Final remarks of the investigation  

Are looks the predominant factor in our lives? Are attractive people given preferential treatment to less attractive people? Do we have to charge the attractive ones with all sins of Israel, just because they happen to be attractive? We need to give a well-balanced answer to that. The multiplicity of research data of the past 30 years proves that beauty attracts, impresses, gives power, tempts and misleads, more than all other aspects of personality. In the different chapters of this book we refer to scientific research showing that attractive people are way ahead of average people and that they enjoy special privileges in life. But being attractive can also work against you. The theory 'what is attractive, is good' works almost every time, but can also mean an obstruction. Beauty can quickly disappear after an accident or a disease, and decay is the biggest worry for attractive people. Those people are often saddled with qualities like vanity, selfishness, materialism and snobbery. This can be true, but this might also be inspired by envy on the part of less attractive persons. All in all, being attractive is an advantage, but average looking people have no right to complain because they can compensate for this with their personality, their status, work or by giving some extra attention to their appearance. One category of people is badly treated in our society: the ugly people, who are rejected and get fewer chances in life. And this simply because their looks don't meet today's beauty standards imposed by the media and society. Those people are avoided, not directly (our society isn't that uncivilised) but when they are looking for a job or in the media -where appearance is very important-, or when they want a girl or boy friend, they are subtly left back. Most of the time it is people with a different hair colour (ginger or white), with deformed features, with scars, a spotty face, people whose nose is too big, whose ears stick out, etc. Today, especially fat people are the object of derision.

The disgust and rejection of fat people have never been so big as today. The "biggest" victims are women, as if their unattractive looks mark them for an unattractive personality. Those disadvantages are first seen when they are children: they are hugged less, they are stared at, they have fewer friends, and they are bullied because of their looks. Unconsciously, teachers attach some negative qualities to them, and judge them less for their skills. Also on other fields they are pushed behind: they may not stand in front of the line at the ballet or in the choir, they have to sit on the bench during sports, or get a third-rate roll at parties. Being unattractive is at its most painful when choosing partners. People still prefer, and today even more than ever, a partner who's physically attractive. Your personality seems to be of almost no importance, as long as you look well. Unattractive people are neglected in the field of work and leisure, but certainly in the media and advertising, where they are practically given no chance to be a news anchor, an actor or a participant in a movie, TV series, quizzes or talk shows, shows, commercials, dating shows, Big Brother, etc. unless when they have to play the part of the bad guy or the loser. It is most remarkable that this discrimination is so subtle, and no one realises that he or she is actually guilty of this. Unattractive people have fewer social contacts, and due to the negative experiences they had as a child they develop a very introvert personality. They sooner distrust people, they are withdrawn, become lonely and we often see depressions and suicide.

At this moment, fat people are the biggest victim of this stigmatising process. What are the causes? Some accuse the media and advertising, which only show extremely beautiful people and thereby impose the ideal image: this image strongly emphasises being slim and young, with a fresh skin, beautiful hair and teeth. This can be seen in the health fad people follow massively: diets, liposuction, diet products, etc. Whoever dares to be fat, is lazy, irresponsible, self-satisfied and has no will: if you only wanted to, you could be attractive and slim just like anybody else, the media tell us. The authorities add a little extra by alerting to the dangers of overweight, without saying that unhealthy dieting by using diet pills, laxatives, vomiting, starving themselves out, and the massive increase of people with eating disorders can be worse. Feeling good, being happy with the looks you have or seeing the person within the body has become a mission impossible in our society. The media send us images that are unrealistic for average people. They tell us how to have a good reputation, how to be the most successful, how to be best accepted, and to look like a man/woman. By constantly showing us commercials in which we see our physical defects, our happiness is undermined. Few people are relaxed about their meals, without counting the calories. But only blaming the media wouldn't be fair. The direct environment like parents, family, friends, teachers, colleagues, neighbours, … they all determine the beauty ideal.

The media can say what they want: if nobody in our direct environment follows their ideals, this won't have any effect. You can shout from the rooftops that beauty is on the inside and not on the outside, but if your surroundings keep giving you explicit - but more importantly also implicit signals about your outer appearance, your inside can be as beautiful as a doll. You'll quickly know how much the outside means to them. This way we are all responsible for the (excessive) attention for physical beauty. Finally, also the individual himself is responsible. Some people who are told they are average or attractive, find themselves unattractive. Somebody who exudes a low self-esteem and thereby appears to be uncertain, will make himself look ugly. And finally, there are always people who appear to be "unattractive", because they make little effort to improve their appearance. Several studies, including ours, show that an immaculate appearance (hygiene, hairdo, brushed teeth and manicured fingers, a soft skin and nice clothes, …) is considered the most important element for being considered attractive.

What can be done about this? First of all, there is a great responsibility for the media. In the chapter about media impact we have given several tips. From our own research we have learned that almost everybody wants to see more average, normal people in movies, on television, in magazines and on bill boards. The majority found campaigns like 'Maggezien worden' ('Looks great') of former Minister Vogels very commendable, on condition that they really show normal people and no models. Let's hope the media won't neglect the appeal in this book as the 'umpteenth rubbish', but that they show a great deal of responsibility and realise that they have a big influence on the establishment of an image and the happiness of a lot of people. Does this mean that beautiful people can no longer appear in magazines and on TV?
Of course this makes no sense at all. It is obvious that people want to dream, they want to see idyllic scenes, and it is obvious that you want to represent a product as positively as possible. But it should be well-balanced. Both beautiful and less beautiful people should be able to get chances in magazines and on television. More attention should be drawn to what people have to say, what they can do and who they are, rather than only focus on their looks. Don't you think it's striking that the picture of a former miss Belgium is put on the front page of a book which was written by a journalist. Ann van Elsen, who also drew media attention by putting a spelling error on the front page, could show off her beauty everywhere, but the talented author of the book itself was never shown in the media. It is regrettable to see how it has become a necessity to put a beautiful Flemish celebrity on the front page, simply to draw attention to a book.

From the government we expect initiatives, on the one hand to prevent discrimination on the basis of looks and to legally penalize bullying at school or at work even more than it is the case now, exactly like there are regulations concerning discrimination of immigrants or people with a handicap. Thus, job applicants shouldn't be obliged to send in their pictures; minimum standards for the presence of "normal" people on television and in advertising should be introduced; existing counselling and ombuds services ought to receive training in dealing with these problems. Apart from that, campaigns like "Beauty is inside your body and not your body itself" should be continued. But also initiatives that work on self-image, body image, the prevention of suicide, relations and well-being should be supported. We were very sorry to see that the environmentalist minister of welfare was willing to spend dozens of millions (francs) on a commendable advertising campaign on "Maggezien worden" ("Looks great") in 2002 without releasing funds to organize both research and prevention on these issues.

Initiatives for education, formation and assistance can be taken to see the importance of the looks in social contacts, sports, music, legal practice and education in its proper context. Both youngsters and adults can practise how to deal with beauty ideals, role patterns and the importance of inner and outer beauty in the lives of people. Research has taught us that simply drawing the people's attention to the traps constituted by paying exaggerated importance to outer beauty may already provoke a positive change. Partner choice is a different story. Of course you cannot force people to ignore outer beauty when they (want to) fall in love, or when they want to catch the eye themselves. Although we are all absolutely convinced that beauty is inside and not outside - you can repeat it a thousand times - it won't help much with the present beauty mania. Youngsters now see more exceptionally beautiful people on TV and in magazines at any one day, than their parents used to see during their entire lives. In this field a prominent role can be played by education, socio-cultural training, welfare organizations and the media. Because of the exaggerated emphasis on the looks, youngsters and adults (as dating has become an activity for life due to the large number of failed relationships) are going to attach an exaggerated importance to the looks. Evidently looks are quite important if you want to like someone. But as has been shown in this and other studies, good looks are no guarantee for a happy relationship. On the contrary: how many relationships are failing because people only pay attention to "looks", rather than to inner beauty and character.

Those who can get along with each other, who share the same interests, who are prepared to work on the relationship and especially who learn to be satisfied with their partners, no matter how he or she looks like, will notice that his/her partner is much more attractive than (s)he initially thought him/her to be. At the moment, a lot of people simply don't get any chances to show what they are worth because their less beautiful appearance is an immediate letdown. They are not even asked out for dinner, for a date or for a chat. When dating shows or TV series only emphasize the looks, or when they just try to split up the best-looking couples like in Temptation Island, they give wrong signals to youngsters. TV networks have to realize that they play an important social role, and that they do not only bear the responsibility for reaching high ratings and profits from advertising. They are primarily responsible for the social welfare and well-being of people, and it is up to the government and the entire society to have a supervising role. The government can give recommendations through an ethical committee about the contents of programs and the messages that are shown there. Society can react against this by ignoring and criticising programs that treat other people disrespectfully.

To support education, socio-cultural training and assistance in this preventive role, the enclosed CD-ROM will give some tools (such as board games) on the importance of looks and feelings, schedules for schools or youth movements, exercises, lyrics, children's poems on looks and feelings, an illustrated children's story with a complete comic strip about bullying ("Ik ben lelijk / I am ugly"). Not all of the offered materials could have been effectively tried out on groups because of the lack of time and especially because of the lack of funds. We would very much appreciate it if you gave us some feedback on the usefulness, feasibility and especially on the shortcomings in the materials, so they can be improved in a republication on the website Readers who have some extra materials themselves or who want to develop them can put it on that website too.

We have already mentioned that the media, education and formation have an important responsibility. But we have also emphasized a third aspect: the person himself. On the one hand, he needs to become aware of the fact that a "well-groomed" appearance doesn't automatically imply "good-looking": it does mean, however, that a well-groomed person assumes responsibility for his looks, his clothes and his appearance. We think it's exceptionally commendable that store chains also design beautiful clothes for larger sized men and women. There are specialist shops for larger sized people, and there are also websites in Flanders and the Netherlands that give them some interesting advice. A little bit of make-up, an adapted hair style and adapted clothes can really make the difference for someone who is fat or less attractive because of an unusual appearance. But it has to be affordable for them, too. They cannot become the victim of their exceptional looks by having to purchase expensive clothes. On the website you can find several links to these interesting initiatives. It would be positive if women's magazines paid more attention to this. We have to admit that these magazines, unlike men's magazines do make some efforts to put ordinary people into the spotlight in their columns. The ads, however, rarely do this. In these magazines we also often read how quickly you can lose weight with the right dishes before the summer begins, but then they show a few hyper slim and super beautiful models in gorgeous bikinis so the hearts of many men and women sink into their boots again. Can they still go to the beach with their fat rolls, spare tyres and love handles above their waists? It is impossible to lose a few stone in no time at all. It is only possible in fairy tales to turn an ugly frog into a prince. Why don't these magazines make an effort to explain how such imperfections can be disguised by wearing adapted swimsuits and make-up. Such articles could be illustrated with pictures of average or even at first sight so-called unattractive people. It would really be helpful to boost the (self-)image. I am sure that such magazines would really be appreciated by regular people. Of course they can have models in their magazines, but why not introduce a fashion feature with normal people of all sizes. They're the customers after all.

Attractiveness starts with yourself in the first place. Working on a positive body image is a likewise important step in feeling attractive. On the CD ROM the reader will find 50 tips to come to a positive body image. There is also a program with a number of exercises to make your own body image more acceptable in 7 steps. But we would like to warn you that this program only gives a few general instructions and that it is certainly not appropriate for people with serious psychological disorders. In that case, it is really necessary to call in some professional help of a therapist or psychologist who is trained in these issues. The manual will give you an idea of such professional therapy.
Beauty cannot be read "from" your body, but "in" your body. "Turn beauty inside out", "Love the body you have. Every-"body" is O.K.", "The good stuff is on the inside" are all catchwords we have found on a number of sensitising American websites. You cannot refute that beauty is very often based on your body. It is naïve to suppose that it will change some day, not even with massive campaigns and certainly not with modest initiatives like this book. But those who make the effort to look good, and also give positive feedback to others ("you look good just the way you are", "you are a great guy or a nice girl", "you are worth it, no matter what you look like") instead of giving negative remarks, and those who want to make an effort to look through the appearance to the person behind the façade, make sure that beauty in their environment is not only "on" but especially "in" the body. You can never see a body detached from the bearer of this body. In that respect, the old Greeks were right when they formulated that the body is the deep dungeon of the soul. Hence, we can never see the body detached from the soul inside. With an orange, you first have to remove the bitter skin before you get to the juicy bit. Unfortunately our society focuses constantly on the skin and does not show the inside. The annoying part is that society constantly makes us believe that the looks are the most important thing in life and that there is nothing you can do to change it. "Everybody can get there, as long as you really want it and as long as you work hard enough for it. If you really want to, you can have the body of your dreams." However, this is not granted to many people. It is very regrettable that very little attention is paid to this.

This image research is obviously just a small step. Not much has been examined yet. Many questions haven't been answered yet. On writing this book, we still discover new American research and clever initiatives with other fascinating angles every day. It would be very satisfactory if more initiatives were deployed: everyone in his own way and in his field should realize that something can be done about the collective hypnosis on physical attractiveness, which puts beautiful people on a pedestal and which subtly demonises unattractive people. Further research and action on prevention and approach - maybe even with a different approach - by universities and specialized research centres is required. Because - more than ever before - prevention in this field is a driving force to improve both the well-being and the mental health of all. We only live once and life is much too short. Let's make it as pleasant as possible for everyone, and not only for beautiful people.

Gerard Gielen

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