Politics of Appearance - - Research Paper Starter

Politics of Appearance - -

(Research Starters)

This article focuses on the powerful role that beauty plays within society. The introductory section validates such a premise by touching upon plastic surgery and tanning trends. Attribution theory is presented, including the biased attributions that teachers, employers, clinicians, and even families may utilize. Finally, pressures that each gender faces is discussed.

Keywords Anorexia Nervosa; Attribution Theory; Bulimia Nervosa; Dysfunctional Families; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); YAVIS Client

The Politics of Appearance


Pithy sayings such as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "don't judge a book by its cover" impart messages suggesting that aesthetics are not only subjective, but that they are secondary to the internal depth and beauty that resides within. These messages are quite comforting and appreciate the unique "raw materials" that each person is randomly allotted and encourages people to transform their inner strengths accordingly in order to refine their natural, inherent beauty. Parents reassuringly repeat such mantras to their children, hoping to infuse values that reflect wisdom, profundity, and skill over that which is superficial and frivolous. Undoubtedly, as soon as these children exit the warm, encouraging cocoon of their parents embrace into the abrasive realities of the exterior world, they are engulfed by messages that denote the contrary. Western society has become entrenched in the attainment of beauty, which is often conveyed through media images—magazine covers depicting glossy photos of highly manicured public figures refined to perfection and television shows such as I Want a Famous Face and The Swan that value the physical reconstruction one undertakes, journeying from that of homeliness to chic splendor (Dixon, 2008). People strive for flawless physical enhancement and pursue various pathways to achieve optimal results. Exercise, diet, beauty regimes, and over-the-counter elixirs are common routes that the layperson factors into his everyday schedule in the never-ending quest toward youthful allure.

In addition, many people are settling on drastic, invasive measures to convert their bodies into that which is lithe and seductive. In 2012, more than ten million cosmetic surgical and nonsurgical procedures were performed in the United States, representing a 3 percent increase over the previous year. From 1996 to 1998, the rate at which adolescents opted for surgical enhancement doubled from 13,699 to 24,623, a costly and controversial venture for kids whose bodies and emotional identities have yet to fully mature (Austin, 2000). Some adolescents cite fellow family members and television shows as their source of inspiration for permanently altering their figures in attempt to surmount the bodily insecurities that frequently plague teenagers ("Plastic Surgery," 2006).

Despite current knowledge about the malignant connection between sunbathing and skin cancer, and regardless of safe alternatives (such as sunless tanning creams), many people prefer the golden hue that either direct sun exposure or an artificial sunlamp can manufacture. A 2003 study found that more than 35 percent of white female adolescents and more than 10 percent of white male adolescents aged thirteen to nineteen years in the United States had used tanning beds. Also, while close to 80 percent of Canadians aged twelve to seventeen indicated an awareness surrounding the harmful damage sun exposure can induce, many of them were willing to throw caution to the wind because, ironically, the sun-kissed glow that artificial or natural light produces engenders an illusion of "health" and attractiveness. One young woman, who sought to emulate the bronzed appeal of her favorite stars, said: “I heard Britney Spears had, like, a tanning bed on her tour bus. So I was like, 'if all these celebrities are doing it, I mean, why can't I?'" (Hawaleshka & Righton, 2005, p. 28).


Attribution Theory

The origins of attribution theory were first established by Fritz Heider (1958) and relate to the causal factors that people ascribe toward understanding human behavior, which are not necessarily rooted in objective truth. People then interact with these skewed perceptions as opposed to reality itself. For example, Jane just got a new haircut and confidently heads out of the salon toward her car. En route, Jane emanates with exuberance as she revels in her newly coiffed style, and as such is more engaging with passersby, smiling at strangers as they meander about. They, in turn, respond to her friendliness by warmly gesturing in her direction. Jane falsely attributes this reception as resulting from her new hairdo, making a silent pact with herself to always keep abreast the latest fashions in order to garner such a response. Hence, she attributes popularity with beauty, when in reality the passersby were merely responding to her initial enthusiasm.

The characteristics that people attribute toward those regarded as attractive are quite favorable, as beautiful people are often believed to be smarter and equipped with more powerful leadership abilities (Sarty, 1975; Landy & Sigall, 1974; Cherulnik, 1995). Not surprisingly, when it comes to affairs of the heart, people tend to closely align with this premise, as was noted by Constance L. Spreadbury and Joy B. Reeves who found that male college students were more apt to value looks over personality (1979). However, one might innocently assume that an educational arena is a safe haven that wards off any potential "attraction" bias, and that teachers render impartial treatment toward their impressionable young students in order to provide equitable learning opportunities. Alas, research findings on this matter suggest otherwise. Margaret M. Clifford and Elaine Walster selected 504 Missouri principals to participate in a study examining this phenomenon, whereby the principals were provided several packages, each of which contained the report card and photograph of an unfamiliar child (1973). Consistent with attribution theory, the principals gauged each child's scholastic aptitude against their physical pictorial, assigning a higher intellect and greater parental involvement toward those who were attractive, captured through the following commentaries:

• "This boy appears to be slightly sullen in picture. I realize not too much can be established by a picture. I would feel that the boy is not as good as student as the report card indicates."

• "I found myself judging much on the photo when I wasn't too sure of my answer."

• "The child's ‘clean-cut’ look influenced my opinion on number 1 (i.e., IQ)" (Clifford & Walster, 1973, p. 255).

In a related study, P. Kenealy, N. Frude, and W. Shaw found that teachers rated attractive students as "more sociable, more popular, academically brighter, more confident, and more likely to be leaders than unattractive children" (1988, p. 380). Teacher biases have a significant effect on student performance, which was encapsulated through a research project initiated by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968). In their groundbreaking study, they randomly labeled a small group of students under fictitious terms, indicating that they were intellectually superior and told their teachers to expect this group to scholastically "blossom" within a one-year timeframe. Remarkably, such students did, in fact, score significantly higher on their IQ tests the following year, thus demonstrating the powerful impact teacher expectations have upon impressionable young students. The implications of these findings surround the ways in which teachers perpetuate the beauty myth by advancing more opportunities, and therefore exalting students with captivating appearances.

Extending beyond the realm of education, the job force equally suffers a similar fate, one that falsely attributes advantageous traits toward those blessed with a fetching form and high levels of sensual captivation. After all, if people attribute attractiveness with intelligence and competency, a common assertion would suggest that these beauties would be likelier candidates for professional prospects. Indeed, such impartiality is frequently exposed during the job interview process, as well as through differential salaries that those who fall on opposite sides of the attractive continuum receive (The Tyranny, 1987; Watkins & Johnston, 2000; Barro, 1998; Loh, 1993; Roszell, Kennedy, & Grabb, 1989). The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) contains several provisions surrounding discriminatory decrees, each of which authorize equity across a variety of factors including race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and ability. A blatant omission from that list includes discrimination based on physical appearance, although several legal proceedings have targeted such grievances, including lawsuits surrounding weight-based claims, as well as employees who violated various grooming or dress code policies. Often, these allegations can fall under a distinct EEOC category.

An example of this can be seen in the case of Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, in which a group of African American firefighters filed a lawsuit claiming racial injustice upon the mandate that they shave their beards, a standardized regulation to which all firefighters are expected to adhere. However, they each claimed to have pseudolfolliculitis barbae (i.e., PFB), a skin disorder that primarily afflicts the African American community, where upon shaving, the facial hair grows back in an unruly manner that causes inflammation.

Clinical professionals, whose job duties often include helping clients overcome feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem, are not exempt from perpetuating stereotypes centered on appearance. Based on a comprehensive literature review, Zander Ponzo reflected that people unconsciously equate beauty with health, success, and survival, which is then propagated by media influences (1985). Also, through self-fulfilling prophecies, or rather, other-fulfilling prophecies, people tend to live up to the expectations that are placed upon them by society. If the unattractive are considered less intelligent and unsuccessful than their eye-catching counterparts, they eventually concede to such mediocrity; hence, the stereotype becomes reality. This process plays out in the mental health field with evened reciprocation, in that attractive counselors are judged more auspiciously, and counselors similarly display a penchant for YAVIS clients (Young, Attractive, Verbal, Intelligent, and Successful) whose treatment goals are projected to be undertaken more productively (Schofield, as cited in Ponzo, 1985, 483). Certainly, these mutual predispositions are unfortunate, for they dismiss the psychological needs of the unsightly patient, and they bypass the credentials of the qualified, yet homely doctor. Ponzo indicates that in order to eradicate such biases, an admission of such predilections is of paramount importance and can be elicited through self-awareness strategies. These strategies enable the clinician to reflect upon his client's physicality, address issues he has with his own appearance, and uphold healthy rhetoric between himself and his client.

Ideally, families serve as a means to unconditionally love and support each member, offering a protective barrier from an otherwise...

(The entire section is 5007 words.)