The Beauty Paradox

I knew I had power when I was eight. I climbed a tree and four boys helped me down.” —Marilyn Monroe

I can’t verify Marilyn Monroe said those words. But nonetheless, they are true. If it didn’t happen to her, it happened to someone else. This fascinating video on the halo effect explains why.  

I wanted to title this post something along the lines of “Looks Don’t Matter.” I searched well-researched articles and videos, hunting for evidence that personality is more powerful than appearance, the halo effect is a myth, and good looks don’t bring any special advantages. But everything I found seemed to refute these ideas rather than confirm them.

Beautiful people are often viewed as more intelligent, confident, outgoing and likable, among other things. Though every part of our brain screams this is unfair, we often make these judgements without realizing it. Appearances influence how people are treated in public, who is promoted and hired in the workforce, who wins political elections, and how children are treated by peers and teachers at school. Looks do matter—sometimes a lot.

I wish it wasn’t that way, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised—I built two fictional worlds in the Perfect Outcast, intertwined with each other, where beauty and appearances impact the experiences my characters face. They also impact the experiences we have in our own world, until we mature enough to realize how much they don’t matter. 

If that sounds like a paradox, it is. This brings me to my point: there’s a beauty paradox. Although appearances impact our lives, and beautiful people have certain advantages, looks aren’t crucial to success and happiness. To demonstrate this, I’ll name some people I admire, mostly women, who have accomplished extraordinary things and influenced many people for good—even changed the world. And it had nothing to do with their looks. In fact, most of them were considered homely.

Susan Boyle. Many of us saw this talented woman light up the stage with her beautiful voice and fun personality on the third series of “Britain’s Got Talent.” At the time, the judges admitted they didn’t expect her to have any talent at all—simply because of her looks and demeanor. In the video we glimpse audience members grimacing and rolling their eyes when she introduced herself. We know the rest of the story. Susan nailed the song and left the audience and judges cheering and clapping on their feet. Since then she’s enjoyed a successful singing career and has persevered in spite of social challenges, including Asperger’s Syndrome. This hasn’t been easy for her, but she’s touched many lives through her music.

George Eliot was an English novelist who wrote popular novels such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Henry James wrote these words to his father after meeting her: “She is magnificently ugly. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth…Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

This brings to mind the first line of one of my favorite novels: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” Clearly, there are traits more powerful than beauty, and men can be smitten by these qualities. (Yet Hollywood portrayed Scarlet as gorgeous, along with Melanie—the true heroine of the story—who’s supposed to be very plain. Maddening!)

Catherine the Great was said to be “a woman of little beauty, but she possessed considerable charm, a lively intelligence, and extraordinary energy.” Abraham Lincoln’s appearance “disappointed everybody” and he was known to make fun of his looks in an endearing way. And Jesus Christ, who we may consider one of the most influential leaders in all history, “hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2, King James version.)

(Once again I’d like to point out how movies and pictures depict these people as more attractive than they were. We like to reshape our heroes to fit our romantic ideals. But that’s a post for another time.)

Others revered for their achievements and not their appearance are Queen Victoria, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and Malala Yousafzai. Yet, despite their average looks, many of us would argue they are beautiful—as is any woman we love and admire. I agree! This further cements my point. It’s a person’s character and admirable qualities that make them beautiful, even as they grow old and their youth fades. Sure, some women became icons simply for their beauty—Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and a few others—mostly movie stars. But did they change the world for a better place? If they did, it was because they had more substantial gifts to offer.

So if beauty eventually fades from memory and mind, why do we emphasize it so much in our culture? Clearly, it’s the lure of what it provides in the moment—the gratification of being well-treated, sought after, and admired. I’ve fallen into this trap many times and it consumed much of my thoughts when I was a young, insecure teenager. Too often this preoccupation with beauty robs our young girls of valuable energy which would be better spent discovering and developing their talents. We must help our girls (and boys—they feel this pressure too, though perhaps not to the same extent) focus on what unique gifts they can offer the world. When it comes to things of enduring importance, beauty comes in dead last.

It’s difficult to fight against an established culture, but small changes in attitudes and behaviors have enormous impact. We may not be able to convince our young people that looks don’t matter. But we can start by convincing ourselves.

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