This Year's People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive Is Just a Pile of Money: The Sociology of Physical Appearance

Back in the 1800s, students were educated in one-room schoolhouses. Kindergarten students, fourth grade students, high school students, dental students...they were all educated in one room, by the local schoolteacher, usually a young woman who would ride into town looking for a husband. But things have changed, of course. Nowadays, schoolteachers are often older women looking for husbands.

As I look back at my 20-plus years of schooling (I failed sixth grade four times.), I can say I learned exactly five things:

1. There would be very little American history if not for white people.

2. There are ways to get out of your college gym requirement.

3. Logarithms are some sort of math thing.

4. Graduate school is the one place where life's losers get their own office.


5. Generally speaking, the popular kids were more attractive.

I'll get back to #5 in a minute.

But I digress.

I didn't learn a lot in school. I've learned much more from watching reality shows.

For example, I never knew that much about Italian culture. But thanks to Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of New Jersey, now I know that Italian-Americans are intelligent, hard-working people with a lot to offer society.

Here's another example. I used to have this fear of being wrongly accused of a crime and being sent to prison. But thanks to NBC's The Voice, I no longer have that fear... because I got through an entire episode of The Voice, and there is no way that prison could be any worse than that.

But my favorite reality show this week is Catfish on MTV. "Catfishing" is a recent phenomenon in which people set up fake online profiles with gorgeous pictures and they con unsuspecting Internet users into a romantic relationship. So each week on the show, the hosts meet some poor sap who thinks he/she is in a real "relationship" with an attractive, successful winner. The poor sap doesn't understand why their Internet boy/girlfriend never wants to meet in person. So the hosts of the show investigate. And as it usually turns out, the "attractive, successful winner" is really just an out-of-shape, average-looking "regular" person. (So it would be like if you think you're having graphically sexual phone conversations with Ryan Gosling. But it turns out that you're actually talking to Ryan Reynolds.)

Catfish is a big hit. And I've read several articles about not just the show's popularity, but about this weird generational social networking "being in a relationship without actually meeting the person" romance thing. But, as usual, the media has it all wrong. Catfish is not about false identity or online relationships or emotional deceit. It's about looks.

On the show, when the duped person meets the "real" person behind the fake identity, the duped person is always disappointed. Oh, the person will feign outrage about being lied to. But that's not the real reason for the anger. It's that the "real" person is less attractive than the "fake identity" with whom they fell in love.

You know what you never hear? "I met someone online. But they lied about their physical appearance. The picture they posted wasn't even real; it was a picture of his/her cousin, who is a professional model. But it's okay. The date went really well. Because it turns out, they were even hotter than the person in the picture."

You never hear that.

Actually, on the show Catfish, the "real" person doing the catfishing is generally about equal in looks to the duped loser. The two people would probably make a good "yeah, I can see those two together" couple. But, alas, on the show, there is rarely a love connection... because the duped loser wants someone better looking. Everyone thinks they deserve someone better looking. It's all about looks.

Looks are in the eye of the beholder. And there are seven-billion beholders who think Shakira is pretty hot.

5. Generally speaking, the popular kids were more attractive.

Do you remember the high school cafeteria's loser table? The one with me and my dorky friends and Ryan Seacrest? Beautiful people weren't sitting at that table. It's said that high school is so hard for teenagers because there is so much pressure to act cool and dress hip and have money, etc. But that's not actually true for all teenagers. The good-looking kids didn't have to act cool. They were good-looking; that was cool enough.

Nowadays, you see some of the popular kids from high school... and they're just not very cool anymore... but it's not because their personalities changed... it's that they're not attractive anymore. Well, also that they post Facebook eCards.

It's all about looks.

Now you're saying, "When I go to the mall, I see a lot of weird-looking couples. If it's all about looks, how come those people got together? And also, where the hell is the Cinnabons?"

I have a theory. Let's assume there is a universal attractiveness scale that goes from 1 to 10. (Don't give me the "beauty is judged differently in other societies" bullsh*t. I've seen National Geographic documentaries. Yeah, the tribal villagers dress differently and wear bizarre jewelry and have different hairstyles. But I can still pick out the cute ones.) Now let's say Person A is a 4. It's not that Person A isn't attracted to the 8s and the 9s. Of course they want to be with a 9. Hell, Person A is currently in an online relationship with a photograph of a 9. Person A is attracted to, and wishes he/she were with a 5 or a 6 or a 7 or an 8 or a 9 or a 10. But Person A, being that he/she is a 4, is still attracted to a 4. However, being that Person A is a 4, he/she is *not* attracted to a 3. (On "Catfish" the problem is the sense of entitlement. It's not that the duped loser isn't attracted to the scammer. It's more that "well, I fell in love with an 8, so that's what I deserve".)

You're thinking, "But I know a lot of couples. And the women are usually more attracted to the men." That's true. But that's because women, as a general rule, are better looking than dudes. And so the "1 to 10" attractiveness scales is adjusted for male time zones. It's all relative. A female 5 is much better looking than a male 5. The male scale starts at around a 4. Hence, a female 4 is about equal to a male 1.

There are not a lot of true "tens" in the world. So sometimes 10s have to settle for 8s and 9s. Oh, it's not that they're not attracted to the 8s and 9s. They're just less forgiving of their partner's physical flaws.

Sometimes you see a wildly ill-proportioned couple, like a 3 holding hands with a 7. Yes, that happens sometimes. But- trust me on this- the 7 is cheating on the 3 with an 8.

It's all about looks. And that's fine. People should be more honest about it, though. During beauty contests, they often have a "talent" competition or an "interview" segment. They're beauty contests. What does talent have to do with being good looking? If you watch an Olympic weight-lifting competition, the winner is the guy who lifts the most weight. He's not judged on congeniality. On Catfish, the duped losers are dishonest about why they're upset when they see their "real" boy/girlfriend. I've watched most all of the episodes, and I've yet to see a catfished sap speak honestly, and just say, "I'm upset because this person I thought I fell in love with is as goofy looking as I am. Hell, I don't need cyberspace to date someone homely. That's what bars are for."

It's all about looks.

The cliché is that men think they're more attractive than they are. While women see themselves as less attractive than they are. That's true up to a point. And the point is when the woman gets hit on by a weird-looking guy. That's when she thinks, "No. This guy isn't good-looking enough."

Have you ever been asked out on a date by someone less attractive than yourself? It's insulting. And you think, "I shouldn't feel insulted by this. But yet I do." It's sort of like when the person sitting in the passenger-side seat criticizes your driving.

I walk to the supermarket on Friday mornings. The same cashiers are always in their same stations. I usually pay for my groceries in the express aisle. The same cashier is usually working the express aisle. She is not conventionally pretty, though seems like a nice person. Last week, I was paying for my food, and I was trying to be friendly. So I said something about the weather or something. I thought, "Isn't this nice of me? I'm better looking than this woman. But yet I'm treating her like an equal. God will reward me when I die." But she immediately went on the defensive, putting out those "no, I don't want to date you" vibes. Like... she randomly mentioned her fiancé. So now I'm thinking, "Whoa. I wasn't hitting on you. I was just trying to be nice." I thought, "Maybe I should explain to this woman that I couldn't have been hitting on her because I'm better looking." But I didn't do that. I bought gum, though.

There have been sociological studies done with young children. Two female teachers will speak in front of a class, both reading from the same lesson plan script, interacting with the children in the same exact way. One teacher is young and pretty. The other teacher is older and less shapely. Afterwards, they'll ask the kids which teacher they liked more. The children always like the pretty teacher. (Sociologists have conducted the same studies in high school, only they ask the kids, "Now which teacher would you rather sleep with?")

It's all about looks.

Another interesting thing about looks is that what is unattractive on other people makes good-looking people even more attractive. When a beautiful person has a European accent, it's sexy. When an ugly person has a European accent, they sound like a character from a low-budget slasher movie.

The reason that people hate getting older is because they lose their looks. It's not about their health or the fear of dying. It's all about their looks.

In some ways, I think I'm more physically attractive now than I was in college. In other ways... well, when the hell did I start growing earlobe hair?

I'm better looking than the average man my age. On the other hand, that's not really saying much. The average man my age looks like a piece of dogsh*t.

I must admit that I like getting compliments on my appearance. Everyone likes to be told they're attractive. Of course, Facebook has sort of watered down that compliment, since you can post a picture of yourself passed out drunk on a driveway, with vomit running down your cheek, and within minutes, you'll still get a dozen of your best Facebook gals writing "You look gorgeous!" And then you're required to comment on their pictures, lavishing them with "you look gorgeous" comments. "You look gorgeous" just doesn't have the same impact that it used to.

Nevertheless, I guess I'm okay with aging and the impending doom of losing one's looks. Besides, I may keep getting older. But my Facebook profile picture stays the same age.

Many people remember the famous Twilight Zone episode where this woman is forced to undergo plastic surgery because she is so hideous-looking. She spends most of the episode with bandages wrapped around her head. And we never actually see the doctors' faces. But then, the big twist is that it turns out the woman is very pretty. But in this world, she is considered ugly. And the "normal" people all look like pigs. But in "this" world, having a pig-face beautiful. It's a good episode. But I've never found it convincing. My theory is that if you were suddenly hurled into a world where everyone else had a pig-face, you would be immediately hailed as stunningly beautiful. "You look amazing. We all have pig-faces. You're better looking than us."

Earlier, I wrote about the five things I learned in school. I was just joking, of course. In actuality, I learned a lot of stuff in school. More than at any other age, though, I think I learned the most when I was in fourth grade. That's because it was easy to pay attention in fourth grade. That's because my teacher, Mrs. Corrigan, was very attractive.