On judging a book by its cover

ImageSo, here it is, the front cover of my book Am I Beautiful? 

What do you think?

Do you like? Does it draw you in and make you look forward to reading it? Do you dismiss it as too pink, too girly? Were you wowed by its font? Did you make assumptions about me, the author?

It’s ironic that in a book that tackles society’s obsession with appearance, the publisher and I have agonised over the front cover. Because there’s no pretending about it: people do judge a book by its cover. Book buyers browsing book stores make up their minds within a few seconds about whether or not they want to buy a book. So your front cover – the window to the rest of the book – is the place you entice the reader, but also give some clues as to what lies inside.

We do the same thing with human beings.

We make snap judgments about people’s characteristics, their background, their capabilities, their class and their intelligence based on a few seconds of scanning their faces, their mannerisms, what they’re wearing.

According to Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, our judgments about people’s physical appearances can even determine who gets the job and who wins in presidential elections. He writes that CEOs and US presidents are on average a lot taller than the general population, for example, with taller people giving off an air of capability.

“Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations.”

There’s a famous leadership story in the example of David and Saul found in 1 Samuel. I expect King Saul was … fit. Like an Eric Bana or a Henry Cavill (the new Superman) towering above his counterparts like some kind of superhero. He looked the part. We’re told he stood head and shoulders above the rest. But we’re also told that that whole judging a book by its cover thing is not really how God plays things.

But the Lord said to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Over the past few months, I’ve enlisted friends and family members to give me their opinions on the various different designs and iterations. And what I’ve found is that getting every person’s opinion on a good book cover is tiresome. Because everyone has a totally different opinion on what constitutes a beautiful book cover. Because beauty is totally subjective. One person’s bestseller is another person’s bargain bin. And all this reminds me once again that beauty-with-a-small-b cannot be confined within some narrow definition constructed by a society intent only on making us feel inadequate and making money out of us; the one that requires each of us to conform and squeeze into it.

Looking for the intrinsic value and beauty in each human being is far from easy. As visual beings our tendency is to judge books by their covers. But let’s be aware that’s what we’re doing – and maybe some day the covers won’t matter anymore.


Beauty as good: why we’re confused by handsome on-screen villains

ImageJamie Dornan is a beautiful man.

The former model, with his brooding eyes and chiselled features is far from the stereotype of what an actor playing the part of a serial killer should look like.

Serial killers are supposed to be weird-looking, as if the inner darkness is supposed to manifest itself in their appearance.

Maybe that’s what made the Dornan character in the five-part BBC drama The Fall whose first series came to an end earlier this week so disturbing.

We don’t associate beauty with evil.

Evil is supposed ugly.

So as we watch this gorgeous man brutally kill women on screen, we are confused, searching for a reason; desperately trying to find some good in him. Because the images on our television do not compute. He doesn’t look the part.

In the programme, when the investigators first see the e-fit of the serial killer, even they are taken aback.

“Could he really look like that?”, one asks.

And detective Stella Gibson (played by Gillian Anderson) replies, mesmerised by the sketch: “Even a multiple murderer can have his share of good qualities. Or a pretty face.”

Psychologists call our ascribing positive characters to good-looking people and negative to those society considers less attractive as the What Is Beautiful is Good effect.

In Hollywood films, the heroes are the best-looking people on the screen. And the ‘baddies’ do not conform to our pattern of beauty and often display physical characteristics that are out of the ordinary – you only have to do an image search of Bond villains to see what I mean.

And Disney cartoons are also to blame for exaggerating the positive physical attributes of the characters we are supposed to like and making the bad guys less attractive. A study by Doris Bazzini published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2010 found that in Disney films, friendliness, goodness, moral virtue, intelligence, romantic involvement and socioeconomic status where attributed to the physically attractive.

In thisbeauty bias that exists in human societies, people deemed more attractive do better in just about every area of life. Attractive people earn more, they are assumed to be more friendly, they are less likely to be found guilty in court and are given more lenient sentences when they are. Psychiatrist Dr Igor Elman has even suggested that ‘prettier’ babies are more loved by their mothers.

But here’s the thing about the What is Beautiful is Good effect. It means we are judging a book by its cover. And we’re judging that book based on arbitrary standards society defines as beautiful. When we do that, we make assumptions about who the goodies are and who the baddies are. And the danger is, it will cause us to overlook those who might not look the part.

It is only Beauty in its original form that is the ultimate in goodness. All else falls short.