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5 damaging myths about beauty

Guest Blogger

Looks matter. Far too much, argues Deborah L. Rhode in her book “The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law,” recently released by Oxford University Press. Those considered unattractive don’t get the job – and if they do, they don’t get promoted as much as their better-looking counterparts. The bias invades all social arenas, infringes on fundamental rights, supports stereotypes and contributes to psychological harm. Here, Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University, reveals five damaging myths about beauty.

By Deborah L. Rhode

“It hurts to be beautiful” is common knowledge. But what is less widely recognized is how much it also hurts not to be beautiful -- or to fall short by prevailing standards.

Of all the issues that the contemporary women’s movement has targeted, those related to appearance have shown among the least improvement. In fact, by some measures, including our dissatisfaction with our bodies and the price we pay for addressing it, the problem is growing worse.

What compounds the problem is our failure to take it seriously. And part of that problem is a cluster of common myths about the beauty bias.

Consider some common examples.

Of all the forms of discrimination Americans experience, bias based on appearance is trivial.

National surveys by the Employment Law Alliance find that about the same proportion of workers report discrimination based on appearance as discrimination based on race or sex, a figure higher than for other forms of bias based on age, religion, or ethnicity.

Researchers including Nancy Etcoff at Harvard and Kelly Brownell and Rebecca Puhl at Yale have compiled a quarter century of studies finding that overweight and unattractive workers pay a substantial price in hiring, promotion, and salaries. Even the justice system is anything but blind. A recent study by Cornell professors was consistent with longstanding findings: unattractive defendants are more likely to be convicted and receive higher sentences.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

In fact, most beholders agree on certain key characteristics. Researchers consistently find broad consensus, even across gender, race, age, class and cultural background. Among the favored characteristics are facial symmetry and unblemished complexions. Men get a bump for height; women for hourglass figures, and minorities for light skin and Anglo European facial features and hair styles.

It is reasonable for employers to discriminate on the basis of looks; they matter in the market.

Good looks are a plus even for occupations like law, where they generally have nothing to do with performance. And even in service businesses where customers prefer attractive or sexy staff, appearance isn’t a business necessity and bias on that basis compromises merit principles. For the same reason our laws don’t allow customer preference to justify race or sex discrimination, we shouldn’t tolerate it in cases involving appearance.

Southern businesses once claimed that whites wouldn’t buy from blacks; airlines claimed that male business passengers wanted female flight attendants. Allowing employers to indulge those preferences reinforces precisely the prejudices that the law should seek to challenge.

A bit of bias is a good thing; it prods people to shape up.

Research suggests the opposite. As surveys compiled by Brownell and Puhl indicate, most overweight individuals respond to stigma by giving up on their diets and eating more not less.

So life’s unfair. Get over it. Beauty bias is hard wired; passing laws won’t help and will just encourage loony litigation.

People once said the same thing about race discrimination. “You can’t legislate morality” was the claim of opponents of civil rights statutes. A similar claim surfaced with sexual harassment. Sexual attraction was inevitable and critics argued that trying to ban sexual “horseplay” in the workplace was a fruitless gesture that would turn courts into chaperones of trivial conduct. A half century’s experience makes clear that legal prohibitions can make a positive difference on such issues.

So too, the one state (Michigan) and half a dozen jurisdictions that ban some form of appearance bias have not experienced a barrage of meritless litigation. Annual complaints in local jurisdictions range from zero to nine, and the entire state of Michigan has only about 30, only one of which lands in court. Relatively few victims will be willing to incur the financial and social costs of legal proceedings. But the presence of such statutes helps remedy the most egregious abuses, and raises public awareness of their costs.

Laws are only a small part of the answer to beauty bias, but they can help express our aspirations to fairness and remind us when we fall short.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 24, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: beauty biases; biases in workplace; importance of appearance  
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