Physical Beauty and Women’s Leadership | Amy Kang

Amy (Shinyi) Kang is majoring in Interactive Media at NYU Abu Dhabi. She is greatly interested in studying media sociology, including the relationship between media and gender, as well future studies.

We are intrinsically attracted to beauty. It should be no surprise that our preference for beauty also affects the way we perceive and interact with other people. Whether intentionally or not, we favor physically attractive people when it comes to choosing who we build relationships with and who we look up to. However, the evaluation of beauty seems to be disproportionately high for women. This paper examines how women’s physical appearances can become an asset but also, in many cases, an obstacle when they are looking for opportunities to succeed and advancing into leadership positions.

For centuries, numerous women were able to use their beauty to rise to power and achieve certain goals. Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, is famous for seducing Julius Caesar and later Marc Anthony, both of whom were powerful leaders of Rome. By building romantic relationships with Caesar and Anthony, a tactic that couldn’t be used by her male competitors, Cleopatra was able to secure  the position of queenIn addition to her, Roxelana, who was once a Russian slave, became the queen of the Ottoman Empire through her wit and physical attractiveness, which brought gained her the attention and ultimately the love of Suleyman I. Maintaining her intimate relationship with the sultan, Roxelana exerted great political influence in the Ottoman Empire throughout her life. In short, the two historical figures ingratiated themselves with their superiors through seduction and their appeal as romantic partners.

Physical beauty has continued to be an asset that people can benefit from when it comes to winning people’s favors and gaining opportunities. We tend to form our first impressions of people mainly based on their looks and we typically associate physical attractiveness with desirable traits, including intellect and altruism. The “what is beautiful is good” stereotype assumes that beauty accompanies other positive qualities. In fact, physically attractive women have a better chance of getting employed and earning higher salaries in the business world, on an average of 8% more, compared to their less-attractive counterparts. In the political realm, female candidates with good looks have an edge in getting elected for their positions because male voters are inclined to focus on their attractiveness while assessing their political capabilities. Similarly, there exists a significant employment and wage gap between attractive and relatively unattractive male workers. People have a general tendency to favor physically appealing male politicians over their competitors. Multiple past and present political leaders—Justin Trudeau, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Enrique Peña Nieto—are frankly liked, in part for, for their handsomeness.

The effect looks have in determining how people are perceived by others seems to be more powerful for women than for men. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than one-third of the American public said that honesty and morality are the top traits used when judging men, whereas physical attractiveness is the trait that is valued most in the context of women. In effect, as much as certain men and women are able to benefit from their physical beauty, women who are judged to be unattractive or even average-looking under popular standards become the main target of look-based discrimination in social settings. Below-average looking women are not only less likely to be hired ​but they are also paid 4% less than average-looking women and 12% less than good-looking women. Furthermore, unlike male political leaders, female politicians are frequently put into the spotlight in the media for their physical appearances and clothing. It is very easy for us to spot news articles that make remarks about Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle and Angela Merkel’s cleavage display, but this is not usually the case for male politicians. The tendency of news coverage to disproportionately highlight female politicians’ physical attractiveness, or the lack thereof, can downplay these candidates’ actual abilities to lead. In all of these cases, women’s physical appearance hinders them from achieving success or gaining people’s approval for inner qualities, rather than  outward appearances. They epitomize what people refer to as lookism, defined as prejudice and discrimination based on looks and ideal beauty standards.

To make matters worse, such a system unfairly privileges beautiful women over their counterparts. Although it is common for both men and women to wear appropriate clothing and makeup in the professional arena, numerous women in South Korea have taken this to another level. Korea’s job market has made good physical appearance of female employees a desiderata. According to an online survey, two out of five job seekers in Korea claimed that they were at a disadvantage due to their looks in the recruitment process. In this setting, female job seekers are compelled to undergo plastic surgeries so that they look more appealing to employers, most of whom are men.

Businesswomen are oftentimes expected to wear high heels, which can be extremely painful and uncomfortable, merely for visual appeal and formality. Many women endure immense pain to wear these “killer” shoes, despite its inefficiency for walking and working. As a result, some women decide to receive the so-called “Cinderella surgeries,” which alter the shape of their feet for them to better fit into high heels. These sacrifices that women—especially those who aspire to become successful leaders—make in order to meet the ideal standard of feminine beauty exemplifies how women are forced to comply with societal expectations – set mostly by men – to achieve certain goals and advance their positions in society.

Contrary to the common adage “don’t judge a book by its cover”, one’s physical appearances inevitably play a significant role in shaping how they are viewed and judged by others. Making assumptions about women based on their looks, whether positive or negative, will hinder us from seeing their true inner qualities. The notion that women can elevate their status by simply being physically attractive in the eyes of men will result in the objectification of women and will inherently limit the extent to which women can rise to power because such assumption naturally places women under men. The privileges given to physically beautiful women, in effect, unfairly disadvantages women considered less attractive. All in all, the focus on beauty as a means of advancement for women is a stigma that should continuously be questioned and challenged to restore the respect for women as true leaders in society.