What is more troubling, the fact that your idea of hot is actually just based on what other people think, or the fact that the site Hot or Not? still exists and has furthermore been moderately useful to academic research? Either way, hotness remains eternally up for debate, and this is probably the most troubling fact of all.
A new study in Advances and Consumer Research suggests that perceptions of hotness are contagious, and though you may think you are a singular judge of beauty drawing on your own wild, original standards for aesthetically pleasing features, you're really just a lemming who knows what other people like. So, unable to carve your own path, you thumbs-up the same hotness as everyone else, keeping your place in the assembly line of approval. You probably answered pizza as your favorite food on every yearbook quiz until you were 17. Probably so you'll fit in. Probably because you care too much what people think! I'm making up these last parts, but really, what else could it be? We want to be liked; we want the people we like to be liked. If we like a garbage non-hot person, what will our friends think? How will others gauge our success in the world if we don't present a validly hot specimen on our arms?
Back to the study: Jesse Singal over at Science of Us writes that, using photos from hotornot.com, attractiveness ratings, and new, lab-generated ratings of photos from the site, researchers gauged how participants rated the hotness of people in pictures depending on whether they were exposed to other people's ratings. Singal writes:
The researchers found that when people saw ratings after making their own judgment, in subsequent judgments they got closer and closer to other people's overall average rating of that photo. In other words — and I'm making up the specific numbers — if on the first photo they ranked they were off by 2 points on a 10-point scale as compared to the average, by the 20th photo they were off by, on average, 1.25 points.
In other words, the participants got up to speed pretty quickly on how hotness was being measured, and they eventually complied.
Singal wonders if this is not more about study design rather than peer-pressured beauty standards. Perhaps knowing the ratings of others simply anchored the responses, as they can in other types of studies where leading figures are provided alongside questions. He wonders if rating, say, toasters might lead to the same kind of aggregate consensus—revealing that such experiments don't tell us all that much about how attractiveness works.
But the hotness of toasters, figurative or literal, has nothing to do with their external shine. How we judge a toaster is just how we judge a toaster. On the other hand, how we judge a person on sight means a whole lot in terms of relationships, politics, and economics. People are judged as better friends and employees (with salary numbers to reflect that) if they're attractive. And even though there are certainly contributing qualities to hotness that can't be guessed at in a photo (your voice, attitude, personality)—you only need an image (and apparently, the opinions of others) to know how you feel about someone's looks. Because of all this, the study seems telling.
I think it's possible that the samey-same of these ratings is more about the fact that the study participants are college students, barely out of high school and still eager to fulfill the norms of their peer group. What is high school anyway if not a montage of people becoming "hot" inexplicably, like Tai in Clueless after a little makeover and good PR, or Laney, She's All That-style? It takes time to figure out what you like, and more importantly, to admit it, sometimes even to yourself—especially if what you like is offbeat or weird or sexy-ugly or any number of aberrations therein. This usually doesn't happen until you're older when you realize that you can't pick a boyfriend out of a lineup, and thank god for that (though I'd take the board game).
For instance, I have a friend who likes rat and lion faces in men. We lovingly mock her about it all the time, and she admits that it's taken her time to be able to openly discuss these preferences. "It's one thing to say in an anonymous Internet comment you think Paul Giamatti is hot," she told me. "Totally different to tell your friends in person, like I have done." She and another friend are starting a podcast about this exact subject—talking about who is hot and why, often at odds. (They've been divided of late on the subject of whether a young Chevy Chase fits the bill, and have gone back and forth on the issue for days.)
I would argue both in favor of such disagreements as well as for the celebration of offbeat, less obvious hotness in the public at large, the kind that would never pass muster on Hot or Not. It's already starting to happen. Benedict Cumberbatch has a cult-like hot status while being thought to resemble a number of things, including a foot and uncooked bread dough. But of course, if mob rule applies to hotness, it could apply to not-hot hotness, too. Which leads me to the real, debatable conclusion: It doesn't matter if you're actually hot or not. If everyone says you are, you are.
And ultimately, what does it matter? Conventional attractiveness often holds all the fascination of a bowl of oatmeal, and not the steel-cut kind. It's the variations on the theme that make faces interesting and swoon-worthy, and often it can be just as intoxicating to find beauty in a face that most people wouldn't. Because what is hot, anyway? What is really sexy? Who is beautiful? What does it even mean to be good looking? If you want your most honest answer, don't ask your friends first.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.