Before I defend plainness as a career strategy, let me concede that we should all strive to bel eggy, doe-eyed, and beautiful. It certainly beats the alternative—or does it? For all their professional advanta ges, 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 )usted 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.)