Gene lottery win an easy road to riches

By Cliff Taylor

It's hardly a surprise: research shows beautiful people are more successful in life. Cliff Taylor investigates why.

Oscar Wilde archly observed: "It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly." Although he wrote those lines in the 19th century, they could also describe the prevailing culture today when beauty is seen as hard currency that can buy success and happiness.

Beauty has always been prized, of course, from the earliest human civilisations when it was believed to be an indicator of health and fertility in women and strength and virility in men.

These days there seems to be a lot more of it about. Advertising, films, television, fashion and the media seemingly conspire to convince people evolution is gradually breeding out the ugly gene and honing humanity into a physically perfect species - even though so many people are growing fatter and lazier every year.

Even areas where physicality was once valued over physiognomy have been transformed- just look at women's tennis. The Maria Kirilenkos, Maria Sharapovas and Ana Ivanovics seem to have strolled out of an Eastern European version of America's Next Top Model.

Football and rugby abound with pretty, preening stars too - the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Dan Carter being accompanied by their even prettier Wags.

But there is a dark side to all this. Researchers claim new evidence shows those not blessed with symmetrical features - the ugly - are being denied opportunities in life, a process that begins in childhood.

"Social psychologists have shown that the effects start almost from birth," says Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas, who has written a book titled, appropriately, Beauty Pays. "Three-month-old babies react more favourably to good than to bad-looking faces. Our appearance affects nearly every aspect of our lives. It affects the kinds of jobs we get and the wages we get on those jobs. It affects whom we play with when we are little, whom we date as teenagers and young adults and whom we marry. It affects the terms we get on loans of various types."

Hamermesh has been researching this area (he calls it "pulchronomics") for 20 years and he draws on US studies which have found that people rated highly in the looks department might earn up to 15 per cent more than those hit with the ugly stick - or, as he refers to them, the "homely".

But surely beauty is the most subjective of judgments? It is, after all, in the eye of the beholder - or, as musician and writer Kinky Friedman puts it - the "beer holder".

Apparently not. Hamermesh quotes more studies which found there is a surprising level of unanimity when it comes to rating beauty. People asked to rate other people on a scale from "strikingly handsome or beautiful" to "homely" reached near agreement in 70 per cent of cases. The chance that four people would score pictures differently was less than one 10th of 1 per cent.

Colin Mathura-Jeffree, named one of New Zealand's sexiest people in this month's Metro magazine, has no doubt that there is substance to Hamermesh's theory. He frankly admits the advantage for him was evident in childhood.

"I've never particularly thought I was good-looking," he says. "But when my mother was out with my brother, my sister and myself she'd be stopped and people would say what absolutely stunning children she had.

"At school often things would come my way - I didn't even have to put my hand up. I would always get things. I was a prefect, I was often picked as the best-dressed guy or something, without too much effort. Then I started going night-clubbing at a very young age, and we would get preferential treatment going into clubs. We never had to line up."

Mathura-Jeffree believes there is a kind of evolution at play here. Just look at the All Blacks, he says.

"Every generation is getting better-looking. We gravitate towards being better-looking, bigger and stronger. Our eyes will always flicker towards someone who is good looking when they enter a room."

Dr Howard Klein, president of the New Zealand Association of Plastic Surgeons, says there is no doubt that today's society is more obsessed with notions of beauty than in previous eras.

But he doesn't entirely accept Hamermesh's argument.

"I can think of any number of people who are not very attractive and yet are wildly successful," Klein says. "Although some people might have a harder time getting some people to take them seriously. Certainly people who are facially disfigured are at a disadvantage. It's all about other people's assumptions and perspectives."

Klein cites the example of the Spanish actress Penelope Cruz. "She has a terrible nose, but she is considered quite beautiful. She could just as well feel that she had been hard done by having been given this nose. But not everybody has to have that blonde, Californian look like Cameron Diaz."

What is the key factor here? Is it that beautiful people are given preferential treatment throughout their lives? Or simply that they have more self-esteem and they will succeed anyway? "It's a circular problem," says Klein. "As people feel better about themselves, either mentally or physically, it makes them more attractive to people around them."

Hamermesh isn't convinced by the "self-esteem" hypothesis: "There is no question that self-esteem matters but a few studies have included measures of self-esteem with measures of beauty, and in those studies beauty still has a substantial effect."

Some critics say that you only have to look as far as the television news to see how far a pretty face can take you. Many presenters appear to have been recruited from modelling agencies rather than journalism courses.

In her blog, Adjust Your Set, former TVNZ and TV3 reporter Janet Wilson accused TV bosses of hiring "eye candy" for their looks rather than their news sense. "They're not there because they can do the job better than anyone else," says Wilson. "They're there because they simply look good."

Not only "homely" people are accepting the cruel hand dealt them. Of course, it hasn't quite reached the level depicted in the Spanish film Accion Mutante, where a terrorist group of ugly and disabled people rebel against their good-looking overlords, assassinating body-builders, massacring an aerobics class and blowing up a sperm bank.

But Facebook site Ugly People Unite urges its members: "It Is Our Time To Rise Up Against The Beautiful People Of The World! It Is Us Who Have to Take The Hard Way Through Life. We Want Recognition! Ugly People Unite!"

One post features a BBC story about Gonzalo Otalora, an Argentinian self-confessed ugly guy who has been campaigning on a range of measures, including taxes on beautiful people to compensate those less fortunate, changes to advertising standards and the introduction of quotas of ugly people in business. He has even written a book called Feo (Spanish for ugly) and invented the term "feosexual", to encourage less aesthetically exclusive romance. His hero is said to be Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez, who bears the scars of a childhood scalding accident on his neck and has refused plastic surgery, telling the world to "take me as I am".

Tevez may be no oil painting, but his looks haven't held him back in life. He is reportedly paid in the region of $500,000 a week for his footballing talent. Similarly, Lady Gaga and Susan Boyle haven't let their average looks stand in the way of fame and fortune.

But what hope is there for those many untalented people in the shallow end of the gene pool? Hamermesh believes that the beauty advantage is unfair and some sort of positive discrimination might not be out of the question. "One could hope that this advantage, which I believe stems from the no-longer-relevant signal of good health that beauty used to provide, will disappear. But that is unlikely to happen soon. Governments could, and a few already do ... outlaw discrimination against bad-looking people."

Auckland employment lawyer Garry Pollak can't see such laws getting much traction here. He isn't aware of any cases where people have been denied opportunities because of their looks. "You can employ who you like. I'm sure people employed in sales positions or advertising are partly employed for their appearance. If an employer says he wants someone who is attractive or vivacious that's not prohibited. People will tend to employ people who are not ugly."

Mathura-Jeffree has been honest about winning the gene lottery, but he says there is more to success than bone structure: "I have met the most spectacularly beautiful people on the planet and they've had the ugliest personalities. The fast road is to be naturally born with beauty. But we can all effect change for ourselves."

MED SCHOOL TO MODELLING

Tristan Burnett is the sort of young man who would stand out in any crowd, not least among fellow students at the University of Otago medical school.

Standing 1.85mtall, with the build of an athlete and perfect facial features, it's no wonder the 22-year-old was spotted and signed by Dunedin model agency Ali McD.

On Thursday, the fourth-year medical student jetted out for Paris and Milan on a two-month odyssey to see if he can make it on the catwalks of Europe.

He's used to being noticed, of course, but not always in a positive way. Growing up in Australia, he was sometimes singled out for special treatment. "I am a bit conscious of being the pretty boy," he says. "Especially when I played in footy teams, people wanted to smash me a bit more."

Research showing good-looking people enjoy an advantage in life from childhood doesn't surprise Burnett but he doesn't think it's that simple.

"Maybe if you are a bit taller or better looking you're not so afraid of attention or approaching the teacher with a question or whatever," he says.

"I think there are things beyond our control around our looks, but a person is still in control of how successful they are." Burnett points out that attention often comes with pre-conceptions. When people first meet him they assume he will be a "jerk-off" and are surprised to find he's studying to be a doctor.

But modelling has given him opportunities of which most young students could only dream.

"But even if I didn't look the way I look, I am still a bit of a show-off. I've never shied away from that."

If the modelling goes well, he is considering putting his studies on hold for a year, if only to earn some money.

But is there a chance his talent could be lost to the medical profession for good if the beautiful people of the international modelling world turn his head?

"I'd definitely say no to that," he says. "I've always envisaged myself becoming a doctor."

- Herald on Sunday

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