June 29, 2010

Prejudice And Attraction: Is Beauty Really In The Beholder’s Eye?

Many of us are attracted to people on the basis of age, race and ethnicity, body shape and size, and even social class, religion, culture, and nationality.

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Beyond our common classification of people by their sexual orientation, which is becoming more difficult as we begin to recognize the fluidity of sexuality, there are other, obvious tastes and preferences people have other than gender.  Certainly, for example, every heterosexual woman is not sexually and romantically attracted to every man.  Although we sometimes talk about our “type” as someone who is, for example, funny, politically engaged, or spiritual, many of us are attracted to people on the basis of age, race and ethnicity, body shape and size, and even social class, religion, culture, and nationality.

But, Isn’t Beauty In The Eye Of The Beholder?

I like the expression, “beauty is in they eye of the beholder,” because it helps us to make sense of why some seemingly odd matches are together in a relationship.  But, as a Washington Post op-ed pointed out last month, who and what we deem attractive is actually much more consistent from “beholder” to “beholder” than we may believe:

A number of researchers have independently found that, when people are asked to rate an individual’s attractiveness, their responses are quite consistent, even across race, sex, age, class and cultural background. Facial symmetry and unblemished skin are universally admired. Men get a bump for height, women are favored if they have hourglass figures, and racial minorities get points for light skin color, European facial characteristics and conventionally “white” hairstyles.

As this quote points out, short men, plus-size women, and people of color are penalized in terms of perceived attractiveness.  I pointed out a few months ago that in online dating, Black women are sought after least compared to women of other racial/ethnic backgrounds, and white men are sought after the most compared to men of color.  Similarly, among gay and bisexual men, Black men are often the least sought after and are more likely to be perceived as HIV-positive.

Okay, So You Like Who You Like, Right?

Societal standards of beauty are important for two reasons: they reflect social inequalities along the lines of gender, race and ethnicity, social class, and body shape and size, and they contribute to these forms of inequality.  The Washington Post op-ed keenly points out:

Appearance-related bias also exacerbates disadvantages based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and class. Prevailing beauty standards penalize people who lack the time and money to invest in their appearance. And weight discrimination, in particular, imposes special costs on people who live in communities with shortages of healthy food options and exercise facilities.

Societal beauty standards often favor privileged social groups over disadvantaged groups, for example white people over people of color, the young over older adults, thinner people over plus-size people, which has a negative impact on the self-esteem of individuals of disadvantaged groups, among other consequences.  In turn, this relatively lower self-esteem has negative implications for one’s health, well-being, and ability to succeed.  Prejudice and discrimination on the basis of attractiveness and body size and shape are increasingly recognized as real social problems.  Some are at risk for developing a negative self-image and, as a result, engaging in unsafe sexual practices – sometimes because they feel powerless to enforce safe sex practices.