HOW YOU LOOKING?
The American public has been sliced and diced in all manner of ways – rich and poor, conservative, liberal, evangelical, secular, highly educated, poorly prepared, and so on. But have they ever been categorized by looks – how pleasing or unremarkable their physical appearances? People spend so much time, effort and money trying to look their best. However worthy that objective, how well have they succeeded? What is the underlying reality with which they have to deal? Are people equally or “fairly” distributed along the continuum of physical appearance? We’re told that beauty is only skin deep; that the way a person presents has much to do with personality, attitude and aptitude. Still, we all know that good looks often correlate with distinct advantages plain folk simply don’t enjoy.
Recently I set out to observe just how people, men and women, appear; how they are positioned on a scale that extends from depressingly homely to strikingly gorgeous and handsome. Not a beauty contest, not a collection of pre-selected “lookers”, but involving a cross spectrum evaluation of random folks going about their business.
To perform this research I ventured out in the field, positioning myself at locations that featured heavy pedestrian traffic; that included observation along busy city streets, supermarkets, department stores, malls and other crowded spots. Naturally, I needed to create a classification system, however rudimentary, into which I could place people. The result was four categories. At the lower end were unmistakably homely people, not disfigured or ailing, but individuals whose facial features deviated from accepted standards and whose overall look was off-putting. Next up was the category for “ordinary” looking people, those whose facial features would rarely warrant a second glance but which might be described as belonging to “every man” or woman. Moving along, we reach those whose faces are likely to prompt a “second look”. Into this category are those undeniably cute and unique looking, who also may have a notably attractive feature or two, such as alluring eyes, a sculpted nose or firm chin. Hair styling is also a factor here, whether an artfully arranged beard or striking blond or redhead fashionably coiffed. Finally, we arrive at “knockout” levels – faces you can’t help but stare at; handsome men and beautiful women do not fit a single mold, but there’d be no disputing their assignment to this category.
Now, for some caveats. Who am I to make such critical judgments? (Full disclosure prompts me to place myself along the upper reaches of ordinary). Might I simply be imposing my own subjective standards on the situation? Maybe so, but I have a sense that there would be broad consensus around my classifications. I appreciate the diversity of Americans and recognize I’m applying a white man’s standards that may be insensitive to other definitions of beauty. On the other hand, there are external guidelines that large numbers across the world probably accept. I’ve never had any reason, for example, to dispute the judgment of the Miss Universe contests. Also, I’ve not limited myself solely to facial features. If people are distressingly heavy or uncommonly thin their overall rating suffered. On the other hand, I was sensitive to age, especially to those of advanced years. Regrettably, many, but not all, display the ravages of time. Accordingly my standards adjusted where seniors were involved. (Babies were omitted since any attempt at ranking would be deemed decidedly premature and unforgivably mean-spirited.) Additionally, I observed relatively few rural Americans and did not factor in social class in my reckonings. Finally, I took into consideration, especially when it came to women, that those I saw were not out in public in order to impress me. Indeed, many were not dressed well and did not have their “faces” on. Who would dispute the fact that women (as distinct from men) can work wonders with makeup and wardrobe?
So what did I find? Because I gave a lot of folks the benefit of the doubt, the “ordinary” category swelled to upwards of 77% of all those scrutinized. The next category, a vast distance behind at 12%, were the “second look” types, followed by the truly homely at 8%. The “beautiful people” at 3% were hard to find (I may have been in the wrong places), but, when present, stood out from the crowd in dramatic fashion.
What is one to make of this “study”? People probably have too high an estimation of how they look. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but one has to be impressed at just how “ordinary” most people are. (It would be of interest to compare my rankings with each individual’s own self-assessment. Also to consider, whether Americans are more “ordinary” than people of other nations.)
I also have a theory about why I detected so few of the striking types. (They do leave the house, I’m sure.) It could be that most are gathered in television studies, movie locations or engaged in some field of fashion or entertainment. We’ve long recognized that to be the case with the movies. Just observe a day of television and note how many “good looking” people have been brought together there and put on display – weather reporters, newscasters, talking heads, sit-com and soap headliners, and people in most advertisements. Virtually all the women are beautiful; most men as well (men need not be as good looking as the women). Consider the business channels for a moment. The men are certainly presentable, but almost all the women are beautiful. Just why it requires a striking woman to explain the intricacies of credit default swaps or to explore the intricacies of the S&P index is a mystery. But that’s how it is.
We’ve all become aware that there is an aristocracy of wealth in the U.S. Whether it’s the “one per centers” or a somewhat broader group, big money has flowed into the hands of a relatively small handful of people. Beauty, it seems, has been distributed in a manner quite similar; being reserved for the very few. One is man-made, the other God-given. Neither is at all fair.