What makes a teacher hot? Better yet, why is it an important question to consider? Even though I disagree with most of the explanations and the conclusions that Daniel Hamermesh makes in his book Beauty Pays, I do believe that our physical appearance is of great significance. But then again, sociologists have known that for a long time now. A person who appears to be well-dressed, fit, healthy, and attractive is evaluated more positively than a person who is not. But what people often read into our faces and bodies has much less to do with some abstract notions of beauty and much more to do with perceptions of a person’s social class, race/ethnicity, education, and the pre-conceived ideas that go along with each of those categories. To put it bluntly, people who project a certain amount of wealth or status are much more likely to be seen as attractive or beautiful than those who project a lack of wealth or status. People who have more wealth can also employ all the “tools of the trade” to project an image which approximates the ideals of beauty in their cultures: they can spend more money on their hair, their skin, make-up, fitness trainers, vacations (where they develop glowing tans), expensive clothes, perhaps cosmetic surgery, etc. So it is no wonder that Hamermesh finds that attractive professors have higher salaries – they may be attractive precisely because they have higher salaries!
One of the most glaring flaws of Hamermesh’s argument is the idea that student evaluations lead to higher salaries for professors. Some places do have teaching awards for outstanding faculty, but I don’t know of any place which actually increases or decreases your salary based on student evaluations. But let’s put aside the question of money and how that relates to a professor’s attractiveness. Beauty, attractiveness, hotness, they do confer certain advantages on the person embodying them. Hamermesh argues that beautiful professors(or to be more precise those who are considered better looking than other professors and that does not necessarily qualify them as beautiful even according to Hamermesh) get better evaluations than their less attractive colleagues. But what makes a professor hot in student’s eyes? What differences might we find in students’ perceptions of their professors’ hotness depending on the professors’ gender, race, ethnicity or age for instance? Consider a well-liked male professor in his sixties – very likely that he is still getting chili peppers on ratemyprofessors.com. Now consider a well-liked female professor in her sixties – the chances are she’s being called a “nice old lady” in her evaluations and not getting many chili peppers. A young, male African American professor or a young Latina professor on the other hand, may often be perceived as hot by their students. Beauty and hotness are not unbiased or universal standards that we all can agree on. Our perceptions of somebody’s attractiveness reflect our cultural attitudes towards various groups of people .
Consider feminists as an example. It’s not that feminists are unattractive, but that is how they are often portrayed and imagined by others. Ask your students to be honest and list words that describe feminists from their point of views. Somewhere along the line, “unattractive” or some variation of it will surely make the list. But what is it that makes feminists “unattractive”? For one, the cultural mythology of them being “man-haters” certainly doesn’t help with their public image. Although Hollywood may romanticize relationships between paid assassins trying to kill each other, most “ordinary” people are not attracted to somebody who they think is “out to get them” or out to get half of humanity for that matter. But it is also that feminists deal with volatile and intimate subject matter and our teaching asks students to fundamentally question what they think they know and perhaps how they live. Our subject matter is unsettling; we are “unsafe,” “difficult,” “bitchy”. It is much easier to find somebody else attractive—somebody less “demanding” of their students. Under these circumstances, (even though it may irk us as feminists that students can’t get past our physical appearance), that many of us do get chili peppers from our students, should be seen as a testament to our ability as teachers to transform cultural attitudes! For it is not, contrary to what Hamermesh argues, that students view some professors as hot that leads them to think of them as amazing teachers. It’s because some professors are amazing teachers that often leads students to think of them as hot!
*Song on Van Halen’s album 1984.
New London, Connecticut in the US
Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.