Consider, if you will, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chin. Though the former Governator denies it, it appears to have changed markedly during his four decades in the public eye. His enormous, jutting jaw seems to have given way to a chiseled profile more befitting a movie star than a Central European meathead. It’s not wildly implausible that Schwarzenegger, by all accounts the greatest fitness athlete of his generation, didn’t like the way he looked in the mirror. His body, once as perfectly conditioned as any in the world, wasn’t perfect enough.
As men, we’re ranked and sorted in a host of ways.
Arnold is not alone, according to a recent Today/AOL survey on body image. In that report, 63 percent of men claimed they “always feel like they could lose weight” and 53 percent “didn’t like having their picture taken.” For many years—most of my life, really—I’d have to count myself among them. I recently appeared on Huffington Post Live, and one friend’s joking response was to note how my jaw, also Central European in origin, spilled across the bottom part of the frame.
These pressures aren’t commensurate with the ones faced by women, but they’re every bit as insidious. As men, we’re ranked and sorted in a host of ways. Some employers, like my former bosses at Abercrombie & Fitch, quite openly discriminate based on appearance. But research into the promotion practices of ostensibly meritocratic employers has revealed a similar trend: physical appearance matters, regardless of whether or not it should (and, for the record, it shouldn’t).
When I entered academia in 2007, I assumed that I was moving into a world in which appearance wouldn’t matter as much as it had at Abercrombie & Fitch. However, I quickly discovered this to be false: My online student evaluations at the University of Pittsburgh as well as at the University of Texas at Arlington mention my looks first and my performance as a lecturer second. “Easy on the eyes,” noted one student. “Teacher/student fantasies can run wild,” wrote another. As the person under discussion, you’re first left thinking “what the heck?” and then “doesn’t anyone take me seriously?” But the overall scores were high, so at least there was that.
I was trapped in this weird liminal space between wanting to be perceived as attractive and wanting to be admired for anything besides attractiveness.
A study by a team of researchers at Medaille College confirmed my assumption that there is a correlation between attractiveness and better evaluations, finding that “professors perceived as attractive received student evaluations about 0.8 of a point higher on a 5-point scale.” But what does this mean, exactly? Have I been coasting on looks alone—earning bonus points from students who think I’m “easy on the eyes?”
At this point, it gets even more complicated. Robin Wilson reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2010, faculty are “hot at their own risk.” Academics who appear too looks-obsessed—a low bar in academia, one of the least looks-obsessed of all fields—risk losing credibility as serious scholars. I was trapped in this weird liminal space between wanting to be perceived as attractive and wanting to be admired for anything besides attractiveness.
Here, then, is the problem, briefly stated: Because I grew up in a family of sports star alpha males, I always wanted to look big and strong—“hypermasculine,” like the juiced-up WWE wrestlers I idolized on Saturday morning television and the pro bodybuilders in the Weider magazines that I read.
A young woman I was hoping to date explained to me that, although I was a “decent 7 out of 10,” she only dated “8s and up.”
But at every turn, I faced obstacles. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be as large and powerful as my father and brother. During my stint working at Abercrombie & Fitch, a gorgeous female manager whom I had asked to give a candid assessment of my looks told me I was a “solid B.” A few years later, a young woman I was hoping to date explained to me that, although I was a “decent 7 out of 10,” she only dated “8s and up.” The latter comment was delivered after a few beers, but it’s proved impossible to dislodge from among my memories of that period. None of it should’ve meant anything, of course, but I was a confused young man in my early twenties, and at the time it was absolutely maddening.
During my eight years in graduate school, I began to be viewed as “attractive” again. Or if not attractive per se, at least as someone who tried too hard when it came to his personal appearance. I maintained a strict exercise regimen long after I had finished with competitive athletics, a pattern of life that struck many as senseless in an industry that was defined, or at least thought to be defined, by the content of one’s peer-reviewed content. When I entered the job market in fall 2011, I wasn’t sure if I’d be helped or hurt by my appearance.
I contemplated growing a beard, given how it would evoke all of the great fur-faced scholars from the far-flung past. But I can’t grow a beard, at least not a real one that connects properly, so I settled for switching from contacts to thick glasses—yet another concession to insecurity. When I actually found a job, though, it became clear that this worry was for nothing: I made great connections with the history faculty during my on-campus interview and was thereafter deemed to be a good fit with the department.
I’ll be turning 32 this May. It’s a transitional age, neither old nor young—though perhaps it’s slightly closer to young, given how adolescence now seems like a perpetual stage of life rather than a transitory one. A month ago, I competed in a powerlifting competition and ran a half-marathon. I look in the mirror these days and sometimes wonder what it has all meant, what all this agonizing over my appearance has been for. I’m the same age that Schwarzenegger was when he apparently concluded that his old jaw wasn’t good enough.
My jaw, however Neanderthal in cast, is fine by me now. In a culture as looks-obsessed as this one, appearances matter even when they don’t. Acceptance of one’s imperfections is likely the best course of action. You may never feel comfortable, you may always believe yourself to be a “7 out of 10,” but eventually it stops seeming like it matters, even if it doesn’t.