The focus of this blog is the dimension of objectification that relates to too great a focus on physical appearance.
During the run-up to the recent elections there were accusations that coverage of Nicola Sturgeon focussed more on aesthetics than policies. “The idea that female politicians should be defined by anything other than their clothes or gender seems to have passed much of Fleet Street by” wrote Adam Bienkow on the 2015 UK general election. But she wasn’t the only one whose appearance was in the limelight; I can’t help but think that Ed Miliband might have fared a little better if he hadn’t been likened to Wallace (amongst other things) and poked fun at because he didn’t look good eating a bacon sandwich.
Now let’s not kid ourselves that we don’t stereotype based on appearance. It’s something we do and for good reason. But sometimes – often even – the consequences are far from positive. Let’s see what evidence there is about the impact how we look, on what we get in our pay packet. On the face of it (no pun intended!), the evidence is rather damning.
Get yourself on the rack. Being tall pays, likely due to increased social esteem.
Too fat? Too thin? This one is sex-specific and it gets complicated. Let’s looks at women first: the less you weigh the better, but each pound counts more if you’re below average weight than if you’re above it. As the researchers put it: “subsequent weight gains are actually penalized to a lesser extent, presumably because the social preferences for a feminine body have already been violated”. For men on the other hand, you’re better off putting on a bit of timber so long as you don’t quite reach obesity levels; further, each pound gained if you’re below average weight counts more than if you’re above it. A further study found that obese men and women get hit in the pay packet; this could be due to discrimination but the research didn’t rule out health-related factors or workers’ behaviour.
Get the dye out? If you’re a Caucasian lady, being blonde is definitely a good idea. But before you reach for the bottle, sadly for those who like me are far from a natural blonde (truth be told, I’m probably grey by now!), the research was based on natural hair colour. Nevertheless, the positive impact on your salary could be achieved by unnatural blondes too. This finding is really interesting given that blondes are generally considered more attractive than brunettes but also perceived, as the stereotype goes, as being less capable. Draw your own conclusions!
Put on the slap? Apply a bit of make-up and boost your income considerably, plus you’ll be seen as higher in competence and trustworthiness – although as this research was funded by Procter & Gamble I’ll reserve judgement! More independent research, however, found that for men in particular time spent grooming boosts wages. I suspect, but have zero proof, that this is not a linear relationship; my entirely subjective view is that the time spent having a shower and applying deodorant pays off more than a back, sack and crack for the average office worker.
Hey good looking. Being attractive is definitely a financial winner – but, if you’re unfortunate enough to have been hit by the ugly stick, the losses are disproportionately high. It appears that being good-looking boosts earnings not only because one is perceived more positively by others, but also because ones thinks more highly of oneself. Sadly, if you’re unattractive you’re also more likely to find yourself the target of co-workers insulting behaviour.
And what of fashion? Not so long ago beards were, if not outright banned, discouraged in many professional arenas. As Paxman said: “Unless you're lucky enough to be Uncle Albert on Only Fools and Horses, Demis Roussos or Abu Hamza, the BBC is generally as pogonophobic as the late-lamented Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha [who outlawed beards in the 1970s]". Now you can’t go two feet without tripping over a bit of facial topiary.
Now we could pander to those who stereotype based on appearance, but is that the right thing to do? I’d love to know your thoughts – do you conform to society’s expectations or plough your own furrow?
My view is that we should challenge such appearance-based stereotypes – and the only place we can start is with ourselves. Not only can stereotypes have seriously detrimental impacts on people’s lives, but they can also mean that we are easier to trick. Frank Abignail, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, got away with some incredible cons by virtue of changing his appearance – simply donning a uniform. He was even asked to pilot a plane once on one of the free flights be blagged from Pan Am; fortunately he knew his limits.
So that’s the work place. What about social events? Now that’s an even trickier dilemma…
If you’re out to meet a friend or on a date and they’re all dressed up whilst you’re wearing jeans and a t-shirt, do you worry that they think “Ha, couldn’t even be bothered to make an effort”! Or worse, you feel over-dressed and worry that they will think you’re too keen! It also reminds me of a story my Mom told when she was first dating my dad. They were meeting outside the flicks and it was a bit smoggy (it was the 50s), and she thought there was a tramp walking towards her…but as the mist rolled away she realised it was her date – my Dad. Clearly it didn’t put her off and he’s still the same now – doesn’t care much what he wears which is a good job since he can’t help looking a bit crumpled even when dressed-up in his best suit.