Is it really such a sin to be ugly?

Tory MP George Gardiner has asked his party not to drop him because of his looks. But do they matter? Rebecca Fowler reports
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There is no peace to be had for the ugly. They are less likely to find success, mates and happiness, and are more likely to be blamed for mishaps and crimes, in a world that has become more obsessed by beauty than the Greeks.

The latest casualty is Sir George Gardiner, the right-wing Conservative MP and certainly no Adonis. This week he beseeched his constituents not to drop him on the basis of his hangdog appearance, which has been compared to that of a rain-soaked Dracula.

Following hostile comments from local party members, and an alleged plot to oust him at a meeting this weekend, he wrote to the handsome people of Reigate in Surrey: "I'm sorry about my physical appearance ... but I was just born ugly."

His candid appeal confirms findings that beauty is more important than ever, and ugliness remains the sin that dares to show its face. According to a former clerk at the House of Commons, politicians are particularly prone to the affliction.

The clerk, Philip Hensher, was sacked when he suggested that MPs were unusually ugly. He singled out David Mellor (doubled-chinned and gap-toothed), John Gummer and Michael Portillo, of whom he said: "His torso goes down to his knees and he has these little legs."

Although the MPs have achieved office in spite of their looks, the least dashing are unlikely to ever reach the top of the ladder in their chosen career. When a Labour colleague of Robin Cook was asked why he would never make Prime Minister, he said: "Because plastic surgery has yet to advance that far."

It was on the surface an unkind observation, but according to psychologists it is also true. The "physically challenged" are less likely to be trusted, and more likely to be blamed when things go wrong, as the instinct to equate beauty with good and ugliness with bad endures.

Despite the rise of political correctness, and the staying power of beloved uglies who prove that beauty comes from within - including Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, now making a come-back in Disney's latest film - Oscar Wilde's observation holds strong: "It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But ... it is better to be good than to be ugly."

All the recent research bodes badly for the uglies. In North America a survey showed that unattractive children were more likely to be blamed for misdemeanours; good-looking criminals got shorter sentences than ugly criminals; and in an experiment at Sussex University babies held their gaze longest on the images of the best-looking adults.

Dr Martin Skinner, a social psychologist at Warwick University, said: "It is more important than ever, and we are following the fad in American politics, where you would never see a bad-looking politician on television. There is still this correlation between good looks and what is nice."

He added: "We simply do not respond to ugly things. Good fresh fruit is symmetrical and attractive, and it looks nice, compared with uneven damaged or rotten fruit. For people that clearly isn't the case, but that connection is still made."

The hostility to ugliness in the United States has driven one female pioneer to set up a group for the "appearance-impaired". Their national crusade promotes stories for children that include short, bald princes, and their favourite slogan is: "Cinderella got stretch marks, Snow White wrinkled, and Rapunzel greyed."

From the beginning of time the pursuit of beauty has been a human preoccupation, refined to mathematical precision by Plato. He argued that all beautiful things could be divided into thirds, thus on the face the brow should be one-third of the way from the hair line.

But it remains one of the great contradictions of ugliness that it has been the driving force for a number of prominent individuals, eager to compensate for their unsympathetic appearances with status: "Power is the great aphrodisiac", concluded Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State and no oil painting.

Although some men have been tortured by their physical appearance, including Charles Laughton, who played Quasimodo, others have flouted it. Despite his pasty, balding, short, fat, coarse appearance Napoleon's aides claimed he would drive women into fits of excitement.

But scientists agree that women in the Western world have the roughest deal of all. Men have made up for physical deficits with power, including Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the richest men in Britain, and Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times and often seen in the company of beautiful women. Yet successful women remain preoccupied with anxieties about their physical appearances.

Zoe Wanamaker, the actress, confessed recently: "If I were out of work, I'd be saving my dole money and booking my appointment with Harley Street for massive liposuction. Collagen injections for my lips would be pretty high on the list too."

Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, has conducted research that shows that symmetrical faces are the most attractive, and men, whether they are road sweeps, soldiers or bankers, will inevitably be drawn to the same kind of female face.

Professor Jones said: "There's a very strong consistency, and whichever men are choosing they always end up with the same bimbo - it's 21 with broad hips, and in biological terms it does the job.

"Whatever anyone tells you about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, it aint."

So Sir George should perhaps at least be grateful that he is not a woman. Meanwhile Lady Gardiner, his loyal wife, would argue that whatever the scientists say, beauty most definitely is in the eye of the beholder.