Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...

I could take you to the exact spot, today.

A high-school friend and I were riding to class one morning, and the conversation turned to physical attractiveness. As in, did either one of us have enough of this characteristic to attract a female of the species?

At one point, my friend turned to me and stated with great authority, "Your hair is what saves you."

I suppose most people are sensitive to comments about their appearance, but that memory is etched in time, one of those moments that live forever. I remember the sunny day, the pickup truck we rode in, and the exact spot on the exact road by the local park where the comment was delivered. Most of all, I remember that backhanded compliment:

"Your hair is what saves you."

Despite the rather dubious theology contained in this statement, I've been thinking about it often lately.

Perhaps it's because I'm 46 now, not 16, and I'm realizing that if my hair really is going to save me, it's now or never. I'm not sure if a particular quantity of hair is required for this alleged benefit, but I have photo documentation of my dad and granddad, and the precedent is not encouraging.

There's a second reason this issue of physical appearance has been on my mind:

Author Photos.

You have to have 'em. You're supposed to put 'em on your blog. And your blog comments. On your book jacket. Bubblegum cards. Book Trailers. Video blogs... Photos, videos--everywhere, these days.

My publisher asked for the photo I wanted on my book jacket.

"Fine," I said. I sent her this one.

She seemed vaguely suspicious....inasmuch as this name was singularly at odds with the signature on the contract.

Still no go...

Apparently, identity theft is harder to pull off than it appears on TV.

Above-average physical appearance is a part of certain job descriptions: movie star, TV personality, news anchor, model. And in music, it's not enough to have a stellar gain true celebrity status, you have to look the part in music videos, and on CD covers.

But what about authors? In our increasingly visual world, how important is a really winning appearance? Does it make a difference in marketing fiction--building a brand--as it does in so many other realms?

Physical appearance has been a hot (pun intended) research topic for years, and psychological investigators have uncovered some (perhaps not too surprising) truths:

1) There is widespread agreement among people as to what constitutes "Attractive." Independent raters, of all ages and both genders, can examine pictures of people they have never met, and generally agree whether that person falls into the "above average," "average," or "below average" category.

In fact, even infants show a marked preference for choosing to look at human faces that are judged (by adults) as attractive.

Codified by researchers, recognized standards of attractiveness include 1) symmetry (both "halves" of the face representing almost mirror images, without noticeable disparities); 2) proportion (nose, eyes, mouth are neither too large or too small in relation to the other features); 3) placement (eyes are not too close or too far apart, eyes and mouth lie approximately upon lines dividing the face into thirds); 4) specific waist/hip ratios (the "hourglass" shape in women, broad shoulders and narrow hips for men).

2) While differences exist, there tends to be surprisingly strong agreement even across cultural/ethnic lines. That is, Americans watching Swedish, or Malaysian movie stars would consider them physically attractive people, because the general, overall standards listed above do not vary widely around the globe.

3) The "What is Beautiful is Good" bias creates a form of halo effect, where those judged as physically attractive are perceived by others as:

More sociable, happier, kinder, more confident, more successful, better students, more intelligent, more trustworthy, etc, etc.

Without knowing anything else about a person, others tend to automatically ascribe a wide range of positive psychological traits to physically attractive individuals.

Today, Disney animators (and book jacket designers) carry on a tradition that is as old as the earliest human art forms...

Heroes = handsome/beautiful
Villains = flawed

4) Not only are attractive people perceived to have these advantages, but in many studies, it appears that reality matches the perception.

Attractive folks:

Are more likely to obtain job offers and promotions; generally more confident; generally more sociable; on average are higher earners; get lighter court sentences from juries; as infants bond quicker to mothers (and nurses in hospitals); are more accepted by voters.

Interestingly, people judged as attractive tend, as a group, to put more emphasis on the importance of physical attractiveness when choosing others as friends and mates. Beauty attracts beauty; while those judged to have average or less than average attractiveness rank other qualities as more important...such as honesty, kindness, etc.

Maybe we don't talk about it much, because the genetics involved are beyond our control. We can change hairstyles, clothes and makeup, and make the most of what we are given, but ultimately we are what we are. And authors have traditionally been engaged in an art form that emphasized the power of the written word over the visual. Certainly, there is no correlation between physical appearance and writing skill.

But I our increasingly multi-media saturated society...if we are reaching a Kennedy/Nixon line in publishing... an era in which physical appearance, and its relation to marketing, begins to take on an exponentially greater importance. 

If you'll excuse me, I have to go learn how to Photoshop.

What do you think? Are the marketing and media trends in society changing what agents/editor/readers look for? Will the Age of Multi-Media Marketing give a certain advantage to camera-friendly authors?

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