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You can't be too cute

March 21, 2000

You've heard of racism, sexism and even classism. Now get ready for looks-ism.

Looks-ism, according to Discover magazine, is the idea that people discriminate against others based purely on the basis of their physical attractiveness. And well they should, I would suggest - however I don't have the "credentials" to put this forth in the marketplace of scientific ideas for further analysis.

The magazine quotes someone who does have credentials, psychologist Nancy Etcoff, author of the book "Survival of the Prettiest," who says "The idea that beauty is unimportant or a cultural construct is the real beauty myth. We have to understand beauty, or we will always be enslaved by it."

My two questions for Nancy would be: 1.) Are you implying that being enslaved by beauty is a bad thing? and 2.) Are you a fox?

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I shudder to think that we are about to be overwhelmed by another whole scientific arena basically telling us what man has known from the animal days when flirting came in the form of a wooden club. That being, it's good to be cute.

If you think looks don't count, just take a look at the history of the presidency since the proliferation of television.

Kennedy was cuter than Nixon.

Johnson, being decidedly uncute, knew better than to run again in 1968.

Nixon was cuter than Humphrey.

Nixon-McGovern may have been a wash, but give the nod to the incumbent.

Carter was cuter than Ford.

Reagan was cuter than Carter/Mondale.

Bush was cuter than Dukakis, factoring in for the tank helmet, anyway.

Clinton was cuter than Bush/Dole.

(This was the consensus of women here in the office, although the debate in a couple of instances did set off a few limited ground wars).

Curiously, the Discover article states that beauty can be a matter of millimeters. For example, a little more in the lip, a smidgen less in the jaw, a slightly wider eye or a marginally skinnier nose can make all the difference.

As an example, scientists ran a program on their computers called "Computer Program for Scientists With Way Too Much Time on Their Hands" that took the photo of an attractive but rather plain woman and with a few barely perceptible tweaks of Photoshop turned her into a stunner.

That's great news for the facelift industry, I suppose, but until plastic surgeons can do personalities I'm not going to be too impressed.

Another woman with credentials, Judith Langois of the University of Texas, devised a test in which 6-month-old infants were shown photos of attractive and unattractive people. "The result was straightforward and unambiguous," she declares. "The babies looked longer at the attractive faces, regardless of the gender, race, or age of the face."

Obviously, my first two questions for Judith would be: 1.) Were these the children of Bill Clinton? and 2.) Are you a fox?

Langois theorizes that people may be what she calls "cognitive averagers." That is, we see thousands and thousands of faces and define beauty by what works out to be the average of all these individual characteristics. That would explain the Dixie Chicks phenomenon.

But I fear the theory is not airtight.

Just try going up to your wife tonight and saying "My darling, you look truly average to me this evening."

You better hope like heck she's been reading Discover magazine.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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