Q: I’m a 30-something woman, tall and thin, whom friends describe as beautiful. Perhaps for this reason, I’m often confronted with rude social assaults by people who assume things are handed to me on a silver platter. I am financially independent, have a full-time job and own a home and car. I dress and act modestly. Yet, I’m repeatedly insulted by people who suggest I got my job and other benefits because of my looks. What can I do to avoid or deflect these demeaning insinuations?—Not Just Skin Deep
A: Inner beauty, unfortunately, only turns heads of people with X-ray vision: “Excuse me, miss, but has anyone ever told you that you have a very pretty appendix?”
Sadly, complaints about the difficulty of being eye candy in a world of eye kale tend not to engender much sympathy, and researchers haven’t helped matters. There’s a considerable pile of research that has found a “beauty premium” (especially for women)—a bias toward hiring and promoting the hotties of the workforce and, depressingly, an “ugliness penalty” holding back the more Shrekalicious among us.
But it turns out that the methodology behind this slew of findings was a bit overly broad. According to a 2017 paper by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa and sociologist Mary Still, once you drill down into the details—control for health, intelligence and personality characteristics—you see a more nuanced result: “It appears that more beautiful workers earn more, not because they are beautiful, but because they are healthier, more intelligent.”
Sure, this probably sounds absurd—this association of good looks with intelligence, a winning personality and good health. However, take that last one. It turns out that beauty is more than nice human scenery; it’s also advertising for what’s on the inside. For example, consider the preference across cultures for faces with “bilateral symmetry.”
“Facial bilateral symmetry” is anthropologist-ese for both sides of a person’s face being a strong match. Facial or bodily asymmetry is an indicator of the presence of parasites or disease, and we evolved to be drawn to healthy people, though we just think, “What a pretty face!” and not, “There’s someone who isn’t a foster home for tapeworms!”
In another example, Kanazawa and Still speculate about the personality benefit associated with being pretty (referencing evolutionary psychologist Aaron Lukaszewski’s research): “Because physically attractive children are more likely to experience positive feedback from interpersonal interactions,” they’re more likely to develop an extroverted personality than less physically attractive children.
Getting back to you, just as previous research on “the beauty premium” failed to zoom in on the details, there’s a good chance you’re seeing your problem a little too broadly. Research on sex differences in competition by psychologist Joyce Benenson suggests it’s probably women who are doing most or all of the sneering.
Men—from childhood on—tend to be comfortable with hierarchy and openly duking it out for top spots in a way women are not. Women tend to engage in covert aggression—like with frosty treatment and undermining remarks—in hopes of making another woman dim her own shine and voluntarily relocate lower down the ladder.
The best way to combat such sniping in the moment is to go placid pokerface, treating their comments like lint to brush off.
In the long run, however, your best bet is being somebody who’s hard to hate. Research by behavioral economist Ernst Fehr suggests that it’s in our self-interest to be altruistic. This means, for example, developing a reputation as someone who’s always looking out for your colleagues’ interests—like by tipping off co-workers about opportunities and publicly cheering colleagues’ achievements.
Finally, if I’m right that women are your main detractors, consider Benenson’s observation that women show each other they aren’t a threat through sharing vulnerabilities—revealing weaknesses and problems. Ideally, of course, these should be difficulties along the lines of, “Sorry I’m late. My car’s a useless piece of tin,” and not, “Sorry I’m late. ANOTHER guy drove into a pole looking at me, and I had to wait with him for the ambulance.”