This post draws from a longer CCF Brief originally published December 10, 2013. Rachel A. Gordon is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

By Irangilaneh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Irangilaneh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
It is “back to school” time – we can see this all around us, in stores, online, and in the media. As students shop for school supplies and clothing, many are thinking about the image they will portray when they first walk the halls of school. A recent google ad encapsulated these concerns as it opened with a youth searching “How to not look like a freshman.” Technology amplifes – or at least makes more visible – teens’ concern with social image. A recent survey by the We Heart It social networking site, and published exclusively by TIME, documents the ways in which youth thirst for attaching “likes,” “hearts,” and comments to shared photos – the latest incarnation of the original of Facebook hot or not ratings of student photos that make many people cringe, but live on.

The We Heart It study reinforced a finding in my own recent work about the impact of not just comments that are openly hurtful or admiring, but of being lost in the shuffle. One teen in the We Heart It survey reported “Sometimes I just feel like I don’t exist, like I’m invisible to everyone, I pretend it’s okay, but it hurts.” In our study, we considered how others’ ratings of adolescents’ looks associated with their achievement — in grades as well as the social scene. Our most consistent finding was that being above average in looks – what we call standing out from the crowd – was correlated with nearly every social and academic domain that we examined in high school.  These advantages continued into young adulthood, including through higher college completion and, as a consequence, higher earnings for the attractive than the average in looks.

Not surprisingly, being at one pole or the other of looks was important, too, but more selectively. What we called the “fairest of the fair” – being rated very attractive rather than attractive – revealed itself more in young adulthood than in high school, where the best-looking youth in our study rated themselves as more extroverted, reported more friends, and were more likely to attain a college degree. We also importantly documented how youth rated by others as being on the ugly side of looks were more depressed and had fewer friends than those who were average in looks, both in high school and young adulthood.

We were struck, however, by the extent to which these advantages and disadvantages of being at either end of the perceived beauty continuum can overshadow the importance of being “invisible” in the middle of the continuum. In fact the largest fraction of youth were in this “average” category of others’ ratings of their looks – over 4 out of every 10 youth were rated “average” – whereas about 3 in 10 were rated “attractive,” just 1 or 2 out of 10 as “very attractive” and less than 1 in 10 as “unattractive” or “very unattractive.” The advantages of standing out – being on the attractive end rather than “just” average – were also meaningful. For instance differentials on high school grades and college graduation between youth rated by others as attractive versus average in looks were similar in size to differentials between youth living in two-parent versus single-parent families.

Social scientists have not yet developed programs to address lookism. Taking a page from interventions aimed at reducing other prejudices, however, we anticipate that a wide array of strategies might help youth — and the adults and teachers that they interact with — circumvent assumptions based on looks. The large size and many different classes in high schools mean that teachers and students usually get to know one another less well than in elementary schools, yet a person’s looks are likely especially salient in these large, impersonal settings. High school cliques also restrict interactions across groups, but one of the most successful strategies for reducing prejudice is cross-group contact. One strategy educators might try could bring students and teachers together for meaningful interactions that cut across social cliques, and assess the extent to which such strategies help level the playing field for youth who are more and less attractive.

More broadly, we believe the issue is not just about how others perceive adolescents’ looks, but instead reflects a larger concern about American high schools, where some children are socially marginalized (as my co-author Rob Crosnoe showed in his earlier work) and as a consequence do not get the most out of school.  When this happens, children’s potential is not fully achieved – they lose out individually, and we lose out as a society. In this way, a major challenge for the school system is to keep all students engaged and feeling a part of school.  Initiatives like the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning run by my colleagues here in Chicago are trying to do just that, and we hope schools and scholars will continue such work in the future.