Introduction to the (Dutch) book 'Unattractive/Onaantrekkelijk'  

The very first thing that attracts us to a person we meet for the first time is his/her physical appearance. Even before we get to know someone, we probably already have a certain feeling of appeal or aversion towards that person. The fact that the person involved is of the right age and sex, can considerably determine possible sexual or romantic adventures. The better we get to know a person, the more our first impression can change. We discover e.g. that the person involved has talents that partially neutralise certain shortcomings concerning his/her superficial beauty. But even though we can forgive someone's ugliness, it still remains a fact that is hard to forget. A person's physical attraction is the most perceptible and accessible feature of great informative importance. Therefore, it is frequently, often unconsciously, used as an important standard to pass judgement on someone. That is why we are all more concerned about our appearance than we tend to admit. This certainly isn' a sign of vanityperson's vanity. From the above point of view , the concern about appearance is very normal, even of vital importance. The importance our society attaches to physical attraction is shown over and over again in plastic arts, literature, films, advertisements and other mass media. The fairy-tale princess, the Hollywood sex bomb or the tanned sporty girl drinking a coke on the bonnet of a sports car are all small variations on a cultural standard that is forced upon us and lasts a lifetime.


Physically more attractive children are more popular with their classmates and unattractive children seem to be the first victims of bullying. Teachers tend to give better marks to attractive children and create more hopeful expectations, which in their turn give the impetus to better performances. Attractive applicants are more likely to find a job and to receive a higher wage. Attractive people were less quickly pronounced guilty in court, and in case they were pronounced guilty, they were imposed less severe punishments. Reality shows clear prejudice concerning attractiveness. Almost every experiment that has been carried out as part of this subject matter shows the clear influence of an attractive appearance on success in every possible situation. At the beginning of the seventies, Dion (Dion et Al., 1972) introduced the stereotype 'anything beautiful is good', in imitation of the Greek female philosopher Sappho, who had already been peddling her theory ages before Christ. Basing ourselves upon our own conclusions, we can add that 'anything ugly is bad'. The 'anything beautiful is good'-stereotype is an irrational, but a firmly rooted prejudice, supposing that more attractive people have other welcome desires such as a higher intelligence, more competence, better social skills, more self-confidence or even moral dignity. If one is questoned about it, he/she will deny outright, nevertheless the fact that this principle is going very strong in our modern society. For good reason the good fairy/princess has always been and still is gorgeous, contrary to the ugly wicked stepmother. No wonder we are so much concerned about our image nowadays, no wonder we are very sensitive to compliments or criticism on our looks, trying as hard as we can to cut a good figure by practising sports, going on a diet, cosmetics, attire, and more recently plastic surgery. Concern about our looks is no isolated fact in our western civilization. Every episode in history had its own beauty standards on what is 'beautiful' and on what is 'ugly' and a clear defined image of physical attractiveness.

But the pressure to be as attractive as possible has never been so high as it is nowadays and this is due to the enormous explosion of the mass media. In the 19th century, beauty meant wearing a tight corset, leading to respiratory and digestive problems. Nowadays, we are following strict diets, exhausting ourselves in health clubs, or we are putting our personal health on the line by taking medicine or by undergoing a liposuction. We are rather losing money than weight in doing so. Things can go very far. In 2003 as well as in 2002 a woman died during a liposuction, a so-called innocent fat-reducing beauty treatment. The number of breast enlargements has never been higher than today. Girls ask for a breast enlargement as a gift from their parents, whereas once they used to be satisfied with a new bike. The number of anorexia phenomena and other eating disorders is growing to a terrifying level. New syndromes are turning up, e.g. body dysmorphic disorders (BDD), a phenomenon which we had barely heard of until 20 years ago.

The technological progress and the development of the media in particular have led to the fact that a sound concern about our looks leads to obsession. Thanks to the media we got used to extraordinarily rigid and uniform beauty standards. The number of times we are confronted with beautiful people on television, billboards, in magazines etc., is higher than the number of times we come into contact with our family, friends and neighbours. Even more than our grandparents have seen during their entire lives. Having exceptionally attractive looks is generally taken for granted and is considered achievable. Nevertheless, the beauty standards are becoming more and more difficult to achieve, especially for women. The present slenderness ideal that is dished up to women can only be attained by 5% of all women. Men can no longer escape it either. For them, special clubs to lose weight, beauty institutes, specially designed clotheslines, etc are established. In America it is called the Adonis complex, a complex that drives men to go to extremes to have a bodybuilder's figure.

Friendly people who want to cheer up unattractive people often say that beauty is insignificant. It is all about being friendly, kind and sympathetic. A pretty face, a lovely figure, it is all not that important. Being good at heart, having a pleasant character, those are things that are much more important. It is not the outside but the inside that counts. It is quite remarkable that mostly attractive people tend to make such remarks. Of course this is a one hundred per cent through fact, yet the ones who are claiming this, are wrong. Would Marilyn Monroe have been equally successful and popular if she had been less beautiful? Would Tom Cruise have shot as many films, if he had had a crooked nose or if his ears had been too big? In other words: what is the importance of our looks in our lives? The first impression we get, is based upon his/her looks. And we often pass a judgement on someone that is based upon this impression. A well-dressed woman makes a better impression than a woman dressed in old, worn-out and ill-matched clothes. The question is: do our looks actively influence the way we are being judged? Is it true that beautiful people are more likely to be associated with positive personal characteristics than ugly people? Research suggests this is the case. The strong influence of physical attractiveness in social contacts cannot be denied, but physical attraction also has far-reaching consequences with regard to our private lives. Research showed that personal characteristics such as assertiveness, timidity, involvement, being introverted or extroverted, self-satisfaction etc. are to a large extent determined by someone's looks. In particular, the way we look at ourselves, the extent to which we are seen and accepted or given the cold shoulder by others and the extent to which we think we are being considered by others, are important for our private well-being and feelings of happiness. An attractive person has more chances of leading a successful private, social and professional life. An attractive person enjoys more sympathy from the day he/she was born, more possibilities and will be assessed in a more positive way in many areas. An 'enchanting beauty' seems to be a social reality, something that was already known last century. (Berscheid & Walster, 1975). An ugly person is discriminated against in many areas. They will not only be bullied during their childhood, but they will also be ignored as an adult because we prefer to deal with attractive people. In the media, unattractive people barely get a chance to appear in television programs, magazines, or commercials. Even on ordinary television shows (soaps, news bulletins, quizzes,...) they are rather an exception. When it comes to finding a partner, they will have to content themselves with any partner, no matter how he/she looks, and when it comes to finding a job they will mostly be left with the short end of the stick.

During the seventies and the eighties a lot of research on the effects of physical attraction was done. However, the results have been neglected for quite a long time. From time to time popularised television programmes on unattractiveness appear on television (Telefacts, Zomerkoppen,...). Unfortunately, most of these programmes are rather superficial. From a scientific point of view, a well-founded theory is lacking and it proves to be hard to make research on physical attraction really operational. After all, what is the meaning of attractiveness? What is beauty? What is being ugly or being beautiful? People might even be afraid of bringing forward positive evidence for the far-reaching influence of physical attractiveness on society. Is it morally acceptable to accept the existence of some kind of genetically determined relation between physical attraction and certain personal characteristics. Yet, we still encountered opposition during our research. These are some of the reactions we collected in the streets during our survey: 'everybody already knows what you are trying to prove. This has already been going on for ages. Nothing can be done about it.'; It is not all that bad. Beautiful people are given a preferential treatment, so what? If a beautiful woman wants to benefit from her beauty, that is her right. If an ugly person wants to stay ugly, it is up to him/her!'. 'If you notice rotting food during a commercial, would you still buy it? After all, it is normal that only beautiful people are performing in commercials'. 'Why won't you do anything about the discrimination against thick books, which is just as absurd?'. Injustice has always been part of the world and it has been present ever since.' Not all people are rich, but some are poor. Nothing is being done about that either. The fact that migrants are being discriminated against is much more worrisome. This last remark gave us a sour feeling. Of course the world is full of social inequalities but poverty and racism are generally acknowledged discriminations. Quite some money is invested in and quite some campaigns are launched against these forms of discrimination. Several campaigns and welfare movements focus on this injustice. It is generally believed that society should become more tolerant. Immigrants and the underprivileged should get more opportunities. There are even some laws that prohibit racism. But there are no programmes to help ugly people, programmes that question the unequal treatment of physically unattractive people as for their chances in our society. No, on the contrary, it is up to you to try to be more attractive by working out, being well-dressed, wearing make-up, undergoing plastic surgery, or just by learning to be more satisfied with your own body.

Unattractiveness has already been an ignored hidden handicap. It makes people suffer in silence and makes them psychologically go under. Ugly people avoid showing themselves in public. They do not appear in news bulletins. They pine away, get depressive, bottle up their problems, commit suicide,… From birth on, they are already faced with exclusion. An American study points out that good-looking children seem to be cuddled more often than ugly children. During their childhood ugly children are the victim of bullying, they were the last to be chosen when it came to being part of a team, as a teenager they were turned down when they fell in love with someone because they were too ugly. When they do a screen test for a presentation job on television, they are confronted with the weak, unconvincing argument as if their voice does not sound clear enough... they are never being directly told that they are too ugly. In case of a suicide no one ever comes up to the idea that it is due to someone's appearance: He/she grew lonely, he/she had difficulties to make contact(s), he/she had a lack of social contact(s), he/she was left on the shelf by his/her partner, he/she had already been in a mess with him-/herself for years...Of course these are the reasons that lead to a suicide. But what was really lying at the base of it? After all, it is impolite to judge someone on his/her ugly appearance. That is why the problem has already been ignored for ages and will continue to be ignored. Unfortunately, A , modest booklet such as this one will not help to stop this process either.

Twenty years ago, Patzer (1985) phrased it as follows: 'It might be possible that we, to a certain extent, do not want to acknowledge that beautiful women are shown more sympathy than ugly ones. After all this seems to be undemocratic. And as citizens of a democratic society, we like to think in terms of the fact that one can almost achieve every goal by working hard and having a high degree of motivation. But unfortunately enough, an ugly woman will not get more beautiful by working hard. Due to this assumption, social psychologists are more inclined to stick to the idea that superficial beauty is mere window-dressing and they try to avoid scientific research for fear that the edge of this assumption will be taken...'. It would be unfair not to mention the efforts that are really made. In 2002 there was the commendable campaign around the slogan 'I am worth seeing', stimulated by Mieke Vogels, minister of emancipation. Unfortunately, it ended with an expensive and even - according to some - inappropriate media campaign and there has never been any financial support for research and prevention. In the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and the Netherlands, there are a number of smart websites dedicated to the acceptance of obesity. There is the Miss Large contest, there are self-help groups etc. In recent years, a movement on the overimportance of physical appearance in social life has been set up in England and especially in the United States. Slogans are 'turn beauty inside out!', 'everybody is OK' and 'the good stuff is on the inside'. The movement particularly charges the discrimination against fat people, the strong influence from the media that propagandise the creation of a far too idealised picture of ideal beauty to youngsters and the consequences this might have on the formation of a body image by youngsters. In the United States, books and videos with child programmes on eating habits, physical appearance, ways to learn to be satisfied with your body, BDD etc. Research on image building in particular and the influence the media can have on it are regularly given a chance in American scientific magazines. Many English-language websites are in use. In the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and in the Netherlands the topic is still not open to discussion and we get the impression that scientists are looking down their nose at it, regarding it as irrelevant. Here and there, there is some small-scale research but they do not receive a lot of attention. There is no financial support for research.

In the book we aim to illustrate the most relevant information on the issue. Insiders will recognise a number of former studies and will wonder why they are quoted again. Nevertheless, it would not be logical to make no reference to historically important scientific appraisal, even though it often dates back to the years 1965-1990 and part of the information got somewhat out of date. Moreover, doubts can be raised about the research-technical approach of a number of past experiments. We completed past results with up-to-date research. The greater part originates from English-language literature and also includes a number of research materials from the Netherlands and Germany. Apart from compiling different sources of information, we also report on our own research, which was carried out by a project team, consisting of final-year remedial education students at the Limburg Catholic University of Professional Education. On the one hand they carried out a survey among 3,387 Flemish and Dutch citizens. The anonymous questionnaires have been filled in in the streets, on trains, in shopping centres, at fairs, in offices and in adult education classes. The comments we received from the general public were mostly positive. It encourages us to continue our work. On the other hand, students drew up special questionnaires for youth aid services (special centres for child and adolescent welfare, and hospital wards for child psychiatry). These special questionnaires were specifically aimed at youth counsellors and the youngsters staying in these centres. Even though the co-operation passed off less smoothly due to deontological and practical reasons, we have managed to compile ample data to draw conclusions on this topic . This book will be accompanied by a CD-ROM. The CD-ROM is quite simple as far as its concept and lay-out are concerned and can be opened with any Internet browser (Microsoft Explorer e.g.). Next to the more comprehensive background information, it also includes the complete research reports of the three separate studies and all original Excel and Access files. Finally, the CD-ROM offers a number of ready-to-use models to organise activities on attractiveness, both for yourself as well as for young people (from pre-school children up to teenagers). There is a great comic strip drawn by Peter Olaerts about a fat boy who's being bullied because of his physical appearance. The Dutch rock band 'Sterk Water' g ave us permissionus to record their song 'Lelijk' (ugly) on MP3. An anorectic patient authorised us to publish her life story. Others made some lovely drawings to illustrate the poems and the stories on CD-ROM.Moreover, we want to draw your attention to our website 'http://www.onaantrekkelijk.be' offers the most recent information on the topic. It also includes additional information, which was not available at the moment of the publication of this package.

First, we would like to make remark on the terminology used. Throughout the book, concepts such as beauty, being attractive, attractiveness, ugly and unattractive are being used at will. When we were preparing this research, we had some fierce discussions on the terminology to be used. In fact, we could not agree. A female student was of the opinion that a physically attractive person can yet be ugly and vice versa. Moreover, being attractive or being ugly are no extreme concepts, but rather two poles on a continuous scale, going from very beautiful up to very ugly. Everybody occupies a certain position on that line. Besides, the way attractiveness is being appreciated is a personal matter. What does it mean to be really attractive or unattractive? We had some in-depth discussions. Another female student noticed that a smile on a plain face could be very attractive, whereas at the same time she was of the opinion that a beautiful face with a grimace can suddenly have an ugly expression. We admit that it was not an easy start to go ahead with our research. At a particular moment, we cut the Gordian knot and decided to use the concept 'unattractive' rather than to the concept 'ugly'. By using this word, we try to describe someone as being physically unattractive, in other words someone whose physical appearance rather has an obnoxious than an attractive effect. By saying 'ugly', we certainly do not want to pigeon-hole or offend someone. In our opinion beauty is but skin deep and is to be found in someone's inner self. But unfortunately enough, the distinction is often being made in everyday life. With an eye to this research we chose to use 'unattractive' because of its all-embracing character, but other terms are also used to make the book easily readable.

We wish you pleasant reading.
Gerard Gielen

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