t have to be who you are, but you need to realize that when you spend that 5, 10 or 15 minutes on yourself, you will get attention from society. That makes it worth it in the end to wear makeup.”
While it can minimize minor imperfections and emphasize assets, makeup can’t cover all flaws. Weight, for example, is one aspect of appearance that can’t easily be manipulated. In Western society, which idolizes toothpick-thin models and ridicules curvier figures, skinny is beautiful.
The world watched as supermodel and television host, Tyra Banks, went undercover for her fat-for-a-day experiment. The 200-pound fat suit made people stare, and not because they recognized her.
Banks is quoted as saying, “It was awful. I would try to make eye contact with people and smile, but 90 percent of them didn’t smile back. I got snickers.”
At the end of the day, Banks was able to slip out of the fat suit and return to her slim self, but what about those who aren’t able to shed the pounds so easily? What about those who are innately unattractive by our standards? Are they destined to have a life of unhappiness?
Not necessarily. They might just need to work a little harder to get the attention and respect their attractive counterparts receive at a bat of their long-lashed eye.
“When you consider the kinds of benefits you gain from being attractive, it can be thought of as a real resource for people to get what they want or what they need,” Cast says.
We may live in a society where the Megan Foxes of the world get treated better than the rest of us average looking people. By smearing on a little lipstick, slipping into some heels and cranking up our confidence level, we just might be able to take a step higher on the beauty ladder that society places us on. I know how I will be dressing next time I step into Best Buy.