Amy Schumer’s latest movie “I Feel Pretty” sparked an interesting debate in the NYTimes this week. Amanda Hess wrote:
“I Feel Pretty” is based on a pretty little lie: Looks don’t matter. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
In the film, the down-on-herself Renee (played by Amy Schumer) conks her head in a SoulCycle accident and awakens believing that she has miraculously become supermodel-hot. She revels in it — charging into a bikini contest, snagging a promotion and basking in the affections of a beefy corporate scion — only to discover that her looks never changed a bit. The benefits she thought she accrued through beauty were won instead through her newfound self-confidence. (Hess, Amanda, ‘I Feel Pretty’ and the Rise of Beauty-Standard Denialism, NYTimes, April 23, 2018)
Hess argues that, in reality, looks do matter. We cannot simply tell women who believe (or are) unattractive that society does not care about their looks but rather their self-confidence. Women (and men) cannot overcome the impact of their appearance with self-confidence.
Hess’s article prompted me to think about how attractiveness functions as an unconscious bias in the workplace. As a manager, I try to challenge myself on my biases and if they impact my team. Some of the common ones I discuss with my colleagues include gender, race, time in role and, my favorite, recency.
However, we never discuss our bias towards attractive people. Attractiveness remains a silent bias perhaps because talking about it seems uncouth and everyone, at the moment, fears #metoo. While we may not yet comfortably talk about this bias, academics do write about the topic.
The most compelling evidence that humans prefer more attractive humans to less attractive humans comes from a study done at the University of Texas in 1999. In the study, Rubenstein found that infant face perception showed “infants’ preferences for attractive faces exist well before socialization from parents, peers, and the media can affect these preferences” (Rubenstein, A.J. Dev Psychol. 1999 May;35(3):848-55). Even before we inherit the values of our shallow society, we prefer pretty people.
Obviously, we cannot conclusively say attractiveness leads to higher salaries or promotions at work. In fact, in some scenarios it may work detrimentally. For example, Maria Agathe’s 2011 study found if a “person being evaluated is of the same sex as the evaluator, attractiveness hurts, rather than helps” (Agathe, Maria, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2011. 37(8) 1042–105).
Regardless of which way the bias flows, we need to add attractiveness (both physical traits, fashion style and self-grooming) to the list of biases to think about when judging the performance of others.
In my world, I will think about attractiveness as a potential bias in my management and work with others, but I don’t think I am quite ready to challenge my peers to do the same.