There’s a point to this story, I promise: About a month ago, I walk into an unfamiliar café in Chelsea to play complicated, strategic board games with strangers. I was schmoozing around, meeting everyone, when an oldish man around fifty introduces himself and then asks me if I know how to play this one obscure, three and a half hour long game he was holding in his hands. I did, as a matter of fact, and when I told him so, his face lit up like a lamp and he said, “Oh! Great! Want to play?”
No, I didn’t really want to play. First of all, the game was three and half hours long. Second, I was only about three minutes into the night and I wanted to get to know some other people – namely this one guy who was kinda cute. Third, he looked like he was homeless. Literally. His hair was long, stringy, and chaotic; his teeth were an even shade of yellow; he was wearing a huge white t-shirt that hung loosely off his skinny frame, dirty, tattered with holes everywhere; his jeans looked like they’d been through a decade or three, and were cut off at the knees. He looked pretty rough, to put it mildly: cut-offs aren’t a good look for anyone. Especially at the knees.
But he looked so excited and happy when I said that I knew the game, and no one else was playing anything yet, so being the awkward, ultra-polite, slow-thinking dullard that I am, I said, “Sure” and we started to play. Ten minutes into the game, I realized that he was actually pretty smart and articulate. Twenty minutes into the game, I realized that he was also really nice and funny and that I was thoroughly enjoying his company. And it was also about this time that I realized that I’m way more of a shallow jerk than I’d realized: I’d judged him, before I knew anything about him, and that judgment was based almost completely on how he looked and dressed. And yes, although the game he’d invited me to play was long, many of the games played in those kinds of board game groups are long, and I knew that if it’d been someone else who’d asked me – and especially if that someone else were cute – I wouldn’t have been so hesitant to say yes, three and half hour game or not. I would’ve seen it as an opportunity to make a new friend. If I hadn’t felt guilted into playing this game with the homeless-looking man, if I’d met him in some other capacity, or seen him on the streets, I would’ve written him off. I think most people probably would’ve done the same.
This got me thinking: Why are our opinions and behaviors toward others so heavily influenced by how they look and the way they dress? We’re all told from a young age that “what counts is what’s underneath,” and we’ve all heard the fussy metaphor “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” But we totally, totally do. (And I, for one, absolutely judge books by their covers when browsing through bookstores.) Looks matter. Someone blessed with a beautiful face and figure, or dresses with spectacular style, (or both! Double win!) is given so much more goodwill from the moment they first meet someone. They’re given the benefit of the doubt; friendship, camaraderie, and admiration are theirs to lose. Of course, they can’t behave like total idiots or say ridiculous things, but in general, the bar is set lower from the start. Beautiful, stylish people need only to behave like a normal human being for them to be welcomed into the arms of society because people want to like them.
For the poorly-dressed, physically unattractive members of this world, society is far less giving in comparison. There is no extra extension of that goodwill – or at least not nearly as much. At best, he or she begins with a blank slate when they first meet someone — at worst, they’re judged and written-off before they even open their mouths. They have to work harder to ingratiate themselves to others. It’s almost like they have to prove their worth, or make up for their unattractiveness somehow, by being funnier, or smarter, or nicer. The unattractive person wearing ill-fitting frumpy clothing begins at a very different starting gate from the beautiful and sartorially gifted.
But all this is more or less obvious: I think we can probably all agree that physical appearance actually matters a great deal. And I think that it should matter, to an extent. It’s unfairly selective to assert that physical appearance shouldn’t count for anything in the whole package that makes up a person. But my question is this: how much should it matter? Is there a better reason why looks and style have the influence as they do other than the obvious fact that people like pretty things? Is there anything more to looking good than just looking good?
I asked my friend this question, and she argued that there is something substantial in valuing physical appearance, as well as physical appearance itself; she gave the metaphor of gift-giving: When you give a gift to someone, the wrapping paper is a part of the gift, and while the actual gift matters more, so does the presentation — the packaging is a very significant component in the gift itself. I thought about it for awhile, and I can see her point, but ultimately I disagree. The sole purpose of a gift is to please the person who’s receiving the gift. So of course, the packaging of the gift matters, because that’s a part of the gift and, as I said before, people like pretty things. But a human being’s sole purpose isn’t just to please another person, or even society – they’re complicated and rich with so many qualities and traits and quirks and characteristics. And I think we’re all advanced enough now as a society to know this. So why do we still care about the packaging so much?