Is Beauty Only Skin Deep?

A young doctoral candidate defending her dissertation on how preschool children make friendships was asked whether attractiveness was a factor. She wanted to say, "Of course not!" But instead she had a flashback to the first question that she and so many of her friends would ask, when being set up with a blind date, "What does he look like?"

She wanted to prove to the professor that he was wrong, and so she began to conduct research. Eventually, psychologist Dr. Judith Langlois became one of the foremost researchers in the field of social development. She found to her surprise, that attractiveness was significant-even to infants and small children.

Ugly boys

Attractive children (and adults) are treated more positively-even by those who know them! One study, for example, showed that unattractive young boys were likely to be rejected by their school peers. Moreover, the likelihood that they would be rejected increased as the boys became better acquainted. If you're ugly, the better I know you, the less I like you! [1]

Maybe for little kids, you might say. But adults are wiser. We know not to judge a book by its cover. Or, do we?

What is it that attracts us, when we are drawn to someone-especially someone of the opposite sex? What is behind that feeling of attraction? Scientists studying the "laws of attraction" conclude that we tend to be attracted to people we are near (proximity is rewarding and distance is costly to relationships); studies have shown that even small distances have a far bigger impact on the quality of our relationships than we would imagine. Because we fear rejection, we also like people who like us. But most important, we like people who are physically attractive. [2]

Of all the factors that might spark romance-personality, proximity, reciprocity, or physical attractiveness–studies have shown that attractiveness may be the single most powerful influence on attraction between men and women.

Great personality or good looking?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota invited 376 college students to a dance, where they expected to meet someone, who had been specifically selected for them-someone with shared interests, a similar background and a compatible personality. In reality, they were paired off randomly. When they later rated how well they got along with their blind date, the researchers discovered that only one variable had significantly influenced whether or not they liked the person they met-physical attractiveness. The better looking, the more their partners liked them (Brehm 76).

Let's just face it: people are drawn to attractive people. We all know that physical attractiveness does not guarantee goodness. However, our human nature leads us to assume that good-looking people are also better people. This bias is so innate, that even kindergarteners believe it.

Beautiful people are also smart

A study was conducted using a kindergarten class with two teachers, one gorgeous and the other merely ordinary, a "plain Jane." The two teachers taught an identical lesson. The kindergarteners were then asked, "Which teacher did you like better?" The children overwhelmingly chose the attractive teacher. "Why did you like her better?" the researchers asked. "Because she is smart," the children said. "How do you know she is smart?" the researchers asked. "Because she is pretty." [3]

Many studies reveal our bias in favor of good-looking people. We believe that attractive people have other equally desirable characteristics–such as intelligence, talent, and social skill. We don't assume, however, that the attractive people possess a strong moral character . Nonetheless, the positives outweigh the negatives. Attractive people are more likely to be hired, even when other (less attractive) individuals have the identical qualifications, and they are more likely to receive a higher salary! They also have a better chance of paying a lower fine, when convicted of a misdemeanor (Brehm 72).

But, isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? Not exactly.

What is considered attractive cuts across ethnic and cultural lines. People all over the world tend to agree on who is and who is not attractive! Men all over the world prefer symmetrical faces, "feminine" (but not childish) features such as big eyes, small nose, and full lips, along with "mature" features such as prominent cheekbones, narrow cheeks and a big smile (Brehm 74).

Women are tougher to pin down. At times, women tend to prefer the friendly, youthful boyish look (say, Leornardo DiCaprio). Other times–and studies have shown this occurs with monthly regularity!–women prefer the more dominant, rugged look: strong jaw, broad foreheads (think George Clooney).

Overall, however, the more attractive faces are actually "average"-symmetrical, well-proportioned. Saint Thomas Aquinas could have predicted this result, as he wrote hundreds of years ago, "Hence beauty consists in due proportion; for the senses delight in things duly proportioned" (Summa, part I, question V).

Cute guys have more fun

Attractive women get asked out more than plain women. However, overall, plain women have as many interactions with men as the beautiful women! In group settings (at work, at school, etc.) the plain women are just as involved in social interactions with men. This is not the case with unattractive men, however. They don't get as much social interaction with women-no matter what the setting-as the handsome men.

Even babies tend to prefer faces that adults find attractive! Some researchers speculate that there is an evolutionary basis to these preferences. Early human beings learned to choose the "beautiful" mate as one who survived disease and illness and is, therefore, a stronger mate, and one who is likely to produce healthy progeny. For cave women, that powerful jaw was one that could rip into large chunks of bar-b-qued mastodon meat and would therefore be strong enough to protect her and her babies.

It could also be the fingerprint of God upon our souls.

This bias toward beauty is part of God's plan. God himself is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We are drawn to beauty, just as our souls are drawn to God. "The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1).

God also allows the dynamics of attraction, of affective responses, to draw us toward our vocation to love. God works through the very nature he created in us, and allows us to be attracted to that which is our true vocation. The human person is a mysterious unity of body and soul, and the natural laws of attraction apply to our intimate relationships. Attraction is not the same as love, nor is it a guarantee of love. It is, however, an essential first step.

You gotta have heart

Love is not merely a feeling; it is a decision of the heart. And Christ gave us the great commandment of love, which includes loving even our enemies. But, we do not have to marry them! When we say that love is a decision, this does not mean that you can simply "make up your mind" to love someone–no matter how you feel about him. He or she meets all my intellectual criteria for a potential spouse, therefore I shall decide to love him or her . This would be a passionless, stoic marriage. It is the heart that loves.

Love is the "most fundamental passion" which is "aroused by the attraction of the good" (Catechism, no. 1765). As Dietrich von Hildebrand might put it, love involves an affective response to a perceived value. It is not merely an intellectual exercise and a stoic resolution of the will. Genuine affective responses cannot be commanded, though they may be encouraged. [4] "Whenever a true value affects us, whenever a ray of beauty, goodness or holiness wounds our heart…a certain actual change is produced in our being…" (Hildebrand 231).

Raising the bar too high

Psychologists proved von Hildebrand's point, though not, perhaps, as he had intended it. They found that gazing upon beautiful people does indeed change us. It makes us appreciate ordinary folk less! Everywhere we go, we see attractive men and women on display: movies, magazines, television ads. Though we enjoy seeing beautiful people, it has an interesting side-effect. Researchers found that after exposure to extremely attractive men and women (whether in person or through photographs) we tend to underestimate our own attractiveness and that of our real life friends and acquaintances. We have raised the bar on what we deem attractive-yet we are not likely to meet anyone of movie-star caliber!

Even if a man found a woman attractive, however, he would not ask her out, if he was unsure whether she would accept. Most men do not want to risk rejection. It would seem that, therefore, we must have a lot of men out there who are in a quandary: not attracted to the ordinary women in his life, yet unwilling to approach the woman of his dreams. Does this explain the frustration many single women are experiencing today? They don't measure up to our society's concept of the "perfect woman"-and it has now been proved that this concept does impact our everyday judgments of the average people we meet and work with!

Beauty is not just skin deep, after all

God himself is beautiful, and the author of all things beautiful. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that, just as physical beauty consists in a certain clarity and proportion (reflecting the divine harmony of all creation), so too must the beauty of one's interior life consist in due proportions. That is, one's conduct or actions should be "well proportioned"-or balanced-under the "spiritual clarity" of reason (Summa Part 1, question 145).

In his Wednesday audience of August 29, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI picked up this theme when he reflected on man's beauty: a "reflection of that original beauty which is God," yet a reflection that is marred by sin.

  "Man therefore recognizes in himself the reflection of the divine light: by purifying his heart he is once more, as he was in the beginning, a clear image of God, exemplary Beauty (cf. Oratio Catechetica 6: SC 453, 174). Thus, by purifying himself, man can see God, as do the pure of heart (cf. Mt 5: 8). . .We should therefore wash away the ugliness stored within our hearts and rediscover God's light within us."

In purifying our souls we become more authentically beautiful. If not physically beautiful by movie star criteria, the harmony and clarity of our souls, more purely reflecting the image of God who is true Beauty, will be mysteriously attractive. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, then our very lives will become "luminous also to others and to the world."

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  • Guest

    One of the seers of Medjugorje asked our Lady, "Why are you so beautiful?" and she replied, "Because I love. Love, and you will be beautiful."



  • Guest

    Oh if only we could see beyond the physical façade to what is going on beneath. If only the hearts of men were reflected on their faces. Unfortunately, they are not. Physical beauty is given to some by God as a Gift, a Gift to be used for His Glory, a Gift like many other Gifts He gives. But in a world filled with envy, immorality, and so much strife, I’m sure it can many times seem more like a curse.

    Scripture does not tell us that Christ came to us with any extraordinary physical beauty as it does about David: (from a web site…)

    • In the early material on David (1 Sam 16-17), three times the narrator calls attention to David’s beauty – more times in the Bible than in any other case. First, the prophet Samuel notes that David “was ruddy , and had beautiful eyes , and was handsome .”   

    But instead hints at Christ’s more common physical appearance:  (from a web site…)

    • The early references to Jesus' physical appearance are not flattering. "The earliest reference to the [physical] aspect of Jesus is in Justin the Martyr. He says that when Jesus came to the Jordan, 'He appeared without beauty … as the Scriptures proclaimed.'" Ibid. p. 69. Justin refers to the passage at Isaiah 53:2-3. See also Is. 52:14, and Psalm 22. "Clement of Alexandria says, 'Himself also, the Head of the Church, passed through the world unlovely in the flesh…'" Ibid. Tertullian, in arguing for the reality of human nature in Christ as Very Man, says as though it were certain, that the question, 'Whence has He this learning, and these wondrous works?' was the question of men who despised His human aspect, -'so completely was His body devoid of human nobleness, much more of heavenly lustre.'" Ibid. p. 70.

    In a society so obsessed with “beauty” we become blinded to the soul. In heaven we will see beauty almost too wonderful to take… and even in looking at one another’s faces we will be overcome by the beauty, not by their physical brilliance but by the Godliness they possess.  

    • Philippians 3: 20-21: 20For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: 21who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

  • Guest

    I think there is a very interesting religious lesson to learn from this.  "Beauty" is an "attribute" of God that creation reflects.  This is true, most especially with his creation of man.  We are drawn toward the true, the good, and the beautiful because of who God is.

    However, if we do not reflect on the true, the good, and the beautiful being based in God, then we miss the mark completely (see current idolization of beauty for its own sake).

    Because we need to fight the idolization of beauty for its own sake, it is far too easy to throw the baby out with the bath water.  There is such a thing as objective beauty because God is.  (Beauty is not SOLELY in the eye of the beholder.)

    As teachers, parents, society, we need to be on the alert for the very young to train them up properly to always attribute the beauty they "naturally" see to God.

    What about those of us that are "less than beautiful"?  Most likely, we have a bit more of the truth or the good.  But those take a more mature heart to "see".

  • Guest

    Beauty in whatever form, even hollow beauty such as Models posses, is not simply an attribute. It is a gift from God and is to be used like the other talents that we’re given.

    If anyone falls off the proverbial ugly tree, the branches they hit on the way down are actually other gifts and blessings. God does not short change anyone but gives to each a variety of gifts to be used for His purpose.

    The abuse of the gift of beauty is rampant in our culture. It’s used for vanity and self-worship. In this case it’s an impediment to the person’s development and salvation. It then becomes a cross that has to be carried. It’s difficult to worship God when the world treats you as the object of worship. Many of these “beautiful people” are into substance abuse because they can feel the exploitation of the world. Many squander their other talents and are left empty when the beauty fades.

    I used to refer to JPII as the Beautiful Pope. He used his attractive physical attributes to draw others to the Church and to God. When his beauty receded towards the end of his life so did the crowds. Yet he continued to do God’s work because his beauty was whole. Padre Pio and Mother Theresa were less attractive and worked in less attractive surroundings. Would any of us dare to say that their accomplishments were less valuable?

    Most of the times a person who does not appeal to the world is much more able to accomplish his/her plan in an unassuming manner, just like the middle child.

    We must evaluate beauty like a participant, a parent looking at their child and not a hungry spectator looking at a “dog’s dinner”; In which case beauty IS in the eyes of the beholder.

  • well said article 🙂 thumbs up!