The notion that physical attractiveness is a valued and even revered quality in Western society -- an obsession for many people -- is essentially a given fact. The preferential emphasis on beauty is beyond evident in the worlds of media and entertainment, where by miracle of chance the people who can act, sing and dance just so happen to be attractive (what are the odds?).
While the explicit message of most people is "beauty is only skin deep," when it comes to understanding the role that physical attractiveness should play in our daily lives, the implicit message is clear -- being a physically attractive person means something important.
The impact that such a message has on mental health has been, and continues to be, studied by psychologists and researchers alike -- notably in areas of self-esteem, body image and eating disorders.
In my own clinical practice, I have witnessed the negative impact that beliefs about physical attractiveness can have on people's mental well-being. However, I have found that people are making the same errors in thinking when it comes to understanding what physical attraction is and how it affects their lives. These mistakes affect the lives of many people in our culture, but fortunately can be corrected.
Here are four common errors people make in their thinking about attractiveness:
1. The "Average" Phobia
Whenever I ask people to self-evaluate their own physical attractiveness, I often get them to use a 10-point scale -- from zero (not at all attractive) to 10 (very attractive).
Over the years, I have noticed two very important trends. First, many people have a skewed understanding of attractiveness. On a 10-point scale, five would be the average and most people in the general population should fall between a three and seven. Yet, the vast majority of people rate themselves in the six to eight range.
The second trend is that regardless of their rating, almost everyone wants to be higher on the scale (even if they believe they are a seven or eight out of 10).
I suspect that this fear or discomfort with being in the average range stems from Western society's aversion to being "average." The messages given to most people throughout their lives, particularly in countries like the United States, is that you should strive to be the best in a given area. Not only is it unacceptable to be average, some "motivators" depict it as a crime to finish second.
Here's a little thought experiment. Imagine you ask a friend to estimate how attractive you are, and the friend said - "oh, I would say you're a five out of 10" or, "you're in the average range."
How would you feel? Statistically speaking, the majority of people reading this sentence are in the "average range" and yet I would bet that most of you would be insulted to hear you were average looking. The problem here is obvious -- we have a large segment of society believing they have to be something they are not. Furthermore, there is absolutely no need to be above average in attractiveness.
The main purpose or function of physical attractiveness is that it helps in finding a mate. People who are approximately the same in terms of their level of physical attractiveness are more likely to form relationships (known in psychology as the matching hypothesis). If the majority of people are in the average range and people within this range are most likely to be attracted to one another, then there is no critical need to be in the upper echelon of beauty.
It is time we all move beyond this needless fear of being average.
2. Distinguishing between attractiveness and attraction
It is not uncommon for me to hear the following: "I am not physically attractive, so why would anyone be attracted to me."
The problem with this type of thinking is that it confuses attractiveness with attraction. While the two overlap, they are not the same thing. I can find someone to be attractive, yet not be attracted to that person.
Here's a nice exercise to do with your significant other:
Using a pie chart format, outline the reasons you are attracted to each other. For example, you might note that 20 per cent of your attraction to your partner is due to their intelligence, 10 per cent is for the way they treat you, 5 per cent for their sense of humour, 15 per cent for their physical appearance, and so on.
Another related and interesting exercise is to make such a pie chart where you outline the qualities you want another person to be attracted to. For example, you might write that ideally you would want someone to be attracted to you because of your quick wit (20 per cent), athleticism (15 per cent), success and status (10 per cent), etc.
In both exercises, you will probably see that physical attraction only makes up a portion of overall attraction. Viewed this way, physical attractiveness is not the almighty determinant of attraction that you presume.
3. Social Comparison
Social comparison refers to the act of comparing yourself to another person or group of people based on some particular quality. It is a process that can be useful when you want to know where you stand relative to others, and when such knowledge would serve a purpose. For example, if you want to get into medical school and you want to know how your grades compare to other students (your competition), it can be helpful to figure out where you stand.
Social comparison is also often used to assess how attractive one is. Unfortunately, many people do not use social comparison appropriately for this purpose.
To get an idea of how attractive you are relative to others, you must look at people more attractive than you and those you consider less attractive. The problem is that many people only compare upwards -- to those people who are above average in attractiveness. Repeatedly noting that you are not as attractive as another person is useless and biased in terms of the information it gives you. For example, let's say you are a six out of 10 in terms of attractiveness. If you only compare yourself to those who are eight or more, then you will conclude that you are less attractive than you actually are. Sadly, mass media tends to artificially set up such constant, biased comparisons.
4. Forgetting the Idiosyncrasy of Attraction
One of the things I often remind clients of when it comes to being a likeable person is that the very qualities that make them likeable to one person are the exact same things that get them disliked by others. For example, being very sociable at a party will lead one person to think "She is so confident and friendly," and another person to think "What an attention seeker!"
The same rule can apply to physical attractiveness. A single physical feature can draw a range of opinions. One person might think "Angelina Jolie's lips are beautiful" and another person think "Her lips look weird." Similarly, there are people who would rate you as a seven because of your eyes and hair, and another group of people who would see you as a three for the exact same features.
Hence, there is no absolute and true number when it comes to attractiveness. There are no real fives, eights or threes. Just because our society seems to be confused and mistaken in its understanding and conceptualization of physical attraction, doesn't mean that you have to make the same mistake as an individual.
Having a realistic and grounded understanding of what attractiveness is and the role it plays in your life can have a big impact on your mental health.