The Beautiful and the Damned A Perfect Face Sets You Up for Life. HESTER LACEY on the Ugly Truth Behind the Latest American Research

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That jutting chin you fondly hope makes you look imposing. Those uneven teeth, because you couldn't be bothered to wear a train- track brace. That ski-jump nose that you prefer to call "Roman". In fact, all those little flaws that you like to think give your face a bit of character - the ones you've learned to live with and assume that other people overlook. But here's the bad news about such little imperfections: they bring your grades down at school and university. They hold your career back. They make others reluctant to extend a helping hand. If you're in a criminal dock they make it more likely that you'll be sent down. They even stop your mother loving you as much.

Dr Nancy Etcoff is an American psychologist and an expert in brain and cognitive sciences. She has just published a new book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, in the States (available here later this year), a lengthy tome with 60 pages of references and bibliography, which must be just about the last word on good looks. To the vast majority who look nothing like Cindy Crawford or Tom Cruise, the conclusions are depressing: beauty is one of the most powerful assets anyone can have, from birth onwards. One American study even showed that mothers with less attractive babies were less attentive to their children. "They were not neglectful, but they seemed more reserved in their affection and a little less swept off their feet," comments Dr Etcoff.

An uncute baby ought to get used to such setbacks early on, because there's more of the same to come. Good-looking children and students are routinely given better marks by teachers. One grim piece of research found that children in care were disproportionately likely to be unattractive. "Abused kids had head and face proportions that made them look less infantile and cute," explains Dr Etcoff. "Such children may be more likely to suffer abuse because their faces do not elicit the automatic reaction of protection and care that more infantile faces do." As for the office environment, "lookism", according to Dr Etcoff, is "a form of discrimination in the workplace. And a silent one. No one thinks that he has been offered a lower salary because he is short! Good-looking men are more likely to get hired, at a higher salary, and to be promoted faster than unattractive men." As for what she tactfully calls "homely" women, they are even more disadvantaged: less likely to get jobs, less likely to earn a competitive salary and less likely to marry a man with resources and prospects. All this makes unsettling reading. Dr Etcoff compares lookism to racism and sexism. But, she says, "Unlike racism and sexism, which we are conscious of, lookism operates at a largely unconscious level." We are born with lookism already programmed into us. Babies as tiny as three months old gaze significantly longer at pictures of faces that adults have already rated as attractive. "The idea that an infant would be peering out at the world with the eyes of a neonate beauty judge is downright discomfiting," observes Dr Etcoff with some justification. What these judgmental babies are homing in on is symmetry - beautiful faces are symmetrical and in proportion. Attractive figures are also in proportion and, on some primeval level, signal a potential mate who is in good health and able to reproduce. But lookism isn't simply a question of sexual attraction: men rate men and women rate women just as readily as they do the opposite sex. "We are always sizing up other people's looks: our beauty detectors never close up shop and call it a day," says Dr Etcoff. "We notice the attractiveness of each face we see as automatically as we register whether or not they look familiar. Beauty detectors scan the environment like radar: we can see a face for a fraction of a second and rate its beauty." And if we like what we see, we automatically think we like the person behind the face. …