Measuring physical attractiveness

There is an advantage to being physically attractive. Everyone knows that. Attractive men and women tend to get paid more at work than others. They are more likely to be promoted. Probably good looks weigh heavily when the political parties choose their candidates. Someone running for office has to look the part. Sometimes it seems as if that is their only consideration. Most obviously, there is a social advantage to looking good. But this advantage varies over time for each individual and depends on circumstances. Men and women are likely to be very concerned about their personal appearance if they find themselves at a singles weekend. Success or failure hangs in the balance. On the other hand, a middle-aged man recovering from an illness gets no benefit from being handsome. The success of a younger man playing baseball does not depend on his appearance. Think Babe Ruth. And yet the same person might be judged inadequate in other contexts simply because of the way he looks. Babe Ruth was not considered good-looking enough to star in “The Babe Ruth Story.”

All of this is commonplace. Men and women vary in their physical attractiveness, and that difference matters a lot or a little in different situations. It should also be said in passing that physical attractiveness is only one aspect of attractiveness in general. Besides all those adornments which are really intended to enhance physical attractiveness—make-up, grooming in general, stylish clothing, etc.—there are qualities of personality that strongly affect the physical appeal of a man or woman. The simple act of smiling or laughing can change the way that person is perceived. Also, there are idiosyncrasies of taste which make someone attractive to one person and not the next.

There are also, it must be noted, other seemingly irrelevant factors which strongly affect the appeal of a particular person. I think women, more than men, are attracted to someone who seems powerful because of the importance or prestige of the work that person does. Similarly, some women are attracted to men who make a lot of money and drive big cars. Other women, perhaps in reaction to this first group, feel exactly the opposite. They may be more attracted to intellectual and slightly unworldly men. And so on. Luckily, someone who is unattractive to many of the opposite sex, will nevertheless prove to be strongly appealing to at least one other person. Also, someone attractive at one age may not seem so much later on. All this is well-known to all of us.

But I want to write now about physical attractiveness alone. I wish to consider the relative importance at different points in life of physical attractiveness free of all the confounding influences mentioned above. Assume that physical appeal is constant for each individual, uninfluenced by matters of age, or physical conditioning, or the use of plastic surgery, all if which in real life can have considerable effect on what nature first provides. Imagine, also, that such a person is unaffected by disturbances of mood, such as depression, or other physical ailments, or the consequences of accident or physical deprivation, all of which can have profound effects on physical appearance. Imagine that the man and woman I am describing has a constant physical appeal throughout life. It can still be asked at what particular times in life that physical attractiveness is important or not so important. With the aid of a souvenir slide rule I have left-over from my college days, I have figured it all out. I made a chart.

On this chart the importance of physical attractiveness is calculated along the vertical axis, one to a hundred. The horizontal scale (the abscissa, I think it is called) moves from birth (zero) to death (let’s say, 98 years old.) All of the significant times in life can be put on that scale. To illustrate what I mean, the importance of being physically attractive matters not at all during the last few hours of life while lying unconscious in a hospital bed. The I.A. (importance of attractiveness index) will then be at zero. (I do not rush to this judgment though, since I have seen women who were lying in a hospital bed within days of dying, who, nevertheless, labored to put on makeup before the doctor came to visit.) For most people, the last few months and years of life show the I.A. index to be low and falling, particularly if that person is sick and alone. It is also very low at birth, mostly because all babies are seen to be more or less equally attractive—judging, at least, from what grandparents say. In any case, they will be tended to just as well if their nose is a little too long or their ears jut out. In between these extremes, the overall curve, which I would draw if I could manage the computer properly, is at first glance more or less the same for everyone. It looks smooth, especially viewed from a distance of a few feet. From closer up, it looks bumpy and is different from one person to the next depending on circumstances.  It is various events in life that make the curve irregular. The horizontal axis is marked not just by the passage of time, but by a sequence of events.

In general, the I.A. index rises from birth, crests around age twenty or thirty at a level greater than ninety and then subsides slowly as the years roll by. At no stage in life is it exactly zero, except at the very end. There is always some small advantage to looking good. The years when the I.A. is high are special only because they are usually the times when men and women struggle to achieve certain goals, typically marriage and a career.

Entering into a serious relationship

There is no question but that the first thought someone has when considering a date is whether or not that other person is physically attractive.  Even men and women in their fifties and sixties speak to that effect. They should know better, other people observe. And they should. All kinds of qualities of mind and personality outweigh appearance during the course of a relationship. But not at the beginning. For this reason men and women who are dating are especially conscious of their appearance. If someone who is divorced starts to date again at the age of forty, the I.A. index bounces up again.

What is less well recognized, however, is that the I.A. index drops abruptly after a couple falls in love.When someone has made that emotional commitment, the presence of a beautiful rival appearing on the scene will not matter. Over time, some couples fall out of love, but not because someone more attractive comes along. They do not tire of each other because they have become less attractive.

Finding a good job.

Similarly, being physically attractive is a definite advantage in looking for a job, but performance on the job matters most thereafter. The I. A. index falls rapidly. Perhaps, once again, all things being equal an attractive man or woman is more likely to be promoted; but things are rarely equal. Working hard, being agreeable and reliable, being sensible, are all qualities that quickly outweigh physical attractiveness.

There are other important aspects of life where the I.A. index is low: being a parent or a friend, perhaps. But in any new situation, including situations that are centered on performance of one sort or another, attractiveness is important—but not for any length of time. I write this blog with certain people in mind. I have known men and women who age gracelessly because they cannot accept the inevitable loss of physical attractiveness that comes with getting older. It is possible to be an attractive 60 year old  woman, for instance, but she will not be as attractive as she used to be. It would be easier for such a person to adjust if she understood that the I.A. index drops with time. She no longer has to be as attractive as she used to be. (c) Fredric Neuman  Author of “Superpowers.”

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Fred Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center. After serving as Associate Director for 21 years, Dr. Neuman assumed the directorship in 1994. Educated at Princeton University and the NYU College of Medicine, Dr. Neuman specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is the author of the following books: Caring: Home Treatment for the Emotionally Disturbed, Fighting Fear: An Eight Week Guide to Treating Your Own Phobias, Worried Sick?: The Exaggerated Fear of Physical Illness, and Worried Sick? The Workbook. Dr. Neuman is also the author of numerous magazine and newspaper articles on the efficacy of Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Neuman is a member of the American Psychiatric Society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Science. Dr. Neuman is also the author of the following novels: "The Seclusion Room," Viking Press. "Maneuvers" Dial Press "Come One, Come All," "The Wicked Son," "Detroit Tom and His Gang" "Superpowers." All these books are available from Amazon.