I have now conducted dozens of interviews with people who are physically different from those around them in terms of height, culture, race, weight, or another physical abnormality. In every situation, I found that their lives were full of difficulties. Why is it that simply looking different from others is such a challenge?

Evolutionary Baggage

Recall the theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest.’ Whether or not you believe that mankind evolved from apes, there is a great deal of evidence that species do evolve to some degree through a process of natural selection. Essentially, predators devour individual members of a species who are different in some way that does not prove to be advantageous, leaving only those with the “most desirable” traits alive to reproduce. For eons of time, those with ‘superior’ physical traits have been prized and ‘selected’ by societies.

The Rules Have Changed but Values Have Not

We are now living in a VERY different age of information in which physical attributes play a diminishing role in success and survival. Much of the workplace is now dominated by technological devices for which the physical attributes of their operators are not important. Physical attributes are now largely irrelevant even in warfare as we move to using high-tech planes and smart bombs. And the invention of the handgun makes physical attributes less consequential when warding off other physical dangers, such as thieves and thugs. In our era, educational attainment and intellectual ability are much better predictors of success and survival than are physical attributes. In fact, most labor professions that reward physical attributes (e.g., construction) pay less than jobs that do not emphasize physical traits (e.g., doctors and lawyers), with the obvious exception of the entertainment industry (e.g., Hollywood, professional sports).  So if this is the case, why are the ‘prized’ physical attributes still so strongly rewarded in our society?

The rest of this post has now been published in my book Standing up for Standing Out: Making the most of Being Different in Kindle or hard copy.The book includes experiences from 74 people I interviewed who share their struggles and coping strategies on the topics of relationships, belonging, standing out, self-acceptance, working against labels, gaining understanding and compassion, and personal growth. Check it out!

About the Author

Nathaniel Lambert, Ph.D.

Nathaniel Lambert, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at the University of Utah.

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