The Problem of Attractiveness

The New Yorker recently ran an essay on the problem of female beauty:

The author, Adelle Waldman, points out how fiction tries to avoid a real examination of the issues:

“In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.

This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there.”

I know a lot of young men, and it is absolutely the case that the first thing that a man considers when contemplating a woman, whether he admits it or not, is her attractiveness.  It doesn’t even require that the man be interested in a relationship.  Economists have studied the optimal methods of raising money for charity by going door-to-door, and by a massive margin, the most effective strategy is to send attractive young women (preferably blonde) to do the fundraising.  Their advantage is almost entirely explained by the fact that the men they encounter are far more likely to donate, and to donate larger amounts of money.

I can come up with plenty of “scientific” explanations for this–from an evolutionary standpoint, youth and symmetry are good markers of both genetic quality and fertility–but the fact is that the power of attractiveness is a dangerous thing in the modern world.

Our society’s obsession with appearance has gone far beyond any practical bounds.  Attractive people earn more money and are more likely to achieve positions of leadership than those of equal or greater competence who didn’t win the “mirror lottery.”  Men who choose mates based on appearance are likely to make poor choices.  As a sports fan, the tendency of wealthy athletes to marry relatively unintelligent Playboy Playmates is both real and depressing (such marriages are often followed my messy divorces and underperformance on the playing field).

I’m not going to tilt at windmills and try to overcome millions of years of evolution.  I’ll just point out to my readers that the beauty bias is very real, and affects all of us, even if we’re not conscious of its effects.  Any time you’re dealing with someone of exceptional beauty, it’s worth closing your dropped jaw, averting your eyes, and taking a few moments to consider how your judgment might have been compromised.

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