Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

When teachers favor attractive kids

By Pepper Schwartz
January 2, 2014 -- Updated 1720 GMT (0120 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says a new study shows the practice of giving an edge to attractive people can start in school with teachers.
Pepper Schwartz says a new study shows the practice of giving an edge to attractive people can start in school with teachers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pepper Schwartz: Study finds edge given attractive people can start in school with teachers
  • Language, attitudes expressed by peers, adults shape kids' self-worth for lifetime, she says
  • We're sensitive to race, class, disabilities; how about effect of beauty standards, she asks?
  • Schwartz: Teachers, be aware of your power in contributing to beauty discrimination

Editor's note: Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which is "The Normal Bar." She is the love and relationship ambassador for AARP and writes the Naked Truth column for AARP.org. She is a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization that gathers research on American families, and chairwoman of the advisory board for the Ph.D. program in sexual studies at the California Institute for Integral Research.

(CNN) -- It's not news that looks matter. Depending on how attractive people think we are, we may have at times found ourselves dateless or overwhelmed with unwanted attention.

Studies have indeed shown that people attribute more intelligence and competence to taller, well-turned-out or otherwise good-looking people. However, a new briefing paper by the Council on Contemporary Families tell us life's uneven distribution of beauty counts in an even more poignant place than we may have considered: in school evaluations of our children by teachers and peers.

Pepper Schwartz
Pepper Schwartz

In a recently releasted briefing report, "In School, Good Looks Help and Good Looks Hurt (But They Mostly Help)." sociologists Rachel Gordon and Robert Crosnoe show that in high school, some students -- say, a prom queen and king -- will be rated higher in intelligence, personality and potential for success just because they are considered good-looking.

More than that, they will actually get higher grades and be more likely to graduate from college.

In fact, the authors, whose the larger study -- published in book form by Wiley -- say that "the difference in GPA and college graduation rates between youth rated by others as attractive, versus average in looks, is similar to the differences in academic achievement between youth raised in two-parent versus single-parent families."

If the idea that kids get better grades based on "getting by on looks" frosts you, wait. This will make you nuts: Based on their findings, Gordon and Crosnoe believe that the effects of beauty (or lack thereof) may last far beyond high school graduation.

They say there is a cumulative boost (or loss) of self-esteem about one's own appearance that carries over from high school into college and perhaps over a lifetime.

Site lets 'attractive' set travel free
New app tells you if you're ugly
Is there truth in Dove's body image ad?

And even though the authors say that beauty has its pitfalls (good-looking men and women, for example, dated more and drank more and some of this had a negative impact on their grades and college success), their conclusion is that, overall, this period of "lookism" in high school is important enough to merit the same kind of consciousness-raising discussion given to unfair racial or class stereotypes.

If looks translate into higher praise, better grades and even more credit for being warm and sensitive, as the authors found in their research, this is a real boon for the people with the lucky DNA. Each advantage a student has is likely to make that young man or woman feel more self-confident -- and self-confidence is an extraordinary tool to use in adult life.

The other side of the coin is what's concerning: There is, as many parents know, the depression and sense of worthlessness a young adult may feel when he or she is not deemed good-looking in high school. It is frightening to think this may lead to a lifetime of feeling awkward, unlovable and inferior.

We have all become more sensitive and activist about issues of adolescence we used to ignore. We now know how dangerous bullying is, how destructive depression can be and how important it is to reframe our view of people who have physical or mental disabilities.

While we can't mandate that people change their opinion about who is or is not good-looking, we could ask our kids' teachers to be aware of their own tendency to give a higher grade or greater approval to a good-looking kid than to one that is not. We could all bring attention to slang that kids use to assess or denigrate another person's looks.

Does this sound too PC? Maybe. But a little sensitivity here wouldn't be a bad thing.

Terms such as "tubby" or "skinny" or "lame" or other insult equivalents you may have heard don't need to be leveled at anyone. Young people are acutely aware when they are not the favored ones, and they know that popularity and good looks are usually paired.

Moreover, an ambitious student who is attractive might prefer to be complimented on what he or she said or did rather than for appearance. It does them no favor to allow them to think that their looks are their primary and best attribute; it could cause them to be insecure about other aspects of their personality or behavior.

Talking openly about this could make it clearer to the people in our children's day-to-day world that their casual remarks can have long-term effects. It can also take some of the sting out of not being in the running for prom king or queen. And here I would suggest that such beauty and popularity contests are a dicey idea for schools in the first place. They have an impact on the impressions and behavior of everyone in the school, even, potentially, teachers.

We spend time and energy to make sure our kids are treated fairly in life. Let's help ensure they are not discriminated against -- or given a free ride -- just because of the way they look.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pepper Schwartz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1407 GMT (2207 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT