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Glamour and Brains: Navigating the Bimbo Paradox in Societal Perception

For my Writing Seminar my first semester of college, Beautiful People: Models Myths and Makeovers, my final assignment was to write a research paper on any question related to the topics we discussed in class. Reading works from Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth" to Elizabethan neo-platonic poetry, we examined how social categorizations at different historical moments factor into what counts as beautiful and why beauty is so coveted. I initially chose this topic because I have always been fascinated by how beauty affects our perception of intelligence. I initially thought that I would focus on the fact that we think that beautiful people may be less smart than others, but I quickly realized that there was overwhelming evidence otherwise. As a result, I ended up writing about demystifying the nuances of when beauty is positively correlated with intelligence. My claim is, “People in situations that reward social skills have other proof of intelligence, or in circumstances where we want to believe they are intelligent benefit from attractiveness. Unless the attractive person fits those criteria, they suffer from the beauty penalty, or attractiveness works against them. These phenomena are illustrated by case studies and prominent female figures in popular culture.” I organized my paper through putting for the most part instances where beauty is beneficial, and secondly where it is a hindrance. I sprinkled examples of pop culture and research throughout, occasionally pointing toward the other side to show the nuance in the discussion. If I were to write this paper again, I would have looking into primary sources like social media comments and Reddit posts to supplement the secondary sources I cited.

Glamour and Brains: 

Navigating the Bimbo Paradox in Societal Perception


Meet the bimbo: an attractive and sexualized woman, usually blonde, always stupid. She graces the screens of films like Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Mean Girls. And–surely I am not alone here–she has always haunted the edges of my own makeup mirror, flitting around and casting slivers of self-doubt. In high school, applying my $weet Mouth Glitterbomb Fenty lipgloss, or choosing a crop-top at Forever 21, I catch myself wondering as I pucker my lips to my mirror: am I a bimbo? 

There are many examples of beauty and intelligence being mutually exclusive traits, from our perception of Barbie, a traditionally blonde and skinny girl’s doll meant to empower girls, to Elle Woods, a fashionista sorority sister who gets into Harvard Law School, from Legally Blonde. I worry about being underestimated while trying to enjoy the benefits of social allure because I have so often seen beauty and intelligence imagined as mutually exclusive traits. And I see this in my own biases in instances where I assume someone’s intelligence (or lack thereof) based only on a physical first impression. Mass media and popular cinema overwhelmingly confirm this tendency, but strangely, psychological studies disagree: there is an overwhelming consensus that beauty is positively correlated with intelligence. Most sources I have encountered when plugging in “beauty” and “intelligence” is a bombardment of evidence on how being attractive is actually an indicator to success. The impact of being beautiful varies drastically when outside factors come into play. Despite our purported bias that attractive people are not intelligent, we actually do believe attractive people enjoy the beauty premium–though only for particular groups, and to a certain extent. People in situations that reward social skills have other proof of intelligence, or in circumstances where we want to believe they are intelligent benefit from attractiveness. Unless the attractive person fits those criteria, they suffer from the beauty penalty, or attractiveness works against them. These phenomena are illustrated by case studies and prominent female figures in popular culture.

Elements of the Beauty Premium

The majority of evidence supports that being beautiful comes with more benefits than drawbacks, both in perception and in reality. This has been backed by research and common sense: beautiful people may be more confident or people like them because they are attractive, leading them to generally have access to more resources and more people. People who constantly complain that beautiful people have things handed easily to them, and generally enjoy an easier path through life because they believe that being attractive comes with many benefits, aren’t entirely wrong. Beauty and confidence are also mutually reinforcing, so for the attractive person, the advantages that come with confidence and beauty make the individual more confident and more successful. Confidence is positively correlated to success, contributing to beauty’s association with intelligence. Physical attractiveness is linked to social and emotional intelligence, and thus leads to confidence and success in a cyclical relationship, thus cementing the relationship between beauty and some kinds of intelligence. But there are multiple kinds of intelligence, and where social intelligence works this way, analytical intelligence is more negatively correlated to beauty.  

The association between good-looking people and positive traits is reinforced by the media and in turn seeking to confirm our beliefs, leading to a positive feedback loop of thinking attractive people are smart. Our notion of intelligence is often correlated with success–successful people in movies usually happen to be good-looking. While this is in part to gain a larger audience for the movie, this also feeds into the bias of people believing that the good-looking person must be the good guy. The Avengers and the protagonists in Star Wars (Princess Leah, Han Solo. and Luke Skywalker) are also conventionally attractive– often White, slim, and have symmetrical faces. On the other hand, the antagonists, such as Thanos or Emperor Palpatine, are unattractive and have distorted and wrinkly faces. Because of the transitive property of these good guys being attractive and also winners, beauty is connected with winning and thus intelligence (since there is an assumption that smart people win). We notice this pattern in many narratives between good and bad.

Of course, our correlation between beauty and intelligence hinges on how we define intelligence, which is a shifty thing. Our association of attractiveness with intelligence is often because of what we believe it means to be “intelligent” and the context the individual is in. What is considered intelligent varies depending on the circumstances, such as logical-mathematical intelligence, street smarts, or social intelligence. Those who do not exhibit the type of intelligence appropriate for the situation may thus be labeled as stupid. For instance, Giselle from the movie Enchanted, a princess who is dropped into the real world, is portrayed to be naive and dumb because she lacks the common sense to not eat an apple a stranger gives her. However, she has some level of social intelligence as she befriends everyone around her. While she may be an idiot if put in real life, she is smart for a fairytale. Similarly, an investment banker put to manage a daycare facility would not be construed as smart because they likely do not have the skills required to care for children.

Beautiful people are often perceived to lack analytical skills but better social skills at first glance. This is evident through experiments that have been done where photos of applicants were or weren’t attached to applications for jobs. As a result, there have been conjectures that the existence of the beauty premium is most evident in jobs that need social skills, but the beauty penalty comes into play where this trait is not expected. In one study conducted in 2011, where respondents rated 12 photos (3 of attractive and 3 of unattractive individuals of each gender) from a large set of working professionals with the dimensions of attractiveness, social and analytical skills, the researchers concluded that consistent to their hypothesis, “ social and analytical skills were negatively correlated. Furthermore, individuals rated as more attractive were perceived to have better social skills but worse analytical skills.” In their follow-up studies, the researchers specifically investigated the preference of people for attractive or plain-looking applicants when selecting lawyers, which “people judge social skills to be relatively important for career success,” in comparison to doctors, where analytical skills seemingly prevail. “In support of our hypothesis, choice proportions did not differ when social/analytical skills were not important, but differed significantly when social/analytical skills were important,” the report concluded. While there was a beauty premium for social skills, as the majority of the participants selected the more attractive professionals in the legal case, there was a beauty penalty for analytical skills as a minority selected the more attractive professionals in the medical case. Overall, the research suggests that people believe that beauty is beneficial for social interaction but may hinder engagement and training in analytical tasks. This suggests that what we generally mean by intelligence is the possession of some sort of analytical or maybe practical skill rather than social skill.

Beauty is particularly beneficial for individuals who have other credibility to prove that they are intelligent. There is a study that showed how with proof of “intelligence” paired with beauty, beauty helps boost the person’s perception, almost as an affirming factor. This study had male college subjects read an essay that supposedly had been written by a college freshman co-ed. The subjects evaluated the quality of the essay and the ability of its writer on several dimensions. Using a photo attached to the essay, one-third of the subjects were led to believe that the writer was physically attractive, and one-third that she was unattractive. The remaining subjects read the essay without any information about the writer's appearance. In addition, half of the subjects read a well-written version of the essay while the rest read a poorly-written essay. The research concluded that the subjects who read the good essay evaluated the writer and her work more favorably than those who read the poor essay. The subjects also evaluated the writer and her work most favorably when she was attractive, least when she was unattractive, and there was little effect when her appearance was unknown. This suggests that with information that reveals that a person has certain qualifications in addition to their attractiveness, being attractive could help boost the perception that comes with intelligence. However, the impact of the writer's attractiveness on the evaluation of her and her work was most pronounced when the “objective” quality of her work was relatively poor. “One possible implication,” the researchers suggest, “is that if someone's work is competent, personal characteristics are less subject to influence evaluations of that work than when the quality of the work is relatively poor. [...] Furthermore, it should be noted that the standard deviations for the control group were consistently higher for the poor essay than for the good essay. This may indicate that the poor essay was a more ambiguous stimulus than the good essay. Thus it is possible to interpret the results as an indication that physical attractiveness plays a larger role in the evaluation of ambiguous rather than poor performances.” Thus, someone unattractive may not face the blunt of the ugly penalty if they produce good results. However, more attractive people are more likely to get away with work of lesser quality.

When Beauty is Beastly

The bimbo effect, a concept that has not yet been widely researched, is one of the parts of the beauty penalty where there is an assumption that an individual has only achieved the success they have due to their attractiveness. This undermines women’s achievements but is also a backward ideology because the beauty premium only benefits people in very particular circumstances. While there are few studies that investigate this directly, this can be exemplified by Barbie. Despite Barbie’s intent to empower women–or in their words, “Since 1959, Barbie's purpose has been to inspire the limitless potential in every girl” –Barbie is still known for being Blonde, fashionable, and not for the diverse range of jobs and roles she comes in. From Dentist Barbie to Violin Barbie, Barbie is meant to be an inclusive and diverse doll line; yet, the image of Barbie is still a blonde, conventionally attractive, white woman. Barbie’s reputation is defined by how she looks, undermining everything else that constitutes her. The bimbo effect can be broken down into or connected to other reasons behind the beauty penalty. 

Because of the power we give beauty–or our awareness and participation in granting the beauty premium–beauty often provokes jealousy. Because of confirmation bias, people may notice a beautiful person's mistakes more than good-doings, for example, if one was looking for faults in someone because of their own insecurity they would notice them better than they would notice positive things. In a study observing businesswomen, there is evidence of attractive businesswomen being judged as being less truthful than less attractive women for reasons rooted in sexual insecurity. In the first study, participants read a fabricated article with a senior executive who attributed the layoffs in their company to a downturn in the economy and judged the truthfulness of the executive. Their subsequent five studies manipulated either the variable of priming one to be sexually secure, the role of the subject (for example public relations officer), or the gender of the subject. In each of the studies, attractiveness impacted the perception of female executives significantly more than that of the males. For the study on sexual security in particular, results matched the researchers’ hypothesis: “When participants were primed to feel sexually secure, the target’s attractiveness no longer exhibited an effect on her perceived truthfulness. Note that feeling a sense of general security did not produce this effect; participants who were primed to recall a time they felt good about themselves rated the truthfulness of the attractive target’s account lower, which, in turn, led them to trust her less.” Throughout all five studies conducted by the research group, one consistent theme was that attractiveness was a liability for women and not for men. This was regardless of whether the attractive women delivered positive or negative news or if the context was masculine or feminine. Consequently, it is possible that the pervasiveness of beauty and intelligence being seen as incompatible is at least in part a product of sexual insecurity. 

This phenomenon is also present in advertising. A study conducted in 2001 points out the difference between ordinarily beautiful and extraordinarily beautiful subjects in advertising. In particular, the sources focus on how one’s perception of the beautiful person connects back to themselves and may influence someone to buy a product, for instance if a woman in an advertisement is too beautiful then they may spark jealousy or be unrelatable to the consumer. This further supports how the cause of the negative perception of attractive people is jealousy. 

While this is most clear between women, it is especially pertinent to the concept of “beauty is beastly,” which arises when a woman threatens a man’s masculinity or standing. Like many other investigations involving perception or beauty, one of the most important biases in considering perceived intelligence is gender. In a separate study, undergraduates were placed in a decision-making scenario in which they were asked to evaluate different job packets for potential managerial and clerical positions; the results showed that “attractiveness consistently proved to be an advantage for men but was an advantage for women only when seeking a non-managerial position. This was the case in ratings of qualifications, recommendations for hiring, suggested starting salary, and rankings of hiring preferences.” This may also explain the heavier scrutiny against women’s physical appearance in comparison to men’s across all sectors. This is comparable to another study with similar findings, where the photos were also more heavily scrutinized if the applicant was a woman as they were analyzed for facial morality, facial competence, and attractiveness–whatever facial morality or competence may mean being questionable. Some may argue that there is a grain of truth to beauty’s correlation with unintelligence.

However, while there is some evidence that perceived intelligence has some similarity to measured intelligence in men, perceived attractiveness has no correlation to actual intelligence for either gender. While it is possible that there were particular traits that were perceived to look intelligent, in actuality there are no traits that were found to be correlated with actual intelligence. Researchers from a study conducted in 2014 attribute the relationship to mere stereotype: “These faces of supposed high and low intelligence probably represent nothing more than a cultural stereotype because these morphological traits do not correlate with the real intelligence of the subjects.”

This dissonance between the perception of beauty between genders is present in numerous studies. For instance, in a study set in Israel, where the choice to include a photograph in a job application is left to the candidate’s discretion, researchers investigated the role of physical attractiveness in the hiring process. They sent 5,312 curricula vitae in pairs to 2,656 advertised job openings. In each pair, one CV was without a picture, whereas the second, otherwise almost identical CV contained a picture of either an attractive male or female or a plain-looking male or female. The photos proved to benefit only attractive men, while candidates with photos of an attractive women were called back 30 percent less than candidates with no image (and 8 percent less than candidates with an unattractive photo). This exemplifies how additional factors besides how one looks are key to determining how people interpret beauty.

This effect can be explained by the beauty is beastly effect, where beauty is only beneficial to the extent that the individual does not threaten men. Much of the conversation surrounding female intelligence and beauty revolves around the concept of power. This is also relevant to the relationship between beauty and trust. People fear women being not only beautiful but also intelligent because they wield too much power, which is why beautiful women are often deemed untrustworthy and archetypes such as femme fatale exist. The “dumb blonde” stereotype is also intrinsically linked to this as while there is a popular notion that men prefer blondes, the stereotype puts blonde women down. As explained by Naomi Wolf’s “Beauty Myth,” beauty and sex appeal still define a woman now in society because it allows society to control them. The misogynist roots in being able to control a woman's appearance and what it means is ingrained in our society to diminish the power of women and harness their influence. For instance, there is proof that men are more attracted to women who only display more intelligence than themselves but are less attracted to women who actually outsmart them when they are within proximity. Some believe that people have only gotten to the places they are because they are attractive, which may contribute to the undermining of other traits they have; this belief is most commonly applied to women. They may also believe that because of the time they may have put into looking good, they put less time toward other more “productive” tasks; this is also most commonly associated with women, though it is society that pressures them into meeting difficult and sometimes conflicting standards.

Besides gender, there are other factors that impact the perception of beauty. For instance, how beauty is interpreted in places such as school, which is primarily academic, differs in the types of beauty one may encounter. An experiment investigated the limiting effects of the attractiveness halo on perceptions of actual academic performance in the faces of 100 university students, but this is being evaluated given that the people are students giving them some established credibility in how intelligent they are. Furthermore, another factor that influences the perception of intelligence is race. In a study conducted in 1978, teachers (both Black and White) were asked to assess their expectations for students based on gender, physical attractiveness, and race. The results showed that teachers expected physically attractive students, White students, and girls to be more intelligent and higher achievers than other groups. They also concluded that “although the attractiveness of an individual influenced the initial expectation of the preschool teachers, race exerted the strongest influence.” Similarly, the Model Minority Myth perpetuates how Asians are expected to be smart, which may also have pervasive control over the perception of beauty. However, this should be investigated further before drawing conclusions.

Modern embrace of bimbofication

Now, in the 21st century, some accept and even embrace the beauty penalty without apology. Bimbofication, or the contemporary embrace of hyper-feminism, is an ongoing trend among Gen Z. This ultra-feminine movement combats the idea of one having to “justify” their femininity by balancing it out with something else such as intelligence. A bimbo is not concerned with seeming intelligent, though they may be. For instance, everyone expects Elle Woods to be a bimbo, so is shocked when she gets into Harvard Law. Similarly, in college Halloween parties, a universal theme is wearing sexified costumes, such as a sexy mummy or a sexy fairy, as it is the one day one can completely remove themselves from the context of being a student and, in the words of Cady from Mean Girls, revolving around a clique of popular but shallow girls, “the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything else about it.” 

An article describing the comeback of the bimbo utilizes relevant examples such as Marilyn Monroe, who plays the gold digger, dumb blonde, and bimbo while making fun of the men who fall for her naivety in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Some critics say that bimboism plays right into the male gaze, however, others say that by spending time on oneself and being high maintenance, one reclaims self-autonomy and truly does things for themselves11. An even more recent example is the Barbie movie, which follows Barbie’s journey to the real world as she attempts to reclaim the common stereotypes associated with Barbie by reframing it to show that women should be empowered by their ability to choose who they want to be and what they were “made for.”

Overall, attractive people are perceived to be intelligent only if they check off certain boxes, such as being in a social setting, having other credibility proving intelligence, or if they are not in a position to threaten men. The perception of beauty–whether as a halo or as something beastly–as a judgment of character is ultimately a means to hinder the independence of women. The other possible explanations to explain the beauty-is-beastly effect, from negative qualities associated with attractive women like vanity to the possibility of being a social-magnet that lowers the productivity of their coworkers, are facades to detract from the root issue of women being seen as nothing more than what is most convenient for them to be seen as. Barbie and Elle Woods are so much more than just pretty blondes; they are intelligent, hardworking, and successful, but we must change our view on women in general to recognize that. It is only until the root issue of the objectification of women is addressed that we will truly be able to let go of unfairly judging their beauty.


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