About Face

The Look of a Leader

By Catherine Hamrick

2009_facePoor James Marsden. “If you’re an attractive guy, everyone thinks you’re successful just because of the way you look,” the actor and former Versace model complained to an interviewer recently. “I hate that.”

Marsden’s frustration notwithstanding, there is little doubt that personal appearance plays a major role in Hollywood career success. But a recent study by UAB sociologist Casey Borch, Ph.D., and Thomas Hochschild of the University of Connecticut suggests that good looks can also open doors in a more surprising place: the military.

While athletic prowess and tactical savvy would seem to be the way to the top in the armed forces, Borch found that a recruit’s attractiveness was a handy predictor of his chances of advancement.

Hey, Good Lookin’

For a study titled “Sergeant York or Gomer Pyle as My Leader?” Borch obtained 500 boot-camp photos of U.S. Navy recruits. Participants were asked to rate the people in the photos in terms of leadership, intelligence, and attractiveness. In order to avoid subtle and not-so-subtle biases, researchers selected only pictures of white male recruits and controlled “for a host of things,” Borch says, including the facial expressions of the recruits and the age, sex, income, and race of respondents.

Study participants were randomly assigned to each set of pictures, and the picture sequence was randomized so that no participant saw the same pictures in the same order.

The result? “There was a positive relationship between perceived attractiveness and speed of advancement and final rank,” says Borch. “This suggests that attractive people are more likely to be promoted and to be promoted faster than unattractive people.”

Borch feels that these conclusions open a window onto a larger debate. “Our study certainly has implications for society as a whole,” he says. “If it is true that those who are more attractive are seen as ‘more capable’ than those who are less attractive, the less attractive will have to work harder to advance.”

Exotic Ideals

But there is evidence that the definition of beauty is fluid. UAB associate English professor Virginia Whatley Smith, Ph.D., recently returned from traveling in Europe, where she found that once-strict ideals of physical attractiveness are gradually expanding. She attributes the change to the global movement of peoples and the decline of the Eurocentric model of beauty.

“Three years ago, I did not see many Africans or people of color in the main districts of Paris; they lived at the fringes,” says Smith. “Now, people of color can be seen on the streets of Paris or on the subway all over. Women or men wearing traditional, non-European attire strut proudly. So the French have succumbed to pressure, and people of color also appear on TV. We’re starting to see the world through the lens of a multiracial spectrum.”