Lookism is discriminatory treatment toward physically unattractive people; mainly in the workplace but also in social settings. While not classified in the same way as racial, cultural, sexual discrimination, "lookism" is widespread and affects how people are perceived as well as affecting their opportunities in terms of romantic relationships, job opportunities, etc.
Physical attractiveness is associated with good things; in contrast, physical unattractiveness is associated with negative things. Many people make judgments of others based on their physical appearance that influence how they respond to those people. Research on the "What is beautiful is good" stereotype shows that, overall, those who are physically attractive benefit from their good looks: physically attractive individuals are perceived more positively and physical attractiveness has a strong influence on judgment of a person's competence. In return, physically attractive people benefit from these stereotypical beliefs. Research shows that on average, physically attractive individuals have more friends, better social skills, and more active sex lives. However, attractiveness does not have any effect on the level of happiness experienced by the individual.
Though the term "lookism" is of recent coinage, cultures and traditions worldwide have often warned against placing undue value on physical appearance:
To judge by appearances is to get entangled in the Veil of Maya [in Buddhist thought] ... From ancient times until relatively recently, there was widespread worry about lookism, because the appearance of others may deceive, especially in romance, or it may be personally or politically imprudent to judge or act on appearances. Judging by appearances was prohibited by monotheistic religions ("no graven images") and criticized in ancient and medieval philosophies. Skeptics, Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans and Scholastics elaborated various reasons to avoid or subordinate the role of appearances.
However, the term "lookism" was first coined in the 1970s within the fat acceptance movement. It was used in The Washington Post Magazine in 1978, which asserted that the term was coined by "fat people" who created the word to refer to "discrimination based on looks." The word appears in several major English language dictionaries.
Lookism has received scholarly attention both from a cultural studies and an economics perspective. In the former context, lookism relates to preconceived notions of beauty and cultural stereotyping based on appearance as well as gender roles and expectations. Important economic considerations include the question of income gaps based on looks, as well as increased or decreased productivity from workers considered beautiful or ugly by their co-workers. Due to this, new problems arise that are tied to other social issues like racism and ageism (young over old). The idea of beauty is also linked directly to social class because people who have more free time and money have the ability to work on their appearance. Weight is also linked to social class because people who are overweight do not have the exercise equipment or the healthy food choices that wealthier people do. Judging people on the basis of attractiveness decreases a person's self-esteem leading to a negative self-image.
Some writers have examined this phenomenon among gay men. According to the block quote on page 117 of a 2004 work by Todd Morrison, author Michelangelo Signorile (in a 1997 overview of contemporary trends in the gay male community) described "body fascism" as
the setting of a rigid set of standards of physical beauty that pressures everyone within a particular group to conform to them. Any person who doesn't meet those very specific standards is deemed physically unattractive and sexually undesirable. In a culture in which the physical body is held in such high esteem and given such power, body fascism then not only deems those who don't or can't conform to be sexually less desirable, but in the extreme – sometimes dubbed "looksism" – also deems an individual completely worthless as a person, based solely on his exterior. In this sense it is not unlike racism or sexism or homophobia itself. ... (p. 28)
According to Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, "we face a world where lookism is one of the most pervasive but denied prejudices". Referring to several studies, Angela Stalcup writes that "The evidence clearly indicates that not only is there a premium for prettiness in Western culture, there is also penalty for plainness." When discrimination on the grounds of a person's appearance turns into fear or conveyed aversion, it is referred to as cacophobia. Sometimes cacophobia may be internalized and thus directed inwards rather than towards others.
Studies on newborns have found that human infants as young as 14 hours from birth prefer to look at attractive faces rather than unattractive faces. The preference also extends to non-human animals such as cats. These findings indicate that lookism is an innate product of how the human visual system functions.
Research by Dan Ariely found that American women exhibit a marked preference for dating taller men, and that for shorter men to be judged attractive by women, they must earn substantially more money than taller men.
In the article "Is Lookism Unjust", Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap discuss when discrimination based on looks can legitimately be described as unjust. Tietje and Cresap quote evidence that suggests there exists "a 7–to–9 percent 'penalty' for being in the lowest 9 percent of looks among all workers, and a 5 percent 'premium' for being in the top 33 percent". While accepting that the evidence indicates that such discrimination does occur, the authors argue that it has been pervasive throughout history and that judgments of aesthetics appear to be a biological adaptation (rather than culturally conditioned) to aid reproduction, survival and social interaction, allowing people to determine viable mates (level of attractiveness being indicative of health) and the status of others as "friend or enemy, threat or opportunity". The authors also argue that if physical attractiveness can improve a company's success, then awarding people for it is justifiable, as the trait is thus relevant to the job and discrimination only occurs when irrelevant traits are used. In addition, the authors question the practicality of both redressing any injustices based on lookism and of determining whether such injustices have in fact occurred. Thus the authors conclude that there can be no clear model of injustice in such discrimination, nor would legislation to address it be practicable - "We do not see how any policy interventions to redress beauty discrimination can be justified."
Lookism has been an issue in politics for centuries, with a long tradition in the United Kingdom of "mercilessly exaggerat[ing]" the physical flaws of politicians in newspaper cartoons. In the 1960 Presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, it was often believed that Kennedy's more conventionally handsome appearance contributed to his winning more approval in their first televised debate, but some researchers have challenged this widespread idea and argued that Kennedy's appearance had little or no influence.
There are several variables that might contribute to the objectification of masculinity and femininity in politics. Scholar Charlotte Hooper argued that "gender intersects with other social divisions such as class, race and sexuality to produce complex hierarchies of (gendered) identities". Hooper argues that institutional practices, such as military combat in war, have greatly defined what it means to be a man. Furthermore, the symbolic dimension, which includes sports, media, current affairs, etc. has "disseminate[d] a wealth of popular iconography which links Western masculinities to the wider world beyond the borders of the state". This is where the ideology of lookism is firmly entrenched according to Hooper. Similarly, Laura Shepherd suggests that men are required to fit into the "matrix of intelligibility" by acting a certain way, dressing a certain way, and have a mentality that is devoid of emotion or anything effeminate; if they are successful in becoming the ultimate "man's man" then they are virtually untouchable. However, others have suggested that there is only an explicit interest in the analysis of masculinity within this political sphere, it will be impossible to develop a reliable analysis of femininity within this same sphere.
Drawing examples from Madeleine Albright's TED talk in 2010, "On Being a Woman and Diplomat", Albright expressed her frustrations with how her male colleagues and media commentators would pick apart her appearance. Being the first female Secretary of State for the United States, Albright was in the spotlight on the domestic and international stage; everything from her age, weight, hairstyle and choice of dress were scrutinized; yet ironically, the policy positions she believed to be her most important accomplishments (initiation of the G7, attempts to promote gender equality, etc.) were hardly taken into account. The fact that Albright's general appearance didn't fit into the narrow category of "attractive" made it even more difficult for her to navigate the space between being a woman and a diplomat. Albright is not the only woman in a position of power, or otherwise, that has been discriminated against because of her appearance. An article published in The Washington Post in 2005 labeled Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, as a "dominatrix" when she stepped out in knee-high black-heeled boots during a visit to Wiesbaden Military Base in Germany. Although the article was meant to give credit to Rice for "challeng[ing] expectations and assumptions", some[who?] argue that the article gave her a hyper-sexualized image, and further removed the audience from focusing on the purpose of her visit to the military place. Similarly, media commentators have often chosen to report on Hillary Clinton's "man suits" and Julia Gillard's short hairstyle, instead of focusing on these women's professional accomplishments. Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, was the subject of much media attention due to her conventionally attractive appearance, with Palin suggesting that the focus on her appearance ignored her professional and policy accomplishments.
Until the 1970s, lookism in the United States was sometimes codified into law. In many jurisdictions, so-called "ugly laws" barred people from appearing in public if they had diseases or disfigurements that were considered unsightly. Today, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers extreme obesity to be a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a few cities protect against discrimination based on appearance. Otherwise, there is no federal law protecting against discrimination based on physical appearance.
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Don’t think that your looks affect your job prospects, huh? Merit is all that counts – and you’ve got that covered, right?
So why, then, did Mr. and Ms. America get those great jobs – and not you?
Could it be … “beauty bias?”
Weight bias was my topic in an earlier ATL article, and I asked, “Is there a bias in the workplace against people who are ‘overweight’? Is weight a protected class under the Civil Rights laws?”
I promised then to take a similar look at “beauty bias,” also known as “appearance bias” or “lookism.”
What Is “Beauty Bias?”
It is just as it sounds – workplace bias based upon appearance.
“Lookism” may be defined as “discriminatory treatment toward physically unattractive people; mainly in the workplace but also in social settings. While not classified in the same way as racial, cultural, sexual discrimination, ‘lookism’ is widespread and affects how people are perceived as well as affecting their opportunities in terms of relationships, job opportunities, etc.”
As one psychologist said: “we face a world where lookism is one of the most pervasive but denied prejudices.”
Indeed, a number of companies have maintained a “look policy” (some found illegal, usually when involving religious dress, and most under fire), one of which, as reported in The Guardian, required that all employees appear and dress with a “natural, classic American style consistent with the company’s brand and ‘look great while exhibiting individuality.’ Workers must wear a ‘clean, natural, classic hairstyle’ and have nails which extend ‘no more than a quarter inch beyond the tip of the finger.’”
In fact, “From the late 1860s until the 1970s, several American cities had ugly laws that deemed it illegal for persons who were ‘unsightly’ or ‘unseemly to appear in public.”
Times sure have changed, huh?
“Beauty Is Goodness”
In one eye-opening paper, Professor Comila Shahani-Denning reviewed numerous studies and wrote of the “beauty is goodness” stereotype in cinema, which portrayed “attractive characters … more favorably than unattractive characters.” That is not limited to the cinema – “In the area of employment decision making, attractiveness also influences interviewers’ judgments of job applicants.”
(Professor Shahani-Denning also noted that “Some evidence suggests that when the position being applied for is traditionally filled by a male, the reverse of the typical bias is found for female applicants: Attractive females are evaluated less favorably than unattractive females.” Read also this recent ATL article, by my fellow columnist Jill Switzer, about women in law: “It’s how we dress, our hairstyles, our figures and other characteristics that don’t hamper men at all, but can be the kiss of death for women lawyers when there are women jurors and/or if it’s a high-profile case.”)
A famous Stanford law professor, Deborah Rhode, authored one of the leading works on beauty bias, and noted that a large percentage of overweight people were discriminated against in the workplace, and that short men frequently get “the short end of the stick.” And an article in Newsweek claimed that “handsome men earn, on average, 5 percent more than their less-attractive counterparts (good-looking women earn 4 percent more),” estimated by economist Daniel Hamermesh to total $230,000 over a working life.
A Time article commented that “Women with above average looks reportedly made 8% more while below-average looking women had a 4% penalization. While an attractive man earned just 4% more, men who fell below average on the looks scale were docked 13%.”
I guess it is not really surprising then that a phone survey found that almost three-quarters of working women believe that “appearance and youthful looks” are important in hiring, promotion, and rainmaking, and almost one in five either already had a cosmetic procedure or would consider doing so because of this.
“Being Dishonest About Ugliness”
If you still think that looks don’t matter, you would be as wrong now as when you had this drummed into you as a child.
The Time piece above cheerily chimed in that “everything that your mother told you growing up is a lie because the pretty people always win.” (“You was my Mother, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit!”)
In a New York Timesessay entitled “Being Dishonest About Ugliness,” Julia Baird wrote that “Adults often tangle themselves in knots when discussing physical appearance with children. We try to iron out differences by insisting they don’t matter, attribute a greater moral fortitude to the plain or leap in defensively when someone is described as not conventionally attractive, or — worse — ugly or fat.”
Maybe we would have been better off now if we were told the truth as children – she asked: “how is a child to grapple with the savage social hierarchy of ‘lookism’ that usually begins in the playground, if adults are so clumsy about it? The advantage of beauty has been long established in social science; we know now that it’s not just employers, teachers, lovers and voters who favor the aesthetically gifted, but parents, too.”
Perhaps a comment in Psychology Todayput it best, “We know that attractive adults and children are judged to be more intellectually competent, emotionally adjusted and socially appealing.”
Is It Against The Law?
There is nothing in Title VII that prohibits beauty bias per se, as long as there is no “disparate impact” on, for example, religious beliefs or disability, which require a certain appearance, grooming, dress or hairstyle. Think religion-required beards or tattoos, or missing limbs or baldness as a result of cancer treatment.
And to my knowledge, only a few jurisdictions — such as Michigan; the District of Columbia; Santa Cruz, California; Madison, Wisconsin; Urbana, Ilinois; Howard County, Maryland; and San Francisco — have laws that protect against appearance discrimination.
As one lawyer put it to me, “If you want to brand your business, you can prefer the better-looking.”
Well, that’s the way of the world – at least as it stands now. Harder to change attitudes than it is to change the law!
Earlier: Attractive Lawyers Get Paid More
Are Attractive People Better Lawyers? An ATL Debate
Richard B. Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex business and employment disputes for almost 40 years, and is a partner in the NYC office of the national “cloud” law firm FisherBroyles. He is the creator and author of his firm’s Employment Discrimination blog, and received an award from the American Bar Association for his blog posts. You can reach him at Richard.Cohen@fisherbroyles.com and follow him on Twitter at @richard09535496.