It seems unfair . . . that mere skin-deep beauty should predict, as it has in so many studies, people’s dating frequency, popularity, job interview impressions, and income, not to mention their perceived health, happiness, social skill, and life success. “Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction,” said Aristotle.
Evolutionary psychologists see biological wisdom in our positive response to bodily shapes and facial clues to others’ health and fertility. Still, how unjust, this penalty for plainness—and especially so in today’s world where first impressions sway choices in settings from speed dating to Tinder swipes.
Despite some universal aspects of physical attractiveness (such as facial symmetry), those of us with no better than average looks can find some solace in the varying beauty ideals across time and place. Today’s overweight was, in another era, Ruebens’ pleasingly plump “Venus in a Mirror.”
And we can find more comfort in a soon-to-be-published study by Lucy Hunt, Paul Eastwick, and Eli Finkel. Compared to romances that form without prior friendship, couples who become romantically involved long after first meeting exhibit less “assortative mating” based on similar attractiveness. For those who are friends before becoming lovers, looks matter less. With slow-cooked love, other factors such as common interests matter more.
This fits with earlier findings (here and here and here). First, attractiveness is less a predictor of well-being and social connections in rural settings (where people often know those they see) than in urban settings (where more interactions are with strangers, and looks matter more). Second, not only do people’s looks affect our feelings, our feelings affect how we perceive their looks. Those we like we find attractive. The more we love someone, the more physically attractive we find them.
These comforting findings help us answer Prime Charming’s question to Cinderella (in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical): “Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” And they remind us of Shakespeare’s wisdom: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”
Beauty, thank goodness, truly is in the eye of the beholder.