Americans Agree that Being Attractive is a Plus in American Society

by Frank Newport

But most are happy with the way they look, and only 19% would consider plastic surgery


PRINCETON, NJ -. The American public overwhelmingly agrees that being physically attractive is a strong asset in modern society, yet only a minority of Americans say they wish that they themselves were more beautiful or handsome. And, despite the aging of the baby boom, and the apparent increase in a societal emphasis on beauty and appearance in recent years, the numbers of those who would like to be better looking or who would consider plastic surgery have not changed significantly since 1990. Additionally, a spirit of optimism prevails when Americans are asked to assess their own appearance. Only 2% of the public is willing to say that they are personally below average in looks; the majority consider themselves to be "average."

Seven Out of 10 Agree that Attractiveness is Important
Seven out of 10 Americans interviewed in a recent Gallup poll say that physical attractiveness is important in society today "in terms of …happiness, social life, and the ability to get ahead," including 35% who say that it is very important, and 41% who say it is fairly important. Despite the emphasis on attractiveness that seemingly pervades American culture today, these percentages are actually slightly lower than nine years ago, in 1990, when 38% said that physical attractiveness was very important and 46% said that it was fairly important.

Where do Americans place themselves on an attractiveness scale? The Gallup poll was conducted by telephone, so it was not possible to have interviewers make objective judgements of the physical beauty of those being interviewed. Instead, each respondent was asked to rate him or herself. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost no Americans say that they are below average in attractiveness or downright unattractive. The most frequent label chosen by respondents in the poll is "average," selected by 54% of those interviewed, followed by 34% who are willing to say that they consider themselves attractive or above average, and 8% who say they are beautiful or handsome. Interestingly, men are more likely than women to use the handsome/beautiful label, as are those living in the West.

These self-ratings haven't changed much over time -- despite the well-publicized aging of the baby boom generation, which began to creep into its collective fifties during the decade. In 1990 -- when the same scale was first used -- the distribution of self-ratings was roughly the same.

Younger Americans Much More Likely to Consider Themselves Above Average in Appearance
There is no question that Americans, when asked to assess their own looks, are much more likely to ascribe above-average appearance to themselves when they are younger than when they are older, suggesting that older Americans may have bought into the idea that to be old is to be dowdy. For example, 56% of those Americans 18-29 rate themselves above-average in looks, compared to only 31% of those 50 and older. Those Americans living in the Midwest are also more modest in their self-assessment than those living elsewhere across the country: 33% of Midwesterners say that they are above average in looks, compared to 43% to 46% of those living in the other three major regions of the country.

Perhaps because of these relatively high personal attractiveness assessments, there is less overt dissatisfaction with one's physical attractiveness than might be imagined. Seventy-six percent of Americans say they are satisfied with the way they look, while only 23% say that they are not. These satisfaction levels have not changed substantially over the past nine years. (About the same number are satisfied with the way their body looks.)

One apparent outgrowth of a societal emphasis on outward appearance has been an increased discussion and advertising of plastic surgery. The Gallup poll data, however, show little evidence of an increase either in the percentage of Americans who are willing to admit that they have had plastic surgery -- only 2% both in 1990 and in 1999 -- or the number who say they would consider it. In 1990, 16% of American adults said that they might consider plastic surgery at some point, a number that has risen only to 19% in the most recent poll.

Survey Methods
The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,021 adults, 18 years and older, conducted July 22-25, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Now thinking about physical attractiveness, that is, how beautiful or handsome someone is -- how important do you think a person's physical attractiveness is in our society today in terms of his or her happiness, social life, and ability to get ahead? Would you say it is very important, fairly important, not too important, or not at all important?

  Very important Fairly important Not too important Not at all important No opinion
99 Jul 22-25
TOTAL 35% 41% 17% 6% 1%
WOMEN 35 41 16 7 1
MEN 35 41 18 5 1
90 Oct 11-14
TOTAL 38 46 12 3 1
WOMEN 41 44 11 3 1
MEN 36 46 14 2 2

If you had to describe yourself to someone who didn't know you, how would you describe your physical appearance? Would you say you are -- beautiful or handsome, attractive or above average, average, somewhat below average in attractiveness, or unattractive?

tiful or hand-
tive or above average
Average Somewhat below avg in attrac-
No opin-
99 Jul 22-25
TOTAL 8% 34% 54% 2% *% 2%
WOMEN 3 38 55 2 1 1
MEN 13 30 53 2 * 2
96 Feb 23-25
TOTAL 9 30 56 2 1 2
WOMEN 6 36 55 2 * 1
MEN 13 25 56 2 2 2
90 Oct 11-14
TOTAL 5 31 59 3 1 1
WOMEN 2 35 57 3 1 2
MEN 9 27 60 1 2 1

All in all, are you satisfied with how attractive you are, or do you often wish you could be more attractive?

  Satisfied Wish to be more attractive No opinion
99 Jul 22-25
TOTAL 76% 23% 1%
WOMEN 71 29 *
MEN 81 17 2
96 Feb 23-25
TOTAL 74 25 1
WOMEN 68 31 1
MEN 81 18 1
90 Oct 11-14
TOTAL 77 22 1
WOMEN 67 32 1
MEN 87 12 1

All in all, would you say you are generally pleased with the way your body looks, or not?

  Yes, pleased No, not pleased No opinion
99 Jul 22-25
TOTAL 72% 27% 1%
WOMEN 64 36 *
MEN 80 19 1
96 Feb 23-25
TOTAL 72 27 1
WOMEN 65 34 1
MEN 79 20 1
90 Oct 11-14
TOTAL 74 26 *
WOMEN 64 36 *
MEN 85 15 *

Have you ever had elective cosmetic or plastic surgery to improve the appearance of some part of your body, or not?

  Yes No No opinion
99 Jul 22-25 2% 98% *%
90 Oct 18-21 2 98 0

(if Q. 24 '2,3') Would you consider elective cosmetic or plastic surgery to improve the appearance of some part of your body, or not?

  Yes No No opinion
99 Jul 22-25 19% 81% *%
90 Oct 18-21 16 84 *
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