The beauty of success

When we meet new people, the first thing we see is their physical appearance, which inevitably influences our first impression of them. That works in favor for some, but to the disadvantage of others, especially when it comes to jobs and careers.

Although looks are the first thing we notice, they do not have to be the last thing we remember.

For certain jobs, it makes sense that attractiveness plays a key role. Being good-looking helps land jobs in occupational fields, such as retail and advertising, where employees serve as representatives of the company’s image.

It is understandable to pick good-looking people for advertisements, or to employ attractive retail associates to represent the company’s brand and market the product.

Abercrombie & Fitch is the perfect example. In 2006, Mike Jeffries, the company’s chief executive officer, publicly stated that his company hires good-looking people to attract good-looking customers. Even the clothing line is designed exclusively for “cool kids,” as Jeffries describes people below size 12.

Jeffries’ business concept is questionable, and his statement probably didn’t make him many friends, but it is his right to choose his company’s image and to market it however he wants. If you don’t like it, then don’t shop there.

But even for other jobs that do not require good looks, a phenomenon called the halo-effect works in favor of beautiful people. This bias, originally coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike, refers to the tendency to associate attractiveness with good characteristics.

The halo effect gives some applicants an unmerited head start in job interviews and can cause qualified yet less attractive people to be turned down for jobs where physical attractiveness is unnecessary.

This bias, also known as “lookism,” even impacts politics. A study conducted in 2006 by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Germany found a correlation between visually appealing politicians and higher vote shares. The study suggests that good-looking politicians are elected because voters associate the candidates’ attractiveness with health, trustworthiness and competence.

In addition to that, people with facial stigmas or deformities have it even harder. They are more likely to receive poor feedback in job interviews because their blemishes can distract interviewers who are then likely to retain less information about the applicant, resulting in more negative evaluations, according to a study conducted by researchers in 2011 at Rice University and the University of Houston.

However, for those out there who think beauty is always an advantage, some studies say otherwise. A study conducted in 2011 by the University of Denver Business School and published by the Journal of Social Psychology claims that good looks are not always helpful, but can actually bite you in the backside when it comes to certain jobs.

The study states that women rated as “very attractive” face discrimination when applying for “masculine” jobs. Those include positions such as manager of research and development, director of finance, mechanical engineer, or construction supervisor. Good-looking men, however, are spared from this disadvantage.

So the conclusion is that a good-looking man will most likely have an easier path on the ladder of success, but a woman is damned if she either looks good or not.

When looks become an implicit way to favor or discriminate against some, it is clearly unfair. But there is not much anyone can do about it. You can decide to conform to “lookism” and play by its rules, or tell yourself that you don’t want to work for a company that values physical appearance over competence.

But if you do want to be employed by such a company, one argument that could make you more empathetic toward this issue is that first impressions based on — or at least influenced by — physical appearance are universal. We all do it because looks are the first thing we see before anything else.

Even if that does not help, then your last crumb of comfort might be that you still have a chance in the race against the beautiful people.

Physical appearance affects the first impression, but other factors like intelligence, charisma and personality contribute to the whole equation, and are crucial to the overall evaluation of a person.

So if you know that you don’t have the looks, either apply for the “masculine” jobs, or focus on your strengths so they outshine your physical appearance and become the qualities others will remember.

OpinionJasmin HuynhComment