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"Mirror, mirror on the wall..."

(April 27, 2000, Gazette)

By Kelley Power

So. The semester is over. Grades are out. Convocation is on the horizon.

For those graduating, now is the time to bid fond farewells to faculty, staff and, particularly, fellow students. Some of the Class of 2000 will go on to do graduate or doctoral work; some will pursue another undergrad degree.

For many, though, Destiny’s guiding light is leading you down the road to (hopefully) permanent employment.

And friends, I am here to give you a small, but important piece of information: maintaining a stellar transcript, composing a fabulous resume and charming the socks off your interviewer may not be the key factors in getting you a job.

The truth is, there’s one thing that some employers look for which no amount of study or preparation can provide: natural physical attractiveness. Yes, even after all your hard work, your future could hinge on something as trivial as the length of your legs or the breadth of your shoulders.

But this, you might say, is no surprise. You’ve probably seen evidence of it before. It’s much like the rule which states that the girl with the lowest-cut shirt who leans furthest over the bar gets served first by the bartender; it’s a result of human fallibility.

But, while simple conscious bias may account for some preferential treatment of the pretty, there is now scientific data which says that showing favouritism toward the beautiful people is to some degree an evolutionary hand-me-down.

In other words, it’s a natural, subconscious reaction stemming from the fact that, on a very basic level, humans consider beauty to be linked with the survival of the fittest.

Those features that we most prize in members of the opposite sex are, in fact, signs of fertility and successful adaptation: fuller hips, lips and breasts on women are evidence of high estrogen levels, which are strongly associated with fertility. In men, a rugged square jaw-line is an indication that he can chew more nutrients out of a twig or leaf than the average Joe, thus increasing his chances of survival in hunter-gatherer days.

The human mind has become conditioned to make a connection between signs of beauty and reproductive capacity: a person who is physically attractive – i.e. displays characteristics like those noted above – is considered to have qualities that facilitate survival or maximize the possibility of reproduction. And it so happens that society favours the reproductive winners over the losers.

At least that’s what the February 2000 issue of Discover magazine has to say. In it, an article titled Do You Love This Face? discusses the science of beauty – from the specifics of what we find attractive in members of the opposite sex to the opinions we develop about people based on their looks.

The article explains that, in addition to implying fertility, beauty is also considered an indicator of higher levels of intelligence, kindness, confidence, competency and health.

Let me clarify: good-looking people do not necessarily manifest these qualities; society just perceives these characteristics to be inherent in attractive people.

It’s no wonder, then, why employers might be inclined to hire a swan over an ugly duckling; who wouldn’t want an office peopled by those whose perfection is not only physical, but extends into the realms of personality and constitution?

If this is true, and everything from getting a job to the amount of maternal affection we receive hinges on our looks (yes, apparently not even Mama is immune), why don’t we all just plunk down 20-grand for some quality plastic surgery instead of accumulating debt from student loans?

Well, fortunately something happened to our species en route from tree-swinging to suburbia: we discovered that the suggestions handed out by our basic instincts are subject to approval by the brain. We have free will; the ability to decide.

And this is why, in the end, we know that education is important and the process of interviewing isn’t just a beauty contest. Most employers have the good sense to realize that turning a profit is not necessarily done by hiring with propagation of the species in mind.

But, in spite of this capacity for enlightened thinking, ours remains a society that places a high value on beauty. And to achieve the standard set out in this culture, people have developed obsessions with their bicep-width, bust size, weight, eye and hair colour ... the list is endless.

Lips too thin? Get collagen injections. Can’t build muscles fast enough? Try steroids. Blonds have more fun? Talk to your hairstylist.

Any and all means of improving physical attractiveness – improvement, at least, as society sees it – have been explored. The side-effects, as we know, can sometimes be more than uncomfortable – they can be fatal. Complications brought on by eating disorders are a prime example.

Even with this awareness, though, we continue to hang on to our preconceptions about what constitutes beauty and what does not. And I don’t mean to sound preachy because I’m just as guilty as the next person of trying to meet the same societal standard that I scorn.

Having said that, I do, however, have to congratulate myself on letting that ridiculous picture of me remain at the top of this column for the past eight months. I count it as a personal accomplishment to allow something that unflattering to surface for public viewing every two weeks.

Anyway, getting back to the issue at hand, we’ve made enough progress to have tempered our instinctual impulses with a dose of conscious thought; it almost makes me believe that dispelling the beauty myth is possible.

If we’d been listening to Confucius 2500 years ago, perhaps we’d be one step closer to that goal now. For him, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Smart fella.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my final Student View. Thank you for reading and good luck to all graduates. Another thanks to those at University Relations – extracting hours from irresponsible columnists is a thankless job – and to everyone at the Gazette.