The Mistaken Link Between Beauty And Morality

Photographer: Chanel Irvine

Kalokagathia was a term used in Ancient Greece to describe the ideal person – translated directly it means ‘beautiful and good’. Interestingly, this link between inner and outer worth which was established centuries ago is still prevalent in our modern day Western culture. We use beauty to judge a person’s internal traits and morality. Essentially, outer beauty is seen as a direct representation of inner morality.

This is a mistake that can cost us dearly, in terms of our decision-making, our priorities and our self-worth. I tend to act on and live by my emotions, so my sister is often the (annoying) angel on my shoulder giving me rational advice when I least want it. She once pointed out to me that one of my biggest downfalls was the limited criteria I had in place for determining if I was interested in a man – namely, all I needed and wanted was for them to be attractive. I had incorrectly assumed that if someone was attractive on the outside, they would be attractive on the inside too. And this wasn’t just a theory I projected outwards onto men, I felt this way about myself too. I felt more confident and happier when I thought I looked good, as if the way I looked on the outside directly changed the person I was on the inside.

Society has created an imaginary link between beauty and goodness;  those who are unhappy with their looks are often unhappy with themselves as people.

As novelist Will Storr puts it: “Culture can be seen as a web of instructions, like computer code, that surrounds and saturates us. It tells us what a person should be …” The importance placed on beauty and weight within our Western culture is already well-established and documented. Women should be tall, athletic, slim and slightly-tanned with wide eyes, high cheekbones and perfect white teeth. They should also be humble, kind-hearted, friendly, funny and giving, while still maintaining high achievements and being confident.

What isn’t as well understood, however, is how deep this issue. Society has created an imaginary link between beauty and goodness;  those who are unhappy with their looks are often unhappy with themselves as people. Society perpetuates and strengthens this belief until it is internalised and invisible, and many who do not meet the imposed standards of natural attractiveness are made to feel worthless. These standards are first imposed on us in childhood and are continually reinforced for the rest of our lives.

During childhood is when we are most susceptible to external beliefs, as they begin to shape and define us. In The Little Mermaid, a wildly popular Disney children’s film, Ariel (the protagonist) is depicted as slim, wide-eyed and attractive, while Ursula (the antagonist) is overweight, with thin pupils and wide cheeks. This might seem like a simple example, but Ursula is both unconventionally attractive and also the story’s villain, and this represents the foundations of the link between beauty and inner morality. Similarly, Cinderella features two ugly step sisters and the issue with Sleeping Beauty is literally in the name of the film. This pattern is repeated so many times that the association between beauty and positive traits becomes internalised, a shortcut for the brain to use when telling us who is good and who is not.

In 2016 a study by Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer found that 55 per cent of compliments the Disney princess’ receive in the ‘Classics’ (such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White) are based on appearance, whereas just 11 per cent are based on skill. Both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are sought after by princes who truly ‘love’ them – and vice-versa – despite the fact they have never spoken to their suitors. This undying love is based off looks alone, and these films teach young viewers that these childhood idols are only good or loveable because they are beautiful. Fortunately, these statistics have been reversed in the ‘New Age’ films (such as Frozen and Tangled), with 40 per cent of compliments being based on skill and only 22 per cent on beauty. However, we still have a long way to go. The trend continues and even worsens in non-animated films and television, especially for young adults. Can you think of a single television series or movie, targeted at young adults, where the protagonists have not been conventionally attractive? And if you can, is this unattractiveness not the focus of the plot?

The psychology of advertising also plays to our subconscious via classical conditioning. To put it simply, beauty is repeatedly paired with positive values and luxurious products until the emotional response created by these values is linked to beauty. We learn to trust the faces within advertisements that are kind enough to share their secrets to success in the form of a new bag, makeup or clothes. The advertisement below is for Dolce & Gabbana’s ‘light blue’ perfume and aftershave. The toned bodies and gorgeous faces of the models, as well as the beautiful scenery they find themselves in, do not have much to do with the product – but they manage to sell it because the positive values associated with beauty are transferred to the product.

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The link between beauty and morality which shows up in television and advertisements even leaks into our personal lives through social media, sometimes even taking it over completely. Social media has become more about the ability to look as perfect as possible and less about sharing our lives with each other. Subconsciously, all of this seeps into the skin of who we are, so we aren’t even aware of the distorted lens in which we see the world and ourselves.

Many psychologists have studied this mistaken link as it is a growing issue. The results of most studies show that people associate more attractive people with more positive traits – such as sociable, assertive and confident – while those seen as less attractive are associated with traits like carelessness. These results even extend to juries, which less likely to find a perpetrator guilty when they are attractive. The mistaken link even becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – people speak to attractive people in a warmer way, which brings the best out of them and makes them respond with more confidence, confirming all original bias.

A related study – where participants were shown faces with different amounts of makeup on and asked to attribute each face certain traits – came to a similar conclusion. The psychologist who ran the study, Dr Nancy Etcoff, stated: “It was not surprising to find out that makeup made people seem more attractive, what was surprising was to see the impact it had on [likeability, trustworthiness and confidence]. The study suggests, whether we like it or not, people judge a book by its cover.”

When the standards of beauty become unrealistic, so does the perceived possibility of having positive personality traits.

Of course, this link does not only apply to women. Films and advertisements perpetuate the need for men to be seen as conventionally ‘masculine’. The ‘perfect man’ is tall, white, muscular and able-bodied with a strong jawline. Men are meant to be generous, heroic, handy around the house and willing to protect others from harm. This creates an enormous hurdle for those who do not fulfil such traits.

According to a study by Dove, only 20 per cent of Australian women are “body confident”, with 77 per cent of them blaming the media for the unrealistic standards they compare themselves to. What we don’t realise is, at the core of this, is a desire to be linked to the traits that come with beauty, not just the beauty itself. When the standards of beauty become unrealistic, so does the perceived possibility of having positive personality traits. The issue becomes even more serious when non-modifiable factors, such as age, are brought into the mix.

I am currently trying to live by this brilliant quote by Paul H. Dunn: “If you base your self-esteem, your feeling of self-worth, on anything outside the quality of your heart, your mind, or your soul, you have based it on a very shaking footing.” Maybe the way to make society more accepting is to chip away at the importance placed on beauty, to start celebrating and appreciating morality whenever it is shown. Beauty, after all, really is only skin deep, and in times where the media is constantly telling us something different, it is something we must constantly remind ourselves of.