You probably aren’t beautiful. It’s statistical, not personal.
Most of us are average, a few of us are ugly, and a tiny number of us are beautiful or handsome.
Many of us struggle with our own attractiveness, and in particular, the idea that we don’t have enough of it. Research suggests that body dissatisfaction, or not liking one’s body, is a major concern for both men and women. And the pursuit of a more attractive body, if manifested as a drive for thinness or a drive for muscularity, is a big risk factor for the development of eating disorders and muscle dysmorphia, both which are on the rise in Australia.
In the absence of population-level interventions to improve our body image, social media and corporations have filled the void.
Tumblr and Instagram are replete with images and words that “everyone is beautiful”, that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, that “beauty is only skin-deep”.
Dove, in marketing their beauty products predominantly to women, state their mission to create “a new definition of beauty [which] will free women from self-doubt and encourage them to embrace their real beauty”.
These messages are comforting and appealing, but are they backed up by evidence?
Myths and maxims of beauty
Consider the sentiment, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, which suggests beauty is subjective.
Data suggests that people are remarkably consistent in their determination of who is attractive and who isn’t, both within and across cultures. That’s not to say that subjectivity plays no role at all – as we’re all guided by our individually formed preferences – but that the scope for subjectivity exists within the narrow confines of the objective traits of physical beauty.
What about “beauty is only skin-deep”, or in other words, that a person’s appearance has no bearing on their personality or behaviour?
It does. “What is beautiful is good”, according to a group of oft-cited psychologists in their seminal 1972 paper that explored this very idea. Decades later, we know beautiful people are not only just thought of as “good”. Attractive people are also considered more intelligent, sociable, trustworthy, honest, capable, competent, likable, and friendly.
So, what should we do?
We could attempt to convince people that they are beautiful. We could attempt to redefine beauty standards to be broader and encompassing of more people, thus allowing more people to belong to the beautiful club. But these strategies won’t work because they don’t reduce the importance ascribed to beauty in the first place.
We could preach the platitude that beauty is simply unimportant, but this is wholly inconsistent with the data.
We ought to be balanced in our approach to beauty – that it is important, but not as important as the media makes it out to be.
The media will encourage you to base a disproportionate amount of your self-esteem on your and others’ positive evaluations of your external appearance. For some, this harmful tendency stems from family, friends, and partners.
Understand that you are complex and multifaceted. The sources from which you derive your self-esteem and self-worth must be similarly diverse. What can you do with your body? What can your brain do? Are you intelligent, creative, funny, athletic, caring, a hard worker, a great cook, a great mother or father?
Consciously placing less importance on physical attractiveness and diversifying sources of self-esteem won’t be easy. For some, the process will be extremely difficult and it may be wise to seek the advice of a psychologist.
A generous dose of scepticism is also needed, particularly toward campaigns spearheaded by the beauty industry – especially when these advertisements mask their commercial intentions under the guise of “feel-good” benevolence.
Don’t be too disheartened that you’re not beautiful; not many people are. Cultivate your self-esteem elsewhere. You’ll feel better for it.
This article was co-authored by Sangwon Lee, undergraduate LLB/BA candidate at the University of Queensland.