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Before I defend plainness as a career strategy, let me concede that we should all strive to be leggy, doe-eyed, and beautiful. It certainly beats the alternative—or does it? For all their professional advantages, members of the eye-candy crowd may not sit as prettily as they appear. Few studies have examined the perils of beauty, or the upside of ordinary stock. But those that do offer some interesting reminders—above all, that beauty, like wealth, is both a blessing and a curse.
Consider a new paper in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology that found that when attractive people—as determined by what an independent panel thought of their pictures—are evaluated by members of their own sex, the “beauty premium” disappears. The paper’s authors speculate that biology may be the culprit. Male guppies gravitate toward the least sexually successful fish in their school (the better to emphasize their own fine scales), so perhaps humans use similar logic in performance situations, viewing attractive members of the same sex as rivals who need to be avoided.
Even if beauty helps someone land a job—and here is where the burden appears greater for women—too much aesthetic attention can be disastrous. In a study published last winter in the European Journal of Social Psychology, sexy ladies between the ages of 18 and 35 were filmed while scissoring through a corridor, then asked to watch the tape of themselves being literally objectified for their looks. A cognitive test followed, revealing that the women being filmed by men were more likely to make intellectual errors than their peers being watched by women. Being conscious of this type of sexual attention, the study’s author suggests, may crowd out the capacity to focus on other things.
Really beautiful women also face a gantlet of social slings and arrows. They are lusted after, envied, resented. They struggle to connect with peers, and sense that they are being secretly ridiculed. Around the office, at least, they seem to be right. Other women give their attractive female colleagues points for popularity. But they also rate them less competent, less talented, less loyal, and (weirdly) less motherly than women from homelier stock. This leads to another depressing conclusion for the beautiful: people doubt them, assuming that their success is a function of schmoozing—or worse. (It certainly doesn’t help that pretty people in general are more likely to be genuine narcissists, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Research in Personality.)
Even when attractive women are performing at the top of their game, studies show that beauty can be its own glass ceiling. Pretty women tend to be seen as too feminine, and thus unsuited, for most leadership positions that are associated with masculine traits—one reason, perhaps, why so few women CEOs control Fortune 500 companies or Wall Street firms. Attractive professionals face more subtle snares as well, like unwelcome sexual come-ons, and assumptions about their lifestyle and sexuality. (News flash: sexy people aren’t always sexual people.)
Beautiful men may face a similarly hard road. People might assume they’re dumb, say they sleep around, and accuse them of being bad fathers. But if this is the case, it seems to be as yet unknown to science. The bulk of research on the benefits and drawbacks of attractiveness focuses on women, at least so far. As the objectification of men’s bodies increases in advertising and media, its likely that more research will address the anxiety caused by beautiful men.
I’m not saying that looks don’t matter. But the doors of success swing open widest—and most smoothly—when real skills, hard knowledge, and genuine experience pull the handle. (If you don’t believe me, ask yourself where the most attractive people in your high-school class are today.) That’s why it’s best to fold up your peacock feathers, if you’re lucky enough to have them, and strive for an appearance that is merely a vehicle for attributes that actually get better with age. Physical beauty may help you get your start, after all, but it can also turn people against you—if you try to get too cute.