It’s almost the end of freshman year, and I’m treating myself to a complimentary coffee in the back of the lecture hall following a grueling presentation. While stirring in my sugar, I feel a hand on the small of my back — a place I wouldn’t normally expect to feel one. Startled, I turn around.

My glance falls to the Cartier watch, the perfectly polished shoes, the well-tailored suit and twinkling eyes, all belonging to the most attractive guy in the class. “Good job on your presentation,” he says with a wink, his face a little too close to mine. All the hallmarks of a Class-A creep, but instead of feeling uncomfortable, I’m elated.
All our lives we’re told that appearance shouldn’t matter. We still remember the singsong voices of our elementary school teachers reminding us “it’s what’s inside that counts.” But somehow, the more we experience “the real world,” the more this notion falls apart.

A borderline creep has been noted as nothing more than a charming classmate in my book because I’ve got a weakness for his chiseled jawline and perfect teeth. Physical attractiveness shouldn’t, in theory, affect our perceptions of others, but it’s a glaring fact that it does.

In fact, the effect of attractiveness on social perception also extends into the political arena. Opponents of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century claimed that women, incapable of educating themselves on important issues, would simply vote for the more attractive candidate. Even today, jokes and memes have sprung up across the Internet commenting on the attractiveness of the 2012 Republican ticket and the influence it may have. Politics may be dirty at times, but is there anything wrong with unintentionally appealing to an inherent human desire for physical attractiveness?

This bias isn’t limited to men. A 2011 study showed that women who wore makeup appeared more competent than those who didn’t. Conversely, attractiveness may also be perceived as a negative trait, especially for women. As an engineer, I’ve certainly heard that female students who appear to spend more time caring about how they look are probably less intelligent as a result. Whether positive or negative, the evidence of these instinctual judgments we all make is everywhere. But should its prevalence make it OK?

Furthermore, should it affect our actions one way or another? As mentioned previously, the bias swings both ways for women — making yourself appear more attractive may help, or it may harm. And while some men may reap professional benefits from an attractive face or body, the reverse holds true for them too. After all, aren’t the most attractive guys at any college party assumed to be the biggest d-bags? Regardless of what we’ve been taught, it’s a fact in the real world that looks do matter. But it seems that changing how we look for others won’t always produce the intended result.

So the fear of other people’s judgment shouldn’t make a difference in how we present ourselves, fine. But we learned that in kindergarten. That can’t be nearly nuanced enough of an answer for us today.

Many of us feel our self-worth judged by our appearance — whether positively or negatively — for the first time while we’re in college. No kind of appeal will make people stop judging physical appearance. And while we may reprimand those who speak out about the appearance of others, we can’t control people’s inward thoughts. To some degree, bias associated with attractiveness is simply human instinct, and it shouldn’t be seen as something wrong. So perhaps the best we can do is recognize that this bias exists, and simply strive to remember that underneath everyone’s skin is a real person.

Sure, maybe you think Rep. Paul Ryan is more attractive than Vice Presidential Joe Biden. And as long as you don’t forget about their policies, that’s okay. Maybe a touch of lipstick will make your interviewer take you more seriously — or maybe they’ll judge you more. Just remember that it could go either way, and strike a balance.

And finally, perhaps we should all take things a little less seriously. To that guy in my freshmen class: Your musky cologne may have sent me reeling into over-analysis, wondering how I would have reacted if that had been anyone else in our class. But in all honesty, you could have been just genuinely trying to be nice. So for now, hey — I’ll just take the compliment.

Hema Karunakaram can be reached at khema@umich.edu.

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