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."


Laraine Bennett has a master's degree in Philosophy and is the Communications Manager for the National Council of Catholic Women. She has co-authored 6 books with her husband, Art, and one solo book, A Year of Grace: 365 Reflections for Caregivers. She helped create the popular The Bennetts reside in Northern Virginia, have been married for 40 years and have 4 adult children and 3 grandchildren.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage