You’re one of fifty-two people who mill about in a large room. Each of you holds a playing card against your forehead. No one knows their own card, but you can see each other’s. The goal of this little game is to pair off with the highest card possible, but to accomplish this, your request for partnership has to be accepted by the other. Of course the Aces and Kings are the most popular and they pretty much know right away that they’re the cream of the crop. It’s instant mutual acceptance when an Ace requests to partner with another Ace. It works fairly quickly with the Kings as well. By the time this experiment is over, for the most part, Aces have paired with Aces, tens with tens, sixes with sixes, and twos with twos.
It must be kind of depressing being a two, being the last in the room to find a partner, watching all the high cards go, then the middle ones, and experiencing the horrible realization that you’re the low card that no one wants to pair with.
Research has shown this is how couples typically pair off in the real world. Hot women tend to be with hot guys. Sevens with sevens. Twos with twos. Through the process of assessing interest and receiving rejections, we get a pretty good gauge of where we stand relative to others, and we choose our partner accordingly.
The popular belief is that beauty is subjective—beauty is in the eye of the beholder—but really, we all hold similar opinions as to who we consider physically beautiful. Even people in one culture can easily pick out beauty in another culture. We are hard wired to perceive beauty.
So we do our best to enhance ourselves, to add value to our card. We’ll diet and exercise to maintain the best proportions or wear makeup to project the illusion of youth. We do this because it’s necessary to attract a partner with the most sexual allure. We value other traits too, but physical beauty reigns supreme. Talents can add to one’s overall allure but it’s more like one suit value trumping another. Adding a Harvard degree to a killer body might make you the Ace of Hearts to the Ace of Clubs. In other words, talent, charm, and intellect can increase the value of your suit, but not your pip value.
We often talk about the shallowness of physical beauty and how real beauty is something within, and there is a certain internal beauty we do admire. It’s this internal beauty that makes a close friend or relative loveable in a heartwarming kind of way, but this kind of beauty doesn’t translate to romantic attraction. They are two distinct kinds of beauty—one endears us to many friends and the other excites a potential romantic partner.
So can a Six ever make it with an Ace? It happens but it’s not common. If we’re slightly devious, we’ll try some sleight of hand. Alcohol to level the playing field. The use of power and/or intimidation. Money.
Our stories, myths and legends try to convince the lower valued cards to hold out hope and that maybe in some perfect universe, Marisa Tomei might be attracted to short, stocky, bald men.
The lesson that many of our most cherished love stories attempt to drive home is that inner beauty is everything. But in what fairy tale is Prince Charming a three hundred pound oaf with big ears and acne? The truth is, most fairy tales and stories are populated by pretty heroes and ugly villains.
So what about the twos and threes? What is their destiny? To become witches? Criminals? Is this what we expect from less physically attractive people? With constant rejection and low societal expectations, wouldn’t a two or three naturally come to resent the world? I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt that sinking feeling of being the last man or woman standing in the room—it sucks—but we all haven’t faced this rejection on a day-to-day basis. This rejection does not come from only potential sexual mates. Pulchronomics, which studies the economics of beauty, shows us prettier people earn more money than their plain counterparts. Handsome children earn more attention from teachers. It’s no wonder that criminals tend to be uglier than most.
Obviously, being ugly does not make one a criminal just like being depressed doesn’t cause someone to commit suicide. There is, however, a striking correlation, and I wonder if we fully consider and appreciate the consequences of being physically unattractive and receiving constant rejection.
What we do tend to do is ridicule those who are preoccupied with their looks. But in a world where looks has a greater bearing on future success than education, a focus on primping actually seems to be the smarter path to take.
This being said, we also tend to overvalue the benefits of beauty in relation to overall happiness. Perhaps being the perpetual object of desire makes it easier to engage in extra-marital affairs, which can lead to painful divorces, breakups, or love triangles. Perhaps the promiscuity associated with Hollywood is less indicative of the loose morals of show business and more the result of extraordinarily beautiful people constantly in the midst of each other.
So what’s the lesson? Obviously beauty matters more than it seems appropriate to acknowledge. But the more important question is what can we change? Do we try to make the not-so-physically attractive more eye-appealing and encourage vanity? Or do we try to change the perception and importance of beauty? Can we really transform something that is hard-wired within us?
I think it would be nice if we could occasionally ask for a reshuffling of the deck.