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Face facts: Looks do matter

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When I met my second husband at a suburban lunch, I thought he was the local tennis pro. Tanned and handsome, he sat down next to me and we chatted about tennis and politics and the differences between California and New York before he headed off for the courts and an afternoon match. I was incredulous when I learned that he was a distinguished art historian who wrote for The New Yorker.

The aristocratic Polish gentleman who greeted me when we moved into the building where we live acted like the owner of the building; for months I thought he was. We talked about skiing and poetry. When the building's Christmas card was handed out, I realized he was one of the building's porters.

When I first met one of my closest friends, her blonde helmet hair, heavy rings and Gucci shoes had me assuming she was a useless Stepford wife, when, in fact, she has turned out to be the most generous and funny woman I know.

When we judge by first impressions, how far wrong can we go? Is who we are expressed in how we look?

Back in the 19th century, people believed character could be deduced from the shape of a skull. Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson, a respected educator, thought dark-haired people were devilish and blondes were angelic.

All that's ridiculous, of course. We know better. Or do we? We may be more scientifically informed than our 19th-century counterparts, but at least they didn't judge people by the way they look on television.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I sometimes vote based on the way candidates look to a camera -- after all, I don't usually get to see them in person. If I do, I usually don't recognize them. I often make up my mind about world events based on a 13-inch image in the corner of my bedroom, under the bookcases.

On television, for instance, Michael Jackson looks like the kind of guy who might molest a child. His strange behavior, the way he puts veils over his children's faces and his passion for kids all suggest guilt to me. It's easy for me to believe that in the seething emotional darkness at Neverland, children were abused. After all, Jackson couldn't even pull himself together to look like a normal guy for his court appearances.

But as the verdict reminded me, it is not against the law to be weird. Jackson was not indicted on multiple counts of acting like a creature from another planet. The judge did not instruct the jury to determine whether or not the defendant looked really, really odd.

If asked, most people will say they don't care how anyone looks. If observed, it's clear they do. Even in the world of fairy tales it took the beauty a long, long time to warm up to the beast.

My parents always told me, "Beauty is only skin deep." "The colonel's lady and Rosie O'Grady are sisters under the skin," my father would intone. At the same time, he'd urge me to get rid of my beloved ratty jeans and get my hair out of my face.

As a teenager, I argued that if people judged me by my looks, I didn't want to know them. Now I force my own teenager to wear nice clothes because I don't want others judging him by his looks.

At least I'm not alone. Many recent psychological studies have shown that by almost all economic measures, physically attractive people do better than unattractive ones.

According to one study, the average CEO is three inches taller than his underlings. Workers and bosses of both genders make an average of $789 more per inch of height than their shorter peers. Obese women are paid 17 percent less than their thinner colleagues. A recent study of brain scans showed the brain's "reward centers" lighting up at the sight of an attractive face.

If looks are important, are we justified in spending lots of time and money on them? Should I redirect my charitable giving to the local manicure-pedicure place? How about haircuts? Good clothes? Plastic surgery? Is it alright to spend enough money to rehabilitate a Third World village on a younger face or a trimmer body?

If the studies are accurate, instead of trying to be a better writer and teacher and hoping to succeed the old-fashioned way, I should have a makeover, revamp my wardrobe and wear the highest heels I can find.

Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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