I was sitting with a bunch of baby boomers one day not too long ago, thinking about how we'd all changed over the years, when I noticed...

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I was sitting with a bunch of baby boomers one day not too long ago, thinking about how we’d all changed over the years, when I noticed something odd.

The men all had acres of gray in their hair, but most of the women hadn’t so much as a strand of it.

Of course I knew some people dyed their hair, but nearly everyone? Apparently you are only as young as other people think you are.

It’s not just vanity. What you look like has a measurable effect on how other people treat you. I’ve been prone to shake my head at the idea of all those people who get themselves made over on television shows, but maybe I shouldn’t.

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Last week I read about a Princeton study in which people were shown nearly 700 pairs of candidates for Senate or House seats from past and current elections. Volunteers were asked to pick the most competent candidate.

Seeing the photos for only a second or so, the volunteers made decisions that matched the electorate’s choices in the majority of races for both houses. The candidate people think looks most competent usually wins.

But what makes someone look competent? Two scientists at Brandeis University conducted an experiment that suggests voters want a face that looks mature.

People apparently associate big lips, big eyes, a round face, small nose, high forehead and small chin with a baby face. That’s an advantage in some situations, but not when people are deciding who has power and authority.

And you thought campaigns were about issues.

Of course, we already knew that the taller of two male candidates tends to win. People who’ve studied height say tall men get a lot of perks.

Short boys get picked on in school and in the workplace. Each inch above average yields $789 more in pay each year, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. And CEOs, like winning candidates, tend to be tall men.

A few years ago the news show “20/20″ had women judge a lineup of men. All of them were chosen because they were judged to be handsome, but one was also picked because he was short, 5’3.”

The news show made up brief bios on all of the men and asked women to look at the men through one-way glass and pick the one they would marry. Not one of the women picked the short guy.

The show kept running different groups of women through the experiment, and each time they’d add something to the short guy’s biography. They said he was a doctor, that he was wealthy, that he loved cooking. They kept piling on more and more, but still women preferred the other guys.

A man who was 5’6″ did better, but only with a really impressive biography.

Beauty or perceived beauty works that way too. One study found that plain people tend to earn 9 percent less than average per hour, and that people with above-average looks earned about 5 percent more than average.

Sometimes good-looking people (and tall men) do perform especially well partly because of a higher level of self-confidence, which is itself enhanced by people’s positive reaction to them. (A recent Canadian study concluded even parents take better care of cute children.)

The one situation in which beauty is a disadvantage in the workplace appears to be for women who are applying for traditionally male jobs. It seems people figure they are too feminine, so they lose out to men or to women who aren’t as appealing to the person doing the hiring.

But mostly when employers rate workers, they tend to rate good-looking people higher, and co-workers prefer working with cute people.

You’re shocked, aren’t you.

And there is always the question of who is deciding what’s good-looking.

I came across the lyrics to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back,” which is actually a pretty good piece of social commentary with some political bite to it. It starts off with two apparently white girls talking about a third person.

“I mean, her butt, is just so big.

I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like,

out there, I mean — gross. Look!

She’s just so … black!”

Sir Mix-a-Lot then offers his praise of women who are endowed with butts. Who says rap mistreats women? OK, I know it’s hypersexual and objectifying and all that, but it does make a good point, and it has a catchy beat. Also, would it bother you if someone said you had a big butt? Umhnn, you’ve internalized the standards of a society that does not value the natural female form.

Everybody is looking at everybody else and judging them based on what they look like. We’re a pretty superficial species — and the effects of that cut deeply sometimes.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays.