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On Being Unattractive

Upsides, downsides, and what you might do.

Wellcome Images, CC 4.0
Source: Wellcome Images, CC 4.0

Among the genetic lottery's prizes is an attractive face.

A large body of research has found that, across races and cultures, people with certain facial characteristics are widely viewed as more attractive.

Sure, we can do things to enhance our looks but, if you were born unattractive, you do start life with a strike or two against you.


Unattractiveness does have its upsides.

  • You can't get by on your looks, so you're more likely to work on developing an engaging personality.
  • You're less likely to be "stuck up" than are "The Pretty People."
  • Some attractive people complain of being "hit on," or the legal term, "unwanted advances." That's less likely if most people perceive you as unattractive.
  • You're less likely to cheat in a monogamous relationship because fewer people want an affair with an unattractive person.
  • Unattractive people offer the potential for surprise. We tend to perceive attractive people as more competent, even though, as adults, it turns out to be untrue .So if you turn out to be proficient, people might particularly appreciate you. For example, the judges and audience sneered and rolled their eyes on seeing Susan Boyle come on stage at Britain's Got Talent. But as soon as she started to sing, they, even the blasè Simon Cowell, cheered, in excess of her singing talent. Better singers receive weaker responses.


Alas, unattractiveness has its downsides.

  • Not only do infants prefer attractive faces, adults prefer attractive infants. And I'm not just talking about strangers saying, "What a cute baby!" versus "What a baby!" A series of studies found that caregivers pay more attention to attractive babies.
  • Of course, school children's cruelty to unattractive kids is legion. Unattractive kids are more likely to be ostracized and bullied.
  • Dating is harder. Infants' preference for attractive faces matures into teen and adult sexual preference for an attractive face.
  • Employers, co-workers, and customers aren't immune. We are visual--No matter how much we're urged to value substance over appearance, as cited earlier, we tend to overvalue appearance. That's true not only in hiring and promotion, but evaluation expert Michael Scriven concludes that unattractive people's comments tend to be given less credibility.
  • Indeed, even famous people have been cruel to the unattractive. For example,

Amy Sedaris said, "I'd just much rather see an ugly person take the trash out than see somebody really pretty taking the trash out."

Robin Williams said, "Never pick a fight with an ugly person. They've got nothing to lose."

Oscar Wilde said, "It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But... it is better to be good than to be ugly."

Just imagine if they had said such things about an ethnic group, race, or sex! Lookism is the last acceptable ism.

What to do?

As usual, there are no magic pills, but you might consider one or more of these options:

Demonstrate self-acceptance. Being matter-of-fact or even making light of your looks usually garners respect. It demonstrates that you're comfortable in your own skin and avoids others needing to dance around the issue. So, for example, if you and a friend are going somewhere in hopes of meeting a romantic partner, you could say, with a smile, "I'm your perfect wing man. No one would pick me over you."

Personality can trump physical unattractiveness. Recognize that personality can trump looks. Don't you know someone you found unattractive but after you got to know them, they seemed more attractive or that it didn't matter?

Make the most of your looks. Everyone can look better by keeping your weight under control and with the right choice of hairstyle, clothes, posture, and, for women, makeup. It may be hard to judge ourselves so you might want to seek the advice of a friend or professional you trust. But don't surrender too much power to them. Ultimately, you'll likely feel best if, like all wise leaders, you consider others' input but then make the final decision based on your own judgment.

Consider cosmetic surgery. I am well aware of the counterarguments, for example, that it mitigates against self-acceptance and utilizes our ever scarcer medical resources on a discretionary procedure. But lookist species that we are, a person born with an unattractive face, through no fault of his/her own, is likely to pay a price, professionally, in relationships, and in self-esteem. Good cosmetic surgery may yield rewards far in excess of its price. I have had a number of clients who have had, for example, a "nose job" and are thrilled. Of course, surgeons vary, so do your due diligence: Read Yelp reviews, talk with three surgeons. You might even talk with each receptionist---Many of them have heard a lot and may be candid. It can't hurt to ask a question such as, "I'm also considering Dr. B and Dr. C. Candidly, do you have an opinion as to who should do my surgery?"

Smile more. It's amazing how a smile makes you more attractive.

The takeaway

We all have assets. If looks isn't one of yours, do remember that even a liability can sometimes be used to advantage or at least mitigated. After you've done that, focus on self-acceptance and on redirecting your efforts to building on your strengths.

And whether you're attractive or not, in dealing with others, you might ask yourself, "Am I judging too much on appearance?" For example, in a group conversation, when you hear a worthy comment from an unattractive person that deserves a more positive response, you might make special effort to give it, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at

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