Lookism: Should We Ban Discrimination Based on Bad Looks?


How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Going by the latest research, the answer is, pretty great. 

The benefits of good looks start early: More attractive children receive more attention and praise in school. Throughout their lifetimes, attractive people are assumed to be more friendly, intelligent, and productive than their less comely counterparts, regardless of their actual traits. Physical attractiveness bears more impact on earnings than education, resulting in, as tallied by one economist, $230,000 more in lifetime income. Better-looking criminals even get more lenient sentences. This hardly seems fair. Is legislation a possible remedy?

On its face, if you’ll excuse the pun, legally prohibiting appearance-based discrimination seems difficult. Some may question whether appearance is too subjective for the basis of legislation. However, studies show that people’s attractiveness is not as subjective as the old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggests. 

While people disagree about which person is the most attractive of a group of attractive people, they almost always agree as to whether someone is good-looking or ugly. In the context of other evidence, perhaps it would be reasonable to let a judge or jury decide if a claimant’s appearance spurred prejudicial treatment (even though one may still cringe imagining the attorneys arguing over just how ugly he/she is). Moreover, those fearing a slew of frivolous lawsuits may be comforted to know that Michigan, which banned appearance-based discrimination in the 1970s, sees only about one lawsuit a year on the subject. Six cities also have laws against discrimination based on looks.

However, some may be concerned that, even when practicable, providing legal remedies for those suffering from lookism starts down a slippery slope towards a creepy level of egalitarianism. Society rewards people for all sorts of “unearned” attributes. Just as a person may be blessed with great looks, he/she may also be bestowed with higher than average intelligence or an aptitude for developing a particular skill. We want our doctors to be intelligent and our opera stars to have good voices — at some point, we need to allow natural differences to shape real world outcomes. If we protect against discrimination based on appearance, must we also eliminate differences emanating from other natural gifts?

Those with this concern fail to remember the reason discrimination based on appearance disturbs us in the first place: As we learned in kindergarten, looks are only skin deep. Unlike intelligence or musical ability, good looks are not actually linked to people’s ability to perform tasks well and make valuable contributions to society.

Or aren’t they? As previously discussed, our affinity for beauty is so ingrained that it pervades consumer preferences, thus creating real utility in being beautiful. Research found that more attractive lawyers earned more whether they were employed at a large firm or had their own practice, suggesting that client and not just employer preference played a role in their success. Yet, our country’s history of confronting prejudice based on race, gender, and sexuality instructs us that consumer preference should play no role in our acceptance of unjust discrimination. When faced with such prejudice, the law can help break down discrimination by disallowing people from indulging in it.

However, unlike prejudices that are taught, lookism has roots in our biology. Without any prompting from ads or magazine covers, babies are most drawn to attractive faces. Popular culture then shapes and magnifies that natural preference, to, in these days of photoshop, unattainable ideals. (Advertisers have learned that the more inadequate we feel, the more we purchase to compensate.) Interestingly, even those at the forefront of championing legal protections for the unattractive reveal a deep bias in favor of beauty — Deborah Rhode’s book The Beauty Bias, which has received a great deal of attention, argues that “workers deserve legal protection against appearance-based discrimination unless their looks are directly relevant to their job performance.” Where do we draw the line for which occupations would qualify for that exception? If it's our wrongly biased preferences that dictate a desire for attractive lawyers, flight attendants, and waiters, how does that differ from a wrongful bias that demands attractive TV stars and models? It would seem we place so much value on physical beauty for its own sake that we cannot imagine a society in which it isn’t valued at all.

Thus, while legislation may do some good to level the playing field, the real battlefront for the struggle against appearance-based discrimination lies within our culture and ourselves.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons