People who are “good-looking” make about 12-14% more money than those who are unattractive, says South China Morning Post’s production executive (digital) Salome Grouard, quoting from a North American study (Hamermesh and Biddle 1994).
This is due to the “halo effect” where one aspect of a person such as their beauty or good looks are taken as representative for their whole character.
“Unfortunately, this beauty bias is very real. Women are judged based on their appearance, age, height, weight and hair, and it’s a social behaviour that people don’t have control over,” says Grouard. “It makes some women feel pressured to be thin and yet not skinny, while others want to look professional and attractive, but not too sexy,” she says.
Grouard was a moderator at the Women of Our Time 2022 conference held earlier this year.
Beauty bias is defined as the “favourable treatment that individuals receive when they’re deemed more attractive” and that “physically attractive people are seen as more successful, sociable”.
According to Grouard, such beauty standards, dress codes, and biases do affect women in many ways – from their work life to their social life. In order for women to have a positive body image, these beauty standards need to be refined. And, in order for future generations of girls to have a healthy self-esteem, resilience and confidence, society needs to be sending a different message on beauty.
Fashion model and social media influencer Nalisa Alia Amin reveals that she did feel a lot of pressure when she was in school because she didn’t conform to society’s standards of beauty.
“I felt so much pressure because I looked very different from the other students because I had curly hair, and was chubby and tomboyish, while other girls were slim, girly and had straight hair. Peer pressure and being compared to the other girls by my teachers and parents did affect me mentally and I suffered from depression and an eating disorder,” she reveals.
“The very first time I ever heard the word ‘beautiful’ being used to describe me was from my mum when I was 10 years old.
“I had thick eyebrows and it was quite messy so I thought I was ugly. So that kind of sentence caught me off guard and I thought, ‘Oh, so I am beautiful’?! But it had a large impact on me,” she says.
Today Nalisa exudes confidence and she was also the first plus-size model to open the KL Fashion Week Malaysia in 2018. She decided to take her weakness and turn it into her strength.
“Before I became a plus size model, I never felt like I was enough for society no matter what I did. But right now, I’m looking back at my past and trying to make my inner child proud,” she says.
Nalisa also has a huge following and positive feedback on social media.
“Growing up, I never received that kind of love before so I appreciate it because it’s the kind of validation that I needed as a child. I guess people saw that confidence, that light burning in me, that I wanted to make a difference. They could see that I was real while others were trying to be thin,” she says.
Stephanie Ng, founder and executive director of Body Banter, a non-profit organisation in Hong Kong that empowers women about body image and mental health, says that women need to celebrate their unique individuality and learn together as a community.
“Through my work teaching about body image and self-acceptance, I’ve learnt a lot. When women connect and learn from one another as a community, we become advocates for each other, and we can celebrate our triumphs and successes together,” she says.
Ng is dedicated to empowering people and communities with the tools to start open dialogues, whether this is through delivering interactive workshops at schools, or conducting research on how language-use shapes our attitudes toward mental health.
Artist and photographer Stephanie Teng from Hong Kong says that in Asian culture, people tend to tie beauty to fitness, and while it can be seen as attractive, the two aren’t the same.
“When you meet relatives or friends whom you haven’t seen for a long time, the first thing they say to you is ‘Oh, you’ve lost a lot of weight’ or ‘You’ve gained a lot of weight’.
“That’s the first thing people comment on – your weight – especially women. It’s like a cultural thing and as Asians, it’s as if we’re stuck at that stage even though it isn’t our choice to see beauty from that perspective. We need to move away from that.
“Your body or other physical aspects doesn’t seem to be a private thing that you have control over, it seems to be public property that people feel the urgency to comment on. But as women, we need to learn to appreciate our body for its function before its appearance.
“And, as a society, we need to move away from that cultural expectation in order to break that beauty bias,” she adds.
Teng, who has a BA in Psychology, uses her profession to find acceptance within herself while helping others and challenging beauty standards.
“I grew up with this confusion of identity and self worth too. But I found refuge and solace from these inner conflicts through my work, especially one project that I started in 2018 called A Body of Work. I photographed women I’ve never met before and structured every photoshoot as a therapy session. I spent hours and days with them and we talked about everything from child traumas to how they are now.“It made me realise that as women, we’ve so much more in common than we think in the battle for self worth even though it seems to be a very lonely and solitary one,” she says.