Combating the Beauty is Beastly Effect (Part 1)

What’s the first thing that came to your mind when you saw the image of the little girl above?

“What a pretty girl!”

Was that it?

I’ll get back to this.

* * *

In my previous post, What’s Beautiful Is Good. Or Isn’t It? I introduced a phenomenon called the “What’s Beauty is Beastly Effect.”

The What's Beauty is Beastly Effect refers to the fact that attractive women are discriminated against when applying for stereotypically male positions—including leadership positions.

For instance, a study by Yale University researchers found that attractiveness consistently proved to be an advantage for men but was an advantage for women only when seeking a non-managerial position. “This was found to be the case in ratings of qualifications, recommendations for hiring, suggested starting salary, and rankings of hiring preferences.”[1]

In this post, I’d like to offer three strategies beautiful women can implement to mitigate the negative impact of this phenomenon on their careers.

  1. Raise your confidence

  2. Go with the flow

  3. Increase positive contact

In Part 2 and Part 3 (in progress) I will discuss suggestions 2 and 3 respectively. For now, let’s address my first suggestion.

Beautiful Women Need to Work on Raising Their Confidence

“Wait a minute!” you might be thinking. “Are you telling us that gorgeous-looking women are not already confident?”

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying: gorgeous-looking women might be insecure about their competence, their intellect, and even their looks.

Consider these three facts:

  • Women tend to suffer from the imposter syndrome more than men do.

  • Societal pressure for unrealistic beauty standards harms women.

  • Highly-attractive women may have developed an identity overly attached to their looks.

1. The Imposter Syndrome

Regardless of their looks and talent, women tend to suffer from the imposter syndromemore than men do. [2]

The imposter syndrome is the irrational belief a person may hold that she’s not good enough. A woman who suffers from it believes she’s not really qualified for a position, promotion, or offer she’s applying for or she already got. She might live in fear that she will be exposed as a fraud when someone finds out that choosing her was a mistake.

This affliction shrinks the confidence of even the most accomplished and talented women, so if you find yourself consistently feeling that your beau should be with someone better than you, your boss should offer the promotion to someone more qualified than you, etc. I strongly encourage you to read the excellent article Beating the Imposter Syndrome that Ayelet Boussi, Ph.D. posted on May 4, 2018 in the Cognitive Therapy for Women Blog. (Scroll down or use Ctrl F to find it.)

2. Unrealistic Expectations

Consider also the constant societal pressure to be beautiful that women are subject to, even if looks have nothing to do with their job.

Mass communication research has demonstrated that messages depicting unrealistic ideals erode women's body satisfaction and self-esteem and promote the incidence of eating disorders. [3]

As an example, ponder the devastating effects on their health and confidence that photoshopped images of extremely-thin, ultra-long-legged, and disproportionately-big-breasted fashion models in magazines have on young women who are still forming their identities:

  • As early as the 1980’s, 61 percent of college women reported some form of eating behavior problem.[4]

  • More than half would change their breast size if they could.[5]

  • "Merely being a woman in society means feeling too fat," some researchers have concluded.[6]

3. Beauty Identity

Beautiful little girls might have had positive reinforcement of a self-image overly attached to their looks.

“There was a time when I felt insecure about my intelligence,” told me a drop-dead-gorgeous woman I recently met and whom we’ll call Petunia.

“How so?” I asked, since Petunia is clearly a bright and accomplished woman. (All I’ll say is that she beat the daylights out of the rest of us, male and female, at a recent strategy board game party.)

“Well, since I was a little girl, people constantly told me how pretty I was, but didn’t compliment me on my intelligence as much, and I think that might have sent me the message that I wasn’t really intelligent enough for people to notice.”

Rather than “raise your confidence,” this piece of advice might have been titled “redefine your identity.”

Our identity is our mental-model of ourselves, and I suspect that physically attractive women need to work on “detaching” their identity from their looks.

They need to start thinking of themselves in terms of their accomplishments rather than on their physical appearance (or better yet, besides their physical appearance).

By controlling any internal dialogue that refers to themselves as “I’m the most attractive of the applicants,” rather than “I’m the project manager who has the most experience with object-oriented programming projects” (whatever that might mean), they can gradually do the “identity work” required to raise their confidence.

“Identity work?” someone recently asked me. “What does that mean?” So I did some research, and I found a couple definitions I like:

  • It’s “when an individual rework[s] her biography to construct a new identity.”[7]

  • “The identity self-work is a process of comparison of self-image of an individual with perceived self–image set by others and finally new identity construction and at the same time a building the self–esteem/self-confidence and a defense of this esteem in the situation of negative perception of self done by others.”[8]

That sounds too technical, I know, so let’s just say that for beautiful women, identity work means consciously revisiting their history to see how their beauty might have negatively affected their confidence, and proactively constructing a self-image that doesn’t sabotage their success.

One More Lesson Learned

Petunia’s confession about her insecurity taught me an important lesson.

You see, many times when I’m walking at airports, restaurants, or other public places and I see a little girl, I compliment her (whenever possible) by telling her how beautiful she is, thinking I’m contributing to raise her confidence.

Sometimes little girls are pretty in a stereotypical way, like the one on this post's cover, and sometimes their beauty is non-stereotypical. I make a point to compliment kids whose beauty is not stereotypical.

As a stranger who is just crossing paths with them, all I had thought I could compliment them on was their physical beauty—but now thanks to Petunia I’ve realized I can do much more.

Next time I see a little girl, I’ll THINK and tell her how beautiful she is AND how sure I am that she’s also very intelligent and capable of accomplishing anything she wants.

I invite you to do the same.

* * * * *

[1] Heilman, Madeline W. & Saruwatari, Lois R. (1979). When Beauty is Beastly: The Effects of Appearance and Sex on Evaluations of Job Applicants For Managerial and Nonmanagerial Jobs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 23,360-372

[2] Boussi, A.(2018). Beating the Imposter Syndrome. Cognitive Therapy for Women Blog.

[3] Harrison, K, & Cantor, J. (1997). The relationship between media consumption and eating disorders. Journal of Communication, 47:40-63.

[4] Mintz, L. & Betz, N. (1988). Prevalence and correlates of eating disordered behaviors among undergraduate women. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 35:463-471.

[5] Grant, P. (1996). If you could change your breasts. Self Magazine, 186-89 and 210-11.

[6] Rodin, J., Silberstein, L., & Striegel-Moore, R. (1985). Women and weight: A normative discontent. In T. Sonderegger (ed.), Psychology and gender, pp. 267-307.. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1984. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[7] XVI ISA World Congress, Research Committee on Biography and Society (2006). Identity work, redefinitions of self and self-confidence in the narratives or Polish entrepreneurs.

[8][8] Ibid.

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