Unfortunately looks matter. Pretty girls get free drinks. Old men in suits get deferred to to make decisions. And young guys with a clean cut hair-do always get the job.
Living in what we convince ourselves is an enlightened society, we try to pretend like we don’t think and react based on how others look. Although everyones’ reality behind closed doors is of course they interact with the world based on how others look and what they perceive that look to ‘mean’ about that person.
Now of course the reason why we would like to think ourselves better than this is obvious. We can point to countless times in history when different kinds of people were marginalized and disenfranchised and misjudged based solely on how they looked; blacks in the US, men with long hair, attractive blonde women, middle aged white men right now. Pick any person with any type of appearance and you can find an environment or time period in which that look would have given them a disadvantage that really had no connection with who they were and how they really behaved. We as humans do this constantly, but we also recognize in our hearts that it’s not always the best thing to do. We have stories and clichés ranging from Beauty and the Beast to “don’t judge a book by its cover” that try to teach us to not use looks to make a judgement on someone.
Even the story of Jesus is, in one sense, about the dangers of judging someone based on their look. Most kings and princes and rulers decked themselves out with the highest priced clothes and material goods they could find. They would usually have countless servants and treasures and the like. They also would often flash their military prowess to intimidate or subdue would-be rivals. The more glorious the presentation, the more power the ruler had. But Jesus didn’t have any of that. He started out being born in the equivilant of a cattle trough in a barn, hardly becoming of a normal middle-class person let alone anyone above that. His life and demeanor and looks didn’t scream gold and silver, and yet at the end of the day, he ends up being more powerful than all the rulers of the world put together. Most of his would-be follwers weren’t, because they didn’t recognize him. They were too stuck on their idea of what the king of all kings would look like.
The problem is just that. Both parties often suffer because of our relentless desire to connect a certain look with what we think that means about the character or inner make-up of a person. The party being judged is disadvantaged because this may make people think ill if him or her, or assume that they are capable of, or incapable of certain things associated with their look. A guy applying for a job may have a couple masters in business under his belt and has enough experience to run circles around the CEO. But if he’s dressed sloppy or has an ungroomed appearance, a far less qualified person with a better appearance is likely to get the job over him. This is a bummer for him because he missed out on a job he would have otherwise been good at. This is also a bummer for the employer because he missed out on filling his spot with a well qualified employee, and instead filled it with someone who just looked like a well qualified employee. We can see how our insistence on making these judgement calls based on looks gives us a slightly altered sense of what really lies within reality.
The reason for this is actually pretty simple. It’s not because we are evil, or racist, or sexist or classist or any of those other ‘ists that people are supposed to avoid like the plague (although appearance based judgements can often be a tell for someone suffering from one of those conditions). It’s really because first of all, we need to be able to make judgement calls on situations from as great a distance as we can. If we waited until we were inside a storm to decide to seek shelter, we would probably be in trouble. That’s why it’s important to be able to make decisions at arms length, but with still as much data as we can gather about the impending situation. Que the eyes. We may be able to hear longer distances, or possibly even smell depending, but for humans nothing beats the amount of information we can gather about something than what we can see with our eyes. And we can often do this from quite a distance. That’s why we rely on them so heavily to assess our surroundings. To be able to see the clouds and the sky changing color in the distance gives un an incredible head start in seeking shelter over the person who had to wait to hear the wind pick up, or even who had to wait until they felt the raindrops falling overhead. By then it might be too late.
The reason we need to make judgements about the world is so we can react to the world. But seeing something isn’t enough. We need our eyes to combine with our memory to make these judgements. Our memory allows us to compare images and sounds we are experiencing now, to those that we’ve seen in the past. The more similar they are to those we’ve seen in the past, the more we feel we can anticipate the behavior of whatever we are seeing, based on the behavior of the previous image. Even if things seem very dissimilar, our minds grope to find even the smallest ways to compare these things with other things so as to form, even the foggiest idea of how to deal with it. If we didn’t do this, every object or person we ever saw would be a complete and utterly new mystery to us. We would probably lose our minds, having to discover over and over again that this tree I’m looking at simply stands there and sways in the breeze, and then the next tree I see does the same thing. But I’m not sure if perhaps it might just uproot and run after me. After all, if my mind doesn’t connect the two based on their similarities, I have no reason to believe this new tree, which might have 5 big branches, will be anything like the first tree that only had 3 branches. By making these associations and judgements based on things I’ve seen in the past, I can be as positive that this tree won’t run after me, as I was about the thousand other trees I’ve seen in my life. And each time I see a tree that remains inanimate, it reinforces the idea in my head, and would make it harder for me to believe that any tree is capable of doing anything but that.
Dealing with people is where we can get in trouble. While human beings themselves have so many things in common with eachother, we can comfortably predict things about humans we’ve never seen before, if we try to get too specific about our judgements, based on looks, we can really falsely assess someones personality. While all humans can be expected to bleed when pricked, if we get so specific as to assume that since my previous black friend liked loud rap music, this new black friend must like the same type, it really reflects a misunderstanding of how humans and reality works.
Understanding and accepting the fact that people will judge you based on how you look can be a very good thing. Obviously we would all like to be judged at the end of the day by our character, and many things like our skin color, or our sex or very obvious things that are part of our being, cannot be hidden. However there are many things we can do, especially to our dress to push people in the direction we want them to go when making an appearance based judgement on us. The key is to understand what ‘looks’ tend to make people make certain different associations. When you begin to understand that, you can push people’s thoughts about you in the direction you’d like. The principle is the same reason you’re told to wear a tie to an interview, even though you normal just wear a t-shirt, or why a woman will either wear a low cut shirt or a turtle neck to a meeting with a guy, depending on where she wants him to think their relationship is going.
The trick is to know your audience. The tie for a job thing is great, especially if you are applying at a financial firm, or an attorney’s office. If you are applying to be a field hand at a rig, you might want to wear something that you would feel more comfortable working in. That’s because your audience isn’t looking for someone who is afraid to get dirty, and a tie might make them think that you are more of the office type.
Basically it can be a bummer that people judge each other based on their appearance, but the fact is that, whether we ought to or not, we can’t help but do it, and probably wont escape it this side of eternity. Afterall, we don’t really have the time to get to know every single person, and often it can be dangerous to do that without at first putting up a guard against certain things. The guy hiring doesn’t really care that your hair is long or not. All he really cares about is that you can fill the hole he has in his organization and help him make more money. Hair doesn’t really matter in that whole scheme. The reason hair becomes an issue is because somewhere before he learned that long hair means something about someone, and odds are the meaning he gets from yours is that you won’t have the skills or motivation or whatever, to help him meet his goals. It could be a complete crock, but that’s how it goes. The good news is we can learn these visual ques and learn to give the ones that make people see us in the way we want them to see us. Just like credit scores, and diplomas, using the assumptions you know people will make based on your appearance help you find common ground, even if only on a subconscious level. Only once you have developed a relationship with that person, you can start to try and change the way they associate different appearances with different behaviors. In todays society, we don’t have the patience to do that, and so we try and force the person to change without giving them a real reason to. We think we have a moral obligation to do so, but with a little foresight, we can be much more successful at it over the long run. People judge us based on how we look, so deal with it…or do something about it.