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Looks may buy happiness, but only in the city

/ Source: contributor

Women’s magazines all spread the same message: Money may not buy you happiness, but beauty certainly will.

A new study has actually proven that the women’s magazines were right — so long as you live in the city. But if you’re a country girl, it’s more of a case of “pretty is as pretty does.”

Researchers have found that happiness for city women is quite dependent upon physical appearance. But in the country, looks don’t count for much in terms of overall life satisfaction and happiness, according to a new study in the journal Personal Relationships. 

“City women who were the most attractive got a lot of bang for their appearance buck,” says the study’s lead author, Victoria Plaut, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. “And if you were even slightly below average, you were very clearly worse off.”

When it came to women living in the country, there was no connection between physical appearance and happiness. Even more interesting — there was a slight trend in the data for women in the country to be happier if they were chubbier, Plaut says.

For the new study, Plaut and her colleagues interviewed 257 women who lived in the city and 330 from the country. The women were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, their connectedness with friends and community, and their general level of happiness. For a measure of satisfaction, they were asked to rate their lives on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “worst possible life you can imagine” and 10 listed as the “best possible life you can imagine.”

To get a sense of the women’s attractiveness, researchers asked for waist and hip measurements. Other studies have shown that the ratio of waist to hips is a reliable indicator of attractiveness, Plaut explains. The lower the ratio, the slimmer the waist — and the more attractive a woman is considered to be.

The study got it right, says Cindy Seagraves, manager of a horse and farm supply store in Quinton, N.J., a farming community about 45 miles from Philadelphia. There’s a lot less emphasis on physical appearance in rural areas, adds Seagraves, 28.

“I think there’s a lot of social pressure in the city,” she says. “In the country, there’s a sense of stability and comfort. You feel like you can just be yourself. You go to the local grocery store dressed in your horse clothes or in your camouflage and hunting boots and nobody looks at you sideways.”

Part of that sense of acceptance comes from having friends you’ve known since elementary school, says Seagraves, who has lived in the same rural community her whole life. “It’s not like living in the city where you’re surrounded by so many unknown faces,” she adds. “These people have known you since you were little. So you don’t feel pressure to be cool to fit in.”

First impressions

The new findings fall in line with other research, says Michael Cunningham, a psychologist and professor in the department of communications at the University of Louisville, Ky. “In competitive and individualistic cultures you have to compete for limited social attention,” Cunningham says. “Physical attractiveness is one of the variables that gets you social attention and other positive outcomes. But in communal cultures and rural areas, family reputation and other longer-term variables have a bigger impact on your well-being. As a consequence, physical attractiveness doesn’t have as big an impact.”

There’s another way to look at it, argues Dr. Alan Manevitz, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. People aren’t obsessed with appearance in rural areas simply because the population is too small for there to be much choice.

“If you’re living on a small island and there are 10 people on that island, and one person fishes and another grows vegetables and another chops down trees, it doesn’t matter what anyone looks like,” he adds. “As soon as you begin to have more people you have more competition and then physical appearance becomes more important.”

Avice Hoff, executive director of the Miss Montana Scholarship and member of the Montana 4-H Hall of Fame, knows a lot about competition, and she thinks that's got nothing to do with it. Rather, true beauty can't be captured by something as simplistic as a waist-to-hip ratio. "Montana women look at other qualities in a person rather than external beauty," she says.

The researchers haven't yet looked at how all this plays out in the suburbs. But Plaut suspects that the character of each community has a lot to do with it. In other words, looks are likely to matter a lot more in Pasadena than Peoria.