How important are looks?

A dear friend of mine was recently at an event. Following the event, she was told that a guy had expressed interest in her and wanted to get to know her. Given the fact that she hadn’t exchanged a single word with the guy in question, the only thing his interest could possibly have been based on was her looks.

Anyone who is (un)fortunate enough to know me will know that the concept of beauty has always intrigued me. I’ve bored any number of friends to death with my forays into the issue of how looks influence perception. While I don’t claim to be some sort of professional commentator on all things aesthetics, I do find the issue fascinating. Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? Well, studies have shown that this adage is largely untrue and that particularly in this globalised age, representations of beauty are becoming more standardised. Do good looks get you places in life? Studies have shown that yes, good looks are an asset, even in the workplace.

I won’t bore you any further with the academic stuff, but instead I’ll turn my attention to the more interesting, anecdotal stuff. It’s obviously impossible to quantify the extent to which looks are valued in the world of relationships, but I’d hazard a guess that they’re fairly valuable. How often do we see some old billionaire with a series of young models on his arm? Without casting any aspersions on the character of billionaires (I’m sure they’re lovely people), it isn’t too difficult to conclude that looks are an asset in the game of love.

This issue is particularly interesting when examined in the context of the Muslim community. The little example I mentioned above is repeated again and again, with some girls getting asked about practically every time they attend something. This is a strange by-product of segregation. Because people often aren’t given the opportunity of speaking with members of the opposite sex at Muslim community events, they’re in effect almost forced to assess people based on their looks. I’m certainly not attacking segregation on this basis or suggesting it should be dismantled, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder: if there was more space for contact between the sexes, would personalities be given more of a centre stage role as opposed to looks?

Of course, the answer may simply be no. As a friend put it, if someone doesn’t meet your looks threshold, many people simply won’t consider them regardless of how amazing their personality is. People often won’t admit this to themselves, of course. They tell themselves that they just don’t see X in that way, or that Y is awesome but just ‘not for them’. The sad truth is that many of the people who get friendzoned immediately are those who aren’t conventionally good-looking. People may be happy to befriend them and may have a great deal of respect for them, but they just don’t consider them in romantic terms. (‘They’re nice, but’…)

I say that this is sad, but I understand that attraction is certainly important in any relationship. But here I’d like to make a quick little distinction: good looks and attractiveness are not necessarily the same thing. X could appreciate that Y is conventionally good-looking without feeling any attraction whatsoever, and A could find B attractive while rationally appreciating that B isn’t conventionally good-looking. But this is perhaps where the question is asked again: if you don’t have much contact with people of the opposite sex, how can you feel attracted to them on any basis other than looks?

The funny thing is that while looks are undeniably important to many people, anyone who’s too overt about this being a requirement of theirs gets blasted. A guy who specifies that he only wants a skinny girl (it happens) will get hated on, even though many  may secretly share this sentiment. A girl who says she only wants a tall guy will be branded as ‘superficial’, while many others may filter out guys on this basis without even admitting it to themselves. The guy who asks about a girl after seeing her at an event is often rejected by the girl in question because she feels objectified, but perhaps he’s simply more open about it than others.

A related issue is that of clothing and style, which again is particularly interesting in a Muslim context. People may sometimes have preferences as to the clothing of a potential partner and depending on their level of conservativeness, an outfit choice may attract or repel. Wearing skinny jeans may be a no-no for some, while others may find it funky and attractive. Others may simply not care at all, as long as it looks good. Some people consciously modify their choice of clothing depending on the scene they’re in, which suggests, rightly or wrongly, that people may make judgments based on whether they wear a skirt or a dress, or pants as opposed to shorts for men. I wrote a post about hijab being a must for some and a repellent for others, and this certainly factors into the debate on outward appearance.

At the end of the day, perhaps much of the assessments we make of the looks of others may be in fact linked to our assessment of our own looks. Someone who considers themselves to be good-looking may make a point of seeking someone who is also good-looking, just as a person who considers themselves to be intelligent may seek a person they consider to be of a similar level of intelligence. If looks trump all else, then that’s frankly a little depressing given the advice of the Prophet (saw), but it’s not something that can be easily altered without some open and honest conversations.

How important are looks to you? Have you felt that people place a disproportionate emphasis on looks when it comes to finding a partner?

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8 responses to “How important are looks?

  1. Chocolatefrappe

    Truer words have never been spoken mashaaAllah. This was a great piece and truly reflects the issue of looks surrounding the Muslim community. It really is an extremely big deal even if Muslims were ”supposed to be” better looking beyond the obvious i.e. looks on to deen, character etc.

    • Thank you, I think that as Muslims we tend to idealise the process of finding a partner and think that we’re ‘above’ certain concerns, but the reality on the ground can be quite different.

  2. MeshaAllah sister Zeynab, telling it as it is.

    You have canvassed many important and taboo like issues above, many of which are swept under the old downtown abbey islamic social convention rug.

    I certainly agree that there is a demarcation point between aesthetics and attraction. The latter as many will tell you is a cocktail or beauty, deen, intellect [and more]. Its important to acknowledge as you have done so above, that males and females are drawn towards for a myriad of reasons. Rather than judge people or impose our own relationship paradigm, lets spend more time trying to understand and be honest with ourselves. There is a stigma attached to those that are merely being honest, even if we deem is superficial.

    well written piece.

    • Lol, downton abbey! Gotta steal that line.
      Agreed, people may have different criteria and it may not necessarily align with ours or what we think should be the case, but more honesty in the process would assist all concerned to understand where each of us are coming from.

  3. (Guy here.) Well it’s a sort of unspoken truth, isn’t it. It isn’t a coincidence that the prettiest seem to have better odds with the suitors. There are two things I want to say though:
    1- The prettiest are not necessarily the happiest. There is no correlation. Getting married is one thing, what happens in that marriage is a whole separate ball game and looks play no part in that – may God protect us all. (If you disagree with me, then it is only to say that they play “some” part and help the marriage be happier. I don’t really agree, as the relationship’s happiness hinges on so much more than that, but I may be wrong.)

    2- I really agree with the sentiment that once you get to know a person, then looks become just another tick-box. The girl I like is maybe a 6/10 in that department, but she is caring, and intelligent, and pious, and funny, and gets me, and is ambitious, and, and, and. So I’m obviously head-over-heels, and kinda glad that she isn’t the prettiest on the block, else someone else might have snapped her up! If a person was to line up a bunch of girls and pick a few candidates, nobody would have discovered the treasure trove that is this person. Looks fade, people – don’t forget that.

    If looks are important to a person, then as long as she’s good enough for you to light the initial flame of attraction, you’ll manage fine. If somebody really has their head screwed on, and really has their priorities straight, they will not even need moderate looks, but few are such saints. But, to be honest, and speaking as a 20-something guy, I can tell you that all the girls have some part of their looks going for them. Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder – you might judge yourself on your flaws, but people don’t see you like that. And like I said, you have a lot going for you other than looks, too!

    • Thank you for your comment, I’m always keen on hearing male perspectives on these issues.
      I agree completely that while looks may widen the field, it’s no indication of whether those relationships will be happy or successful. Yes, being good looking may open more doors, but once you’re in the room you’re subject to the same factors as any other person.
      You’re right, it’s not reasonable to expect people to disregard looks completely. We aren’t advised to do so in any case. It’s a matter of how you balance those factors with other considerations.
      Sounds like you have a keeper! May Allah swt place barakah in your relationship.

  4. I know this is really cynical but I always believed that people are all a little racist and shallow. We all pretend that we are not but we are lying to ourselves.

    I like the fact you distinguish between being beautiful and being attracted to someone. I’m so glad that there is a difference because let’s face it if attraction was just about beauty only the beautiful and the rich would marry.

    • It’s part of our nafs to be attracted to sensory pleasures. Appreciating beauty isn’t bad per se, it’s a matter of how you channel and direct it.
      Your second point links in to a larger point: often, marriage is equated with worth, when in reality many horrible people get married and many lovely people do not!

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