Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his Atlantic magazine blog, contends that society doesn't place as much of an emphasis on appearance as it used to. He opens with a provocative ebook excerpt from Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 by Frances Anne Kemble.
"Do you know that little as grown negroes are admirable for their personal beauty (in my opinion, at least), the black babies of a year or two old are very pretty; they have for the most part beautiful eyes and eyelashes, the pearly perfect teeth, which they retain after their other juvenile graces have left them; their skins are all (I mean of blacks generally) infinitely finer and softer than the skins of white people. Perhaps you are not aware that among the white race the finest grained skins generally belong to persons of dark complexion," Kemble wrote.
We put a lot of weight on physical appearance in our society, but not like we used to. Physical appearance, at one point, was thought to directly, and irrefutably correspond with deeper characteristics. In the primary documents, you hear people complementing others for having an "intelligent face." This is meant in the most literal sense.
Read Ta-Nehisi Coates' complete column at the Atlantic.