Beauty is far more than skin deep, according to a leading scientist. Good looks can smooth the way to a better education and well-paid job as well as getting the best out of others. Attractive men and women reap benefits from their appearances all through their lives, says psychologist Dr Nancy Etcoff. Bonny babies get preferential treatment over plain ones while teachers assume their most attractive pupils are the smartest. In later life, police officers, judges and juries are more lenient towards pretty women and handsome men.
Dr Etcoff, who works at Harvard Medical School in the U.S., in her book "Survival of the Fittest: The Science of Beauty" argues that beautiful people are "sprinkled with Stardust right from the beginning". Her studies showed both women and men tended to be more helpful towards a pretty woman asking for help than a plainer one. In one experiment, researchers left a coin in full view in a telephone kiosk and waited for passers by to make a call.
The callers were then approached by one of two actresses and asked if they had found a coin left behind. The better looking woman got her coin back 87 per cent of the time. But the plainer actress was less successful, scoring a 64 per cent return rate. The two women later stood at the roadside by a car with a flat tyre. The prettier one was far more likely to be helped first, the study found.
Dr Etcoff shows mothers are more likely to talk and play with beautiful babies, while teachers expect good looking pupils to be "smarter and more sociable". Dr Etcoff said that while good looks can make life easier, they do not guarantee happiness. "Beautiful people are perhaps a little bit happier," she said. "But not as much as we might imagine."
Although ideals vary between generations and nationalities, Dr Etcoff believes the appreciation of human beauty is "gene deep", rather than the result of cultural and social pressures. Even three-month-old babies stare the longest at attractive people when shown pictures, she said.
It suggests that we all come into the world with these beauty detectors. "The fascination with beauty seems to ran very deep. Forty thousand years ago, people had red ochre crayons and they were painting their faces. Today we have breast implants, hair plugs and 24-hour mascara, but it's the same thing."
Her book also claims that beauty ideals are not imposed on women by men. They are part of an evolutionary process in which humans do whatever they can to advertise their fertility and health to potential mates. We use appearance to judge how suitable a potential partner is, she said. Big eyes in women are linked to high levels of the female hormone oestrogen, while a red flush on the face indicates fertility. Research has shown that people with symmetrical appearances are regarded as more attractive than those with irregular features.
Symmetry has also been linked to health and may be a sign of a long-living partner. There are even parallels in the animal kingdom, according to Dr Etcoff. "In the animal world, they do experiments where they lengthen the tail or make spots brighter and then other animals are more attracted. For the rest, perhaps a nip and tuck."
One in three women under 40 have considered cosmetic surgery. Women from the South of England are more likely to submit to the surgeons knife than those from elsewhere in the country. Women in their twenties and early thirties are most likely to opt for breast enlargement. The survey of more than 1,200 women between 15 and 40 was carried out for the Lanark Centre, a London cosmetic surgery clinic.
More than 50,000 patients had cosmetic surgery in Britain in 1997. Ahmed Jawad, the centres chief surgeon, said surgery had long been more popular in the U.S. but added: "Now everyone wants to realise their full potential in terms of their features and physique, so demand is rising."