It is a commonly held belief that within most communities, being physically attractive puts an individual at a distinct advantage. Attraction is primarily considered an interpersonal occurrence. Thus, physical attraction is a force that creates a natural pull toward or interest in those individuals who are physically attractive. According to our society’s standards, beauty is so important that it is becoming everyone’s obsession.
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People are so much obsessed with beauty that they are willing to go on the strictest diet or undergo dangerous cosmetic surgery procedures among other things just to attain that perfect image. On the other hand, those who fail to comply with the set beauty standards are judged on this basis and may find themselves missing several opportunities.
This paper seeks to examine if people in the society can live without being conscious of their physical appearance in a constantly changing society. This will be accomplished by identifying the main causes of these problems, and the effect that this has on the society.
Most women in America and the world over have at one time or the other in their lifetime involved in some form of a beauty contest. People want to look physically attractive. According to our society’s standards, beauty is so important that it is becoming everyone’s obsession. To many people, beauty is depicted by the images presented by the media of celebrities with a perfect body shape, size and appearance.
Moreover, companies dealing with beauty products have exploited this opportunity to lure people with an array of products, which are frequently advertised by the media. The existing beauty contests where people are continuously comparing themselves with others have adversely affected the whole society. People are so much obsessed with beauty that they are willing to go on the strictest diet or undergo dangerous cosmetic surgery procedures among other things just to attain that perfect image.
On the other hand, those who fail to comply with the set beauty standards are judged on this basis and may find themselves missing on several opportunities. In the light of this development, the question to ask ourselves should be, is it possible for women not to go under the knife or use beauty products that might have unknown and adverse effects on their well-being and health?
This paper seeks to examine if people in the society can live without being conscious of their appearance in a changing society. This will be accomplished by identifying the main causes of these problems, and the effect that this has on the society (Underwood, 2000).
Physical attractiveness has been delineated as the degree to which one’s physical and facial image educes favorable reaction from others. Ideally, physical attractiveness is rated in a quantitative manner from low (unattractive) to high (very attractive). It is imperative to note that some have also restricted their definition of attractiveness to facial attractiveness. Facial attractiveness is an interesting but abstract construct since diverse people have varying views about what composes attractiveness.
Physical attractiveness is not normally a quantitative trait. If a significant number of judges rate a stimulus person as high or low in physical attractiveness, then, for purposes of research this stimulus person is construed as representative of that level of physical attractiveness. Of all physical qualities of a person, the effect of attractiveness, whether referenced through an overall rating or specifically, a person’s face, is the most frequently researched aspect of appearance.
Generally, frontal face is used for the judgments of attractiveness or unattractiveness made by raters and it is therefore impossible to measure by any research instrument. In an evaluation of a persons overall attractiveness, facial attractiveness is considered of primary importance. The continued use of facial appearance in evaluating physical attractiveness is justified because the face has unique and powerful properties, which appear to make it all-powerful and universal.
The face is interesting, permanent, and informative and used by people to reach wide-ranging verdicts about a person. In fact, Patzer (1985) suggested that facial features coincide with some personality traits, and the face is a precise pointer of definite individual attributes.
Attractive people are believed to be more sociable, successful, and more contented than people who are less attractive. Today, people spent billions of dollars on cosmetic applications and reconstructive surgery because people ‘judge a book by its cover’ (Patzer, 1985).
Appearance related issues can be identified throughout society and yet it appears that relatively few people have stopped to consider the potential consequences. It is as if society believes that the issue of favoring attractive people is a normal, valid, and acceptable relationship.
Philosophers have for a long time explored the concept of beauty and the worth that it may bring to an individual. Indeed, Plato believed that beauty was not generally a physical but also a moral concept of worth, which he included in the three virtues he defined as: beauty, truth, and goodness (Synnott, 1989).
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According to Plato’s theory, not all that is beautiful can be considered good but all that is good is beautiful. Synnott (1979) affirmed that beauty is a component of certain evolutionary pressures and he proposed that those who are gifted with physical attractiveness have been given the best chance of survival.
Lerner (1980) coined a ‘just world’ theory that he alleged applies to a person’s level of physical attractiveness. Lerner’s Just World Theory was anchored on the belief that people get what they deserve in life, and thus, those who are attractive are naturally entitled to certain advantages that the unattractive are not. Despite this observation, other people have refused to acknowledge that any separation exists because of a person’s appearance or that any stereotype of beauty exists in the society (Wright, 1960).
What is Beautiful is Good
Dion, Berscheid, and Walster (1972) in their groundbreaking study titled “What is Beautiful is Good”, explored the perceptions of physical appearance within society. This experimental study was designed to review the impact of physical attractiveness and to identify what stereotypes might exist.
This study centered on the appearance of stimulus persons both female and male, to determine if participants would draw assumptions about that person because of his her level of attractiveness. These researchers theorized that when seeing a person with a certain level of beauty, society automatically makes conclusions about the person’s personality traits and personal qualities.
Dion et al. (1972) anticipated that attractive people would be seen as possessing a more desirable personality and a higher quality of life, and would be likely to reach greater success than those who were considered unattractive.
As anticipated, Dion et al. (1972) observed that the physically attractive were rated as more sociable than those who were unattractive. Within each category evaluated (in terms of gender), those physically attractive were perceived as highly advantaged. This included areas such as more likely to secure prestigious jobs, have a happier marriage (being a better spouse, more likely to marry an attractive person, less likely to remain single), more likely to be a better parental figure, and more likely to have a satisfying social and professional life.
The Media Influence
Media, defined by television, movies, magazines, and the overall concepts and content they portray, is an enormous part of the lives of most people and especially teens. A renowned American writer named Allen Ginsberg once said “whoever controls the media-the images-controls the culture” (Underwood, 2000).
This is true, and the media continues to gain control with each passing day. There are many reports that high exposure to media images that portray extreme thinness (the ideal measure of physical attractiveness in the society) can create strong body dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem, and body image. Researchers have investigated the concept of ‘thin ideal internalization’ by testing amounts of media exposure against a personal force for thinness amongst adolescents (Hargreaves & Tiggeman, 2003).
Since self-concept is developing during adolescence, exposure to media can make it more difficult to resist the pressure of internalizing a certain standard of thinness. This introduction to impractical standards has created a high rise in eating disorders over the past years.
With all of the countless advertisements aimed towards very young people, media is now reaching out to younger and younger children. One study showed that girls ages five to seven years old, reported lower body esteem and showed a desire to be thinner after viewing pictures of Barbie dolls than those who did not see the images.
Marketers, who understand more about the personal fears, hopes, and aspirations of the society than anyone else does, promote products dealing with the way a particular age group looks more than any other life factor. Therefore, the question that we should ask ourselves is how important is appearance to people? In the media today, it is not hard to read comments such as “Who threw away that shirt-or did you find it at the thrift shop?” “Your mother dresses you funny.” “Hey, pizza face (or zit face)!”
Although these comments directed at young people are supposed to be humorous, their negative remarks about teenage appearance do more damage than sender or receiver admits. Indeed, interviews and studies continue to show that popularity in every circle of life tends to be based, in order, on personality and appearance (Hargreaves, & Tiggemann, 2003).
To all of us, the primary developmental task is self-definition. When one is young with a fresh body, emotions, and mind, he/she has to form a new and healthy self-image. This is done principally in reference to peers, and much of the emphasis is on appearance. For an individual to be whole, he/she must accept and care for their appearance. Without a doubt, our appearance affects those around us. In our society, appearance in most cases influences initial impressions.
The society reveals its own conceited insecurity when it despises a person with a physical disability or deformity. Such people must accept this unfair pathology of society, may be work to right it, but principally find self-acceptance and reassurance out of the resilience of the human spirit. The truth is that advertisements play into a growing interest and perhaps obsession for physical appearance. Their bottom line is always two-fold: look good and feel good.
Although both are critical, they can obviously be blown out of proportion. The marketing of clothes, cosmetics, and good looks in our society transcends beyond helpfulness-most struggle with self-esteem. Additionally, anorexia and other self-destructive conditions are increasingly on the rise and this should be a cause of alarm for all of us (Hargreaves, & Tiggemann, 2003).
Studies conducted in many parts of the world have showed that people are willing to go to extremes to remain physically attractive. In fact, these studies have shown that as many as 10 million women in the United States alone suffer from an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2003) estimates that 40 percent of all newly diagnosed eating disorders are found in girls aged between 15 to19 years old.
The problem with eating is not only prevalent in America alone. According to a 2002 survey, 1.5% of Canadian women aged 15 – 24 years had an eating disorder. Some symptoms of eating disorder can be noted as early as during kindergarten (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003). Minority women are fast developing eating disorders on a high scale.
This can be explained by the fact that they are trying to fit into the dominant white culture where high beauty standards are emphasized and maintained. Research has also shown that people who suffer from eating disorders are also more likely to suffer from a low self-esteem (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003).
A recent article in the New York Times titled “Unlicensed cosmetic procedure practitioners”, (Beauty at any cost, n.d.) talked of how illegal practitioners in cosmetic surgery who include doctors and nurses trained in other countries attract low fees patients. According to the report, these doctors use illegal permanent wrinkle fillers, work in a congenial atmosphere and do other things that put their patient’s health at great risk.
It is interesting to note that cosmetic surgery is becoming cheaper and accessible in many parts of the world raising the possibility that the standards have been compromised thus putting patients’ lives in danger. According to one research conducted in Canada (Dion et al., 1972), about 90 percent of cosmetic procedures are unnecessary and do not make any difference to someone.
Besides, non-cosmetic procedure operations have increased significantly in recent years. There is increasing concern that these procedures are not performed in a healthy setting or by a qualified physician. There are also increasing cases where some of these procedures are performed at home or beauty salons with no proper licensing and training. This is also causing health concerns (Dion et al., 1972).
There are indeed many complications associated with cosmetic procedures. Breast augmentation complication is one such side effect. This may in rare cases include scar tissue infection, sagging of implants and rupture or deflation of implants. The implants may also settle towards the middle of the chest.
Another complication is tummy tuck complications, which may include infections and bleeding of areas under the skin. This may lead to deadly clots in the lungs. The liposuction procedure on the other hand can lead to skin discoloration and skin infection (Beauty at any cost, n.d.).
It is unfortunate that cosmetics are not subject to testing in America. For example, the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not required by law to give approval to cosmetic products before they are marketed. To make matters even worse, cosmetic companies have not been compelled to register information on important things like ingredients or cosmetic related complications to FDA. Cosmetic companies are solely responsible for ensuring the safety of their consumers.
Interestingly, some of the components found in cosmetics have been shown to be harmful. For example, a component called phthalates found in perfumes has been found to cause damage to the liver and reproductive system. These chemicals can enter the body through skin absorption or inhalation. These perfumes have been banned in Europe but they are still in markets in the United States.
The 2003 European Union’s directive on substances states that those substances with carcinogenic, mutagenic or that are poisonous for reproduction should be banned in the cosmetic industry. The United States on the other hand does not have laws that can prohibit these products from entering our consumer market (Beauty at any cost, n.d.).
Interpersonal and Personal Relationships
Another area that has been impacted negatively by the society’s obsession with beauty is interpersonal and personal relationships. Obsession with physical body image has contributed to a culture that has certain norms that are harmful for women and girls. This creates interpersonal behaviors that are damaging to the society.
As discussed earlier, advertisements featuring thin and physically perfect characters contribute greatly to behaviors that seek to have the unattainable beauty that is advertised. According to experts, self-esteem is a core character issue that determines if one is happy or not. Once people achieve it, then it is manifested on the outside. This culture promotes the sexualization of women and creates unnecessary competition among women (Underwood, 2000).
A study carried out on teenage girls found out that those teenage girls who watched commercials showing underweight icons were so much affected physiologically that they lost self-confidence and became unhappy with their own bodies. Another study showed that thirty minutes of watching television commercials is enough to change the way a young girl views her body shape.
Body shapes and size can therefore be affected by observing unrealistic body images portrayed on television. It has also been shown through various studies that young girls are taught by the media to derive confidence on how sexy they look rather than on their character and achievements. One’s physical image is thus reduced to sexual attractiveness (Underwood, 2000).
Actually, three of the most common mental health problems associated with girls have direct links to the sexualization of women (Feingold, 1992). These mental problems include eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem. Girls are also creating a new form of competition, which is carried on among themselves by displaying each other in a manner that conforms to thinness and sexiness standards.
A recent study conducted by Greenwald and Banaji (1995) has shown that there is a direct link between how women view themselves and their perceived level of beauty and feelings of anxiety and shame. This has affected the ability of women to focus their attention appropriately thus affecting their productivity.
Young boys are also affected by beauty commercials at a young age since these commercials teach them to objectify women sexually something that further affects women in a negative manner (Lerner, 1980). This objectification of women has created a culture of risky sexual behaviors in young girls. For example, a recent study showed that many young girls think that coerced sex is not bad (Nell, & Ashton, 1996).
A physical appearance scale was used in this research. It has not been scientifically proven, or tested by an expert. The indicator is a scale that shows how sensitive and conscious participants are to their physical appearance. The reasoning for this test is that the higher a participant’s response to physical appearance compliments and corrections, the higher the reliability of their answers.
The scale was from low (unattractive) to high (very attractive), and participants had to mark which number in the scale resembled them the most. In this research three parameters were considered, public opinion (media), personal conviction and peer pressure.
For the purpose of this research, a simple random sampling procedure was used to draw the sample from twelve respondents all involved in different occupations and age groups. In the simple random sample, the individual is chosen in such a way that each have an equal chance of being selected and each choice is independent of any other choice. The sample frame to be used in the research will be age group ranging from 18-30 years old.
The sampling units will be drawn by the means of a stratified random sampling procedure. Random sampling procedure was used in this case to control for any internal and external threats to validity. In this method, a sample is picked for estimating the population parameters.
The larger the sample, the smaller the standard error of the mean (the standard deviation of the sampling distribution of means), the better. The larger the sample sizes then the closer the population values. This quality is referred to as precision in research terms.
The survey aim was to conduct a conclusion of opinions on the sense of value of physical appearance on an individual to determine if what an individual thinks is an important part of their appearance and if what others think affects his/her looks. The findings of this survey will be used to determine to what extent an individual might be willing to go to maintain good physical looks.
The survey is a short questionnaire containing seven questions that can be done in an estimation of 5-10 minutes. The primary survey was piloted among six participants, to go through trial phase. This pilot phase pointed out the weak and strong points in the survey itself, which has resulted in modification of some questions.
The primary survey appeared to have more questions than required, and some questions that would not have any value of relating to the thesis of this research. This has resulted in change of survey into a simpler survey that contained fewer questions. This was done to allow the participants to have the free will to answer the questions they were comfortable with.
This modification was also meant to reduce the time consumed in answering the survey questions. The modified version targeted questions that needed the participants’ personal opinion and how public opinion affected their physical appearance.
This survey was addressed to participants above the age of 18. It was distributed among 12 participants. The physical appearance scale is designed to be an indicator of how accurate the participant’s answers are going to be, and the possible accuracy of the overall outcome of the results in this research.
In order to get faster results, printed questionnaires were distributed. Questionnaires were chosen because of their ability to reach a bigger portion of people in a shorter period, thus getting immediate and faster results. The survey was directed to a specific group of people. The survey was meant to be in an easy level of knowledge, hence the simplicity in solving the answers without facing major difficulties.
Results and Discussion
This essay is an argument or a debate between two sides. On one side of the debate are those who agreed not to be consumed by how they look in front of the people and the others who are in constant need to improve how they look and appear. The addition of the survey that was conducted among the participants was meant to link the agreeableness to this statement.
When asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 on their level of attractiveness, 32% rated themselves as unattractive (Table 1), 60% indicated that they were attractive, while 8% believed that they were over attractive. Figure 2 demonstrates participants’ views on physical attractiveness. From the results of the survey, an amazing 96% of those polled agreed that physical attractiveness was important, and only a paltry 4% thought that looks were not important.
Table 1: Level of attractiveness
Figure 1: Importance of Physical Attractiveness
Asked whether they were affected by public opinion concerning their looks, 81% stated that they are very much affected by people’s public opinion about their physical looks, 17% indicated that they are affected while only 2% said that they were not affected by peoples’ opinion on their appearance. From this poll, it is clear that physical attractiveness is important to many people with 98% indicating that they were affected by public opinion concerning their physical appearance.
Figure 2: Effect of public opinion on physical appearance
In another question of the survey, respondents were asked if they would try to change their physical appearance after receive a negative comment concerning their appearance. Of those polled, 72% indicated that they would try changing their physical appearance after a negative comment while 32% said they would not.
Figure 3. Effects of negative comments on physical appearance
In order to gauge the level of importance that the respondents attached to physical appearance in the society, the researcher asked the respondents to state what extent they thought concern for one’s own appearance was important. Like in the previous polls, a large number attached much importance to the issue with 96% rating the issue as critically important to important. Only 4% of those polled thought that people should not be concerned about their physical appearance.
Fig 4: Importance of physical attractiveness in the society
Asked whether they thought that the physical appearance of other people was irrelevant, only 5% said yes with the rest stating that the physical appearance of other people was irrelevant. Among those who stated no as their answer in this question, all of them (100%) indicated that physical appearance was an important factor when it came to the issue of romance. This shows just how much importance people have attached to the issue of physical attractiveness.
Beauty at any cost. (n.d.). A YWCA report on the consequences of America’s beauty obsession on women & girls. Web.
Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is Beautiful is Good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285-290.
Feingold, A. (1992). Good-Looking People are not what we Think. Psychological Bulletin, 111, 304-341.
Greenwald, A., & Banaji, M. (1995). Implicit Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-Esteem, and Stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102, 4-27
Hargreaves, D., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). The Effect of “Thin Ideal” Television Commercials on Body Dissatisfaction and Schema Activation during Early Adolescence. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 32 (5) 367-374.
Lerner, M. (1980). Belief in a Just World. New York: Plenum Press.
Nell, K. and Ashton, N.L. (1996) ‘Gender, Self-esteem, and Perception of Own Attractiveness. ’ Perceptual and Motor Skill, 83(3.2): 1105–6.
Patzer, G.L. (1985). The Physical Attractiveness Phenomena. New York: Plenum Press.
Synnott, A. (1989). Truth and Goodness, Mirrors and Masks: A Sociology of Beauty and the Face. British Journal of Sociology, 40, 607-636.
Underwood, N. (2000). Body Envy. Maclean’s, 113 (33), 36-40.
Wright, B. (1960). Physical Disability: A psychological Approach. New York: Harper & Row.
Definition of terms
Bias/Stereotype. For the purpose of this study, these terms have been used interchangeably. Both personal bias and stereotypes are cognitive processes that create perceptions in individuals that are multifaceted (Swim & Cohen, 1997).
Physical attractiveness. A force that creates a natural pull toward or interest in those individuals who are physically appealing
Swim, J., & Cohen, L. (1997). Overt, Covert, and Subtle Sexism: A Comparison Between the Attitudes Toward Women and Modern Sexism Scales. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 103-118.