Hey, good-looking!;Mind and Body

12th February 1999 at 00:00
Mirror, mirror on the wall, why do you hold us in your thrall? Fairness may have little or nothing to do with it, but beauty often seems to go hand in glove with success. Or does it? Gerald Haigh reflects on the link.

Does it matter what your face looks like - whether you are drop-dead gorgeous or, well, shall we say homely? Does an appealing visage, for teachers in particular, provide a helping hand up the career ladder?

It is an intriguing question, not helped by language. We probably, for example, shy away from the word "ugly", simply because it seems so negative, but most of us are ready to say "good-looking", even though we may be subconsciously perpetuating the age-old, almost supernatural, belief that beauty and goodness are linked. Researchers prefer to say "attractive" and "unattractive".

Many of the studies on this phenomenon have taken place in the United States. Typically, a sample group will look at an individual profile - qualifications, experience, history and so on. Each member of the group is then asked to make judgments of the individual - perhaps about job suitability - on the basis of the written profile and an accompanying photograph. But two photographs are used. Half the group are presented with an attractive face, and the other, an unattractive person. In many of these experiments, the "attractive" people have received higher levels of approval - with say, an increased likelihood of landing a job.

Other work has looked at the way teachers and children perceive each other. A 1968 study, Pygmalion in the Classroom, provides a memorable account of the way children perform up (or down) to teachers' preconceptions of them. Subsequent research looked at whether children's attractiveness played a part in this.

There was some evidence that it did - that, purely on the basis of a photograph, teachers seemed ready to ass-ume one child would have a higher IQ than another, that parental attitudes would be more positive, even that the child would be more likely to stay on in full-time education. Other work seemed to show that although misbehaviour by an unattractive child tended to be seen as part of a pattern, the same behaviour by an attractive child might be excused as a one-off lapse.

Similarly, children shown photographs of various adults preferred the attractive ones as teachers, using terms such as "more fun", "more interesting", "more comfortable to be with".

In one experiment, a teacher who was unknown to the children visited two classes. In one she was made up to look attractive, and in the other she was given a much less prepossessing appearance. She behaved the same way with both classes, but the children's judgments of her varied enormously.

According to the American journal Psychology Today, our reactions to the physical appearance of our peers are governed by genetic programming and ultimately a search for the most powerful, fertile mate. And what influences our concept of beauty most, apparently, is the symmetry of a person's face and body. Bilateral symmetry in a face, for instance, is supposed to be as reliable an indicator as any of good genes and a guarantor of the future of the species. Those that have it include Leonardo DiCaprio, French actress Catherine Deneuve and the 14th-century Egyptian queen, Nefertiti.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico, which conducted over 20 separate tests of symmetry, established that women regard symmetrical men as more dominant, powerful and a better proposition for married life, whereas symmetrical women are rated as more fertile, attractive and healthy.

The glaring weaknesses of such studies - and the saving grace for all of us who will never be mistaken for George Clooney or Claudia Schiffer - are twofold. First, little of the research is conclusive. The effect of appearance, though measurable, is usually small, and some of the results have resisted replication. Second, and more important, is the lack of any research that shows the effects of personal appearance last much beyond the first encounter. Once you get to know someone, in other words, other personal attributes take over.

But sometimes the first encounter is the one that matters most. Take interviews, for example. Mark Johnson (not his real name), head of a school in the South West, is a strikingly handsome man. Everything is right - bone structure, teeth, eyes. Even his hair falls into place in just the right way - balanced between casual and careful. His smile is as charming as his manner. He once had an interview where, he later learned, the panel had a serious discussion about how far his looks affected their judgment. "On the whole," he says, "my appearance may have worked against me."

He is not the only one. The Sunday Telegraph last month reported the case of Katharina Hoby, a woman minister in Switzerland, who was turned down for a post as parish priest because church officials felt that she looked like a Barbie doll (she has long, blonde hair), and ignored her qualification as a respected theologian as well as a minister.

But, although Mark Johnson may seem subjective, the more he discusses his work, the more the effects of his good looks become apparent. "I never have any trouble with angry parents," he says. He is an extremely nice man - funny, generous and deeply thoughtful about his life and his work. "Surely you can't separate appearance from personality," he says. "It's much more complicated than that."

And he is right - although you still have the sneaking feeling that being charming, friendly and sociable may come easier if nature has already taken down the barrier of unease about your personal appearance.

The real key to all of this, though, is not appearance per se, but how you feel about it. Jane Frances works in schools for Changing Faces, a charity that supports people with facial disfigurement. Her time is spent with people whose appearance has been affected by accident, disease, or a congenital condition.

"If people's appearance is adversely affected, it doesn't matter whether it's objectively large or scarcely noticeable," she says. This will be confirmed by many people who have facial characteristics which, although out of the ordinary, are far short of disfiguring - a crooked nose, say, or prominent teeth. Such people may well feel, especially during adolescence, that everyone they meet homes in immediately on the "problem".

One of Jane Frances's approaches is to hold up what she calls "the changing faces mirror" which is simply a sheet of paper bearing a list of personality qualities - tenacity, sense of humour, sexy, happy-go-lucky. "To register those qualities in a person is to register them in yourself," she says.

So, do attractive teachers do better?

* They probably get off to a good start with a class - but that is all they get. After that, deeper qualities will kick in and they're on their own.

* Apart from facial appearance, other visible attributes and actions can count heavily - dress, grooming and body language are the most obvious.

* If you are a teacher whose esteem is affected by a perceived facial problem, try mentally using Jane Frances's "changing faces mirror". Reflect on the qualities you see in other people. How important is facial appearance in those judgments? What you see in others is what they see in you.

* First impressions at interview do count, but if this worries you, concentrate on projecting your personality. Experienced interviewers can see past the surface gloss.

Changing Faces, 1 and 2 Junction Mews, London W2 1PN. Tel: 0171 706 4232. The schools officer helps individual pupils and can give school talks

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