“Ugly Ducklings” on how people treated them when they were hot
In high school, people called Dani Pearsall “the dragon lady”. Her ambition and drive meant that many viewed her as harsh and rude, and children often expressed “slight disgust” if they teamed up with her in class. By the time she got to college, people in her creative writing class were begging to work with her. “People were like, ‘Wow, you’re so cool, you’re so honest,’” said the store manager, now 25.
Jud Nichols, a 31-year-old public defenseman from Minnesota, played basketball with the same group of guys for many years. Initially, he never received praise from his teammates. “I’m a very average basketball player,” he laughs, “but all of a sudden people were like, ‘Dude, you played really well. Good game.’”
Dani’s personality hadn’t changed – and neither had Jud’s basketball skills. What has changed, undeniably, are their appearances.
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In 1920, American psychologist Edward Thorndike coined a new term. The “halo effect” is a cognitive bias which means that when we see a good trait in a person, we overestimate their other positive traits (the first trait is like a halo, enlightening an individual). In 1972, three psychologists demonstrated the effect by asking volunteers to rate people’s personalities based solely on photographs. The vast majority of participants assumed that the most attractive people were also kinder, trustworthy, and successful. The article was titled “What is beautiful is good”.
It might not shock you. Many believe in “pretty privilege” – the idea that beautiful people have an easier life. Still, the halo effect is sometimes referred to as the “horns and halo effect” – because it has a flip side. When someone is not attractive, people may assume that they have bad qualities. But how widespread is this phenomenon? How damaging?
Five people whose appearances have radically changed have agreed to speak to me about this play. Each individual has gone from conventionally unattractive to conventionally attractive in the eyes of Western society. Thin bodies are popular in the West and studies have shown obese people face social stigma, so this article includes some people who have lost a lot of weight – although these people have also changed other grooming habits to accommodate the society’s idea of a “attractive” person.
“If I had stayed bigger and hadn’t lost weight, I wouldn’t have known that the way I was treated before was really different,” says Emma Passe, a 34-year-old account manager. “Now I completely see a huge difference.”
Overweight for most of her adult life, Emma decided to lose weight at the age of 31 when she began battling sleep apnea, heart palpitations and body acne. “The more weight I lost, the smaller I got, the more people wanted to talk to me,” she says. She tells me people are nicer than she thought – they stick around to chat more, say hello when they usually don’t, ask her about her day. “I thought everyone was friendly on a regular basis, but now everyone is super nice.”
The fact that people are friendly hit Ashley (who does not wish to give her last name) the hardest. The 30-something from Portland tells me via email, “Now when I make eye contact, people’s faces light up and they smile at me!” Her shock is evident in an abundance of punctuation (“Wow, are people smiling ???”) as she describes other revelations. People go out of their way to help her when she asks, and strangers strike up a conversation. “People listen to me… I really feel like part of society.”
Like Emma, Ashley has achieved these things after losing weight. Intimidated as a child, she says she felt like a “hot trash” before meeting her husband and losing 165 pounds, learning makeup and skin care, and changing her fashion sense. Although she mostly feels “relieved” that people are now friendlier, there is some bitterness. At her best, Ashley says people laughed at her and others treated her with pity and disgust.
“I think a bunch of shit would probably get less disdain than me,” she said. “When you see the duality in people so clearly, it’s hard to love someone new. They might be nice now, but would they have been nice when you doubled your weight? “
“If you want something, you smile and you get it – it’s really crazy.”
Dani pauses for a long time when I ask if there are any downsides to her transformation. In high school, she wore unisex clothes and avoided applying makeup, which meant she was often referred to as “sir” by strangers. In college, she started wearing dresses, growing her hair, and learning to draw outlines through YouTube tutorials. “Um,” she finally replied. “Honestly, it’s pretty awesome. It has a lot of benefits.”
Unsurprisingly, Dani – like many of my interviewees – began to gain more attention from the opposite sex. “I was still Dani and hadn’t changed, but suddenly half the population woke up to the fact that I existed.” In addition to an improved sex life, she also found that interactions with the men and women in customer service became easier. “If you want something, you smile and you get it – it’s really crazy.” She puts on a vocal fry, exaggerating a female moan: “Hiiii, I’m sorry but I can’t find this book. Could you, like, look for me in the back? She says it works.
“It’s crazy. It’s crazy. You know what, I don’t know how people who are beautiful all their lives aren’t just egotistical, because it’s so easy to get what you want. “
Attention from the opposite sex is the most obvious result of an “improved” physical appearance, but Kameron Rytlewski, a 23-year-old man from Michigan, believes his increased confidence may have played a role as well. “My weight kept me from being the person I really wanted to be, or at least the person I imagined I was,” he says.
People ignored him or treated him with a “general negative disposition”, but now they’re much friendlier. “The comments and attention from the opposite sex were definitely more positive. My friends and family always treated me pretty much the same.”
If the fact that the opposite sex treats you better when you become conventionally attractive isn’t shocking, the fact that family members probably are. Dani says her father criticized her appearance growing up, often telling her to wear makeup. When she grew up and put on makeup, “it certainly supported me a lot more in life.” Jud, the man who received the most compliments in basketball after losing weight and started following the advice of men’s grooming books, says the family has treated him better as well. “Even the people closest to you tend to treat you a little differently,” he says, explaining that family members were friendlier and wanted to chat more often.
Like Kameron, Jud wishes to add the caveat that what he felt about himself potentially had an impact on how others treated him (this is something the two men interviewed said, but none of the three women). With that caveat aside, however, he says people are now much more receptive to his jokes.
“My humor is a bit deadpan and sarcastic… When I looked less healthy I think people were less inclined to understand that I was totally joking, whereas today it seems they understand better.”
Of all the people I interviewed, Emma seems to have had the most inconvenience in changing. “The biggest thing for me, the biggest surprise, is that I lost friends,” she says, explaining that overweight friends cut her off.
Emma describes another weight loss “nightmare”. Although she is married, men often flirt with her, which is especially frustrating at work. “I am always asked for coffee or lunch or told that I am pretty or beautiful,” she says. “It’s pretty awful to feel like you’re constantly being flirted with, or someone really only talks to you for that purpose and not getting to know you… it’s really disheartening.” These experiments show that there are downsides to being conventionally attractive, and that lookism works in several ways.
In 1843, Hans Christian Anderson published his story “The Ugly Duckling”. The story follows a duckling who is so relentlessly shunned because he is ugly that he decides to kill himself. But, surprise! He then becomes a swan, and the other swans adore him! Like Rudolph (with his shiny nose), this children’s tale is uncomfortable on adult eyes. It tells a story of fitting in to avoid discrimination and bullying. This reaffirms our innate cognitive bias that beautiful people are the best. Most offensive of all, it tells the wrong people that they need to change.