Do attractive people have better self-esteem?

Even those of us who are happy with our appearance probably wouldn’t mind being that little bit more attractive. For right or wrong, physical appearance can have a large impact on our lives, and it often seems as though attractive people have it slightly easier than the rest of us.

It would make sense, then, to assume that attractiveness goes hand in hand with self-esteem. People who are more attractive must feel better about themselves. But is this really true?

In a paper published this month in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Suzanne Mares of Radboud University in the Netherlands investigated this very question. She took photographs of adolescent children belonging to 115 families, recruited as part of a large longitudinal study. One hundred people who were unfamiliar with the families rated the 460 photographs for facial attractiveness, and each face was given an average attractiveness score. The adolescent participants completed the Rosenberg scale, a questionnaire which measures self esteem. Because the study took place over several years, the adolescents completed this questionnaire five times: once every year for five years.

Self-esteem generally increased over the course of the participants’ adolescence, which is not unusual, neither is the finding that boys tended to have higher self-esteem than girls. Next, the researchers looked at the effects of attractiveness, and here the results were more surprising.

Although the self-esteem of older adolescents was unrelated to their attractiveness, younger adolescents tended to have lower self-esteem if they were more attractive. Younger adolescents who were less attractive tended to have higher self-esteem. These relationships were independent of gender and educational achievement.

The researchers suggest that a possible explanation for these results is that attractive adolescents are confronted with more expectations from their direct social environment. Previous research has shown that teachers, parents and peers have higher expectations of attractive adolescents. These high expectations may feel out of reach for those adolescents, with the result that their self-esteem suffers in comparison to that of their less-attractive peers who are more able to meet the level of achievement expected of them.

Mares, S. H. W., de Leeuw, R. N. H., Scholte, R. H. J., & Engels, R. C. M. E. (2010). Facial attractiveness and self-esteem in adolescence. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 39(5), 627–637. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the August 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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