Beauty: skin deep

The New York Times used exactly the same photo on the cover of their May 5 issue as Rolling Stone did more than two months later.

It’s well established in the literature that attractive people generally fare better. In many cases, humans attribute positive characteristics, such as intelligence and honesty, to physically attractive people without consciously realizing it.

I think that’s why the story of the dental assistant in Iowa who was fired for being too attractive – Cheri noted it recently – got so much attention.

At some level, I think the issue of the recent cover of the magazine Rolling Stone was upsetting to some people because Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not homely.

In TIME magazine, Alexandra Sifferlin quotes psychologist Ellen Berscheid: “While seeing an attractive picture of a villainous person isn’t likely to change our opinion of that individual’s egregious acts, as the uproar over the image indicates, it could lead us to feel some emotions that we may not think are appropriate. That includes sadness, and perhaps even a douse of empathy over why an attractive person would commit a terrible crime.”

William Rivers Pitt in Truthout opined: “The outrage over Tsarnaev’s face on the cover has everything to do with the fact that there is a puppy-dog cuteness about him which is jarring in the context of his alleged crimes… As for glorifying Tsarnaev or potentially upsetting the bombing victims, his face has been on the front page of every newspaper in the Western hemisphere more than once…” In fact, as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi noted: “They used an existing photo, one already used by other organizations. The New York Times, in fact, used exactly the same photo on the cover of their May 5 issue.”

The same picture that Rolling Stone used was on the front page of the New York Times a couple of months earlier.

Pitt said: “Putting newsmakers on the cover [of the magazine] is not out of line. Hell, they had Charlie Manson on the cover once upon a time, as well as George W. Bush in 2009.” It’s not as though Rolling Stone dubbed him the sexiest terrorist or something.

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe complained the picture was a selfie in a bit of psychobabble I don’t quite follow.

I was reminded that, back in 1994, TIME magazine darkened a cover picture of O.J. Simpson. It was supposed to be some artistic decision, but many people thought it was designed to make him seem more sinister. And TIME has had as Man of the Year Adolf Hitler (1939) and Ayatollah Khomeini (1979), but they weren’t endorsing them, merely noting their significance.

I’m not unsympathetic to those who might find the photo unsettling, and I understand why some stores took it off the shelves. But I don’t think the cover choice is outlandish.