Big and Beautiful

Of course being people of perception we are careful not to judge those we meet by their personal appearance. Yet another study, this time from Australia, shows that there is a close correlation between earnings and height in men. Apparently an increase in stature of two inches is worth on average an extra £500 a year.

This is not exactly news. The first study of social acceptability and height I have encountered dates from 1915, and there have been a myriad of studies showing similar results since then. This response to height may be a primitive reaction learned in our evolutionary past when the largest male was the safest choice of leader. Perhaps the Equality Bill, currently working its way through Parliamentary procedures, should contain a clause about height discrimination.

But then it would have to contain a good deal more. It has been demonstrated over and over again that physical beauty is associated with better temperament, greater virtue and greater trustworthiness. Similarly accent is important. A Birmingham accent is likely to mark you down as having greater criminal tendencies than a “BBC” accent – at least as BBC accents used to be.

Like most of us, I have had personal experience of this. For some time I favoured a black leather cap, purchased, with some chic, I thought, in Florence. But I lost faith when a passenger on Basingstoke station asked me the time of the next London train. Preferring me not to be mistaken for a porter, my wife bought me an elegant, dark green, fedora from Bates the Hatters in Jermyn Street. The effect was instantaneous. I was suddenly being treated with respect, even by porters. Occasionally I was addressed as “sir”, a habit I had assumed was long forgotten.

My beard was a different matter. I valued it because when it was grown, in middle life, I asked my wife if she approved. She said “It’s like committing adultery, without all the hassle.” I took that as approval. In fact the general female reaction was interesting. I found that about half my female friends hugged me less, and half hugged me more. Why was that, I wonder?

It was certainly a disadvantage in business. I worked for a respectable and large international financial company – and a beard hardly fitted the image. No paranoia on my part, for I was explicitly told on more than one occasion that its existence held back my promotion. But I saw its removal as one surrender too far. I was not prepared to “sell my beard to the company store”. I might have been a highly bonused banker by now, but it was worth it.

In fact, not being tall, my only advantage was wearing glasses. Apparently those who do so are credited with 12 additional points on their IQ score.

I mention these things because, despite my opening sentence, we do quite unconsciously stereotype people by their appearance, and are thus often unwittingly unjust. Today, height has no relationship to leadership ability. Beauty and virtue by no means always go together. I deserved as much respect in my cap as in my fedora. A man (or indeed a woman, I suppose) should be judged on ability rather than facial hair. And my twelve extra IQ points would disappear if I took to contact lenses.

Surely as Christians we should be accepting people as they really are, and not irrationally cataloguing them by their external trappings. But to do that we have first to recognise how much we instinctively measure people by their appearance. And we will find the habit difficult to drop.

I wonder whether you have had any personal experience of this. It might be useful to explore the ways in which you categorise people by irrational criteria. (If you think that you never do, then I simply don’t believe you.) And is there anything one can do to correct it?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Big and Beautiful

  1. Iona says:

    As regards the bespectacled bearer of an extra 12 IQ points, I was once treated by an optician who claimed that short-sighted people become channelled into an academic outlook because their focus distance is naturally at the right level for reading books; whereas long-sighted people, with their longer focus distance, naturally develop good ball skills so tend to become sporty and not academic. This turns the prejudice around; maybe short-sighted people, being bookish, really do score higher on IQ tests.

    As far as making judgements on the basis of appearance goes, aren’t we largely unconscious of doing it, which makes it a difficult tendency to fight against.

  2. RMBlaber says:

    I am quite sure that, being as ‘speccy’ as Harry Potter, if without his temporal scar or supernatural abilities, I am probably reckoned to be a tad more intelligent than is warranted. As someone who is nearly six feet tall, I ought to benefit from the earnings/height relationship, but I rather miss out there, subsisting (as I do) on a fixed income – the penalty for being disabled, at least in my case.
    It was once pointed out (please don’t ask me by whom) that the Dow Jones Industrial Average varied correlatively over time with the average length of skirt worn by the women walking up and down Wall Street. As I say, I have no idea who carried out that wonderful piece of research (I would put them in for an IgNobel Prize!), but it certainly demonstrates that correlation is not the same thing as causation!
    It is a shame that more people do not bear this in mind. A great many extremely dubious claims made in far too many shoddy scientific papers would not be made if only they did. Quentin is right, of course, that we should judge (insofar as we judge at all) by reality and not by appearance. Unfortunately, as TS Eliot wisely remarked, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’

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