A dear friend of mine was recently at an event. Following the event, she was told that a guy had expressed interest in her and wanted to get to know her. Given the fact that she hadn’t exchanged a single word with the guy in question, the only thing his interest could possibly have been based on was her looks.

Anyone who is (un)fortunate enough to know me will know that the concept of beauty has always intrigued me. I’ve bored any number of friends to death with my forays into the issue of how looks influence perception. While I don’t claim to be some sort of professional commentator on all things aesthetics, I do find the issue fascinating. Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? Well, studies have shown that this adage is largely untrue and that particularly in this globalised age, representations of beauty are becoming more standardised. Do good looks get you places in life? Studies have shown that yes, good looks are an asset, even in the workplace.

I won’t bore you any further with the academic stuff, but instead I’ll turn my attention to the more interesting, anecdotal stuff. It’s obviously impossible to quantify the extent to which looks are valued in the world of relationships, but I’d hazard a guess that they’re fairly valuable. How often do we see some old billionaire with a series of young models on his arm? Without casting any aspersions on the character of billionaires (I’m sure they’re lovely people), it isn’t too difficult to conclude that looks are an asset in the game of love.

This issue is particularly interesting when examined in the context of the Muslim community. The little example I mentioned above is repeated again and again, with some girls getting asked about practically every time they attend something. This is a strange by-product of segregation. Because people often aren’t given the opportunity of speaking with members of the opposite sex at Muslim community events, they’re in effect almost forced to assess people based on their looks. I’m certainly not attacking segregation on this basis or suggesting it should be dismantled, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder: if there was more space for contact between the sexes, would personalities be given more of a centre stage role as opposed to looks?

Of course, the answer may simply be no. As a friend put it, if someone doesn’t meet your looks threshold, many people simply won’t consider them regardless of how amazing their personality is. People often won’t admit this to themselves, of course. They tell themselves that they just don’t see X in that way, or that Y is awesome but just ‘not for them’. The sad truth is that many of the people who get friendzoned immediately are those who aren’t conventionally good-looking. People may be happy to befriend them and may have a great deal of respect for them, but they just don’t consider them in romantic terms. (‘They’re nice, but’…)

I say that this is sad, but I understand that attraction is certainly important in any relationship. But here I’d like to make a quick little distinction: good looks and attractiveness are not necessarily the same thing. X could appreciate that Y is conventionally good-looking without feeling any attraction whatsoever, and A could find B attractive while rationally appreciating that B isn’t conventionally good-looking. But this is perhaps where the question is asked again: if you don’t have much contact with people of the opposite sex, how can you feel attracted to them on any basis other than looks?

The funny thing is that while looks are undeniably important to many people, anyone who’s too overt about this being a requirement of theirs gets blasted. A guy who specifies that he only wants a skinny girl (it happens) will get hated on, even though many  may secretly share this sentiment. A girl who says she only wants a tall guy will be branded as ‘superficial’, while many others may filter out guys on this basis without even admitting it to themselves. The guy who asks about a girl after seeing her at an event is often rejected by the girl in question because she feels objectified, but perhaps he’s simply more open about it than others.

A related issue is that of clothing and style, which again is particularly interesting in a Muslim context. People may sometimes have preferences as to the clothing of a potential partner and depending on their level of conservativeness, an outfit choice may attract or repel. Wearing skinny jeans may be a no-no for some, while others may find it funky and attractive. Others may simply not care at all, as long as it looks good. Some people consciously modify their choice of clothing depending on the scene they’re in, which suggests, rightly or wrongly, that people may make judgments based on whether they wear a skirt or a dress, or pants as opposed to shorts for men. I wrote a post about hijab being a must for some and a repellent for others, and this certainly factors into the debate on outward appearance.

At the end of the day, perhaps much of the assessments we make of the looks of others may be in fact linked to our assessment of our own looks. Someone who considers themselves to be good-looking may make a point of seeking someone who is also good-looking, just as a person who considers themselves to be intelligent may seek a person they consider to be of a similar level of intelligence. If looks trump all else, then that’s frankly a little depressing given the advice of the Prophet (saw), but it’s not something that can be easily altered without some open and honest conversations.

How important are looks to you? Have you felt that people place a disproportionate emphasis on looks when it comes to finding a partner?