Who Speaks For The Ugly?


Publish Date:
August 25, 2013
The Boston Globe
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Professor Deborah Rhode's 2010 book, “The Beauty Bias,” was quoted by The Boston Globe's Ruth Graham in an article about the injustice of appearance in life and the benefits of attractiveness.

Our beauty bias is deep, unconscious, and surprisingly universal- and means beautiful people get a much better deal. But righting injustice isn't easy when no one wants to call themselves plain.

It's not your imagination: Life is good for beautiful people. A drumbeat of research over the past decades has found that attractive people earn more than their average-looking peers, are more likely to be given loans by banks, and are less likely to be convicted by a jury. Voters prefer better-looking candidates; students prefer better-looking professors, while teachers prefer better-looking students. Mothers, those icons of blind love, have been shown to favor their more attractive children.

The galloping injustice of “lookism” has not escaped psychologists, economists, sociologists, and legal scholars. Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode's 2010 book, “The Beauty Bias,” lamented “the injustice of appearance in life and law,” while University of Texas, Austin economist Daniel Hamermesh's 2011 “Beauty Pays,” recently out in paperback, traced the concrete benefits of attractiveness, including a $230,000 lifetime earnings advantage over the unattractive.

The Constitution forbids employment discrimination on the basis of things like race, sex, and religion, but only a few jurisdictions have tried to add appearance to the list, starting with the parts of appearance you can measure. The state of Michigan banned height and weight discrimination in 1977, and six municipalities, including Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, have followed suit with similar statutes. These laws haven't led to a flood of frivolous suits, as libertarians might fear-in fact, they haven't led to many suits at all, which suggests they aren't doing much more than tackling the most egregious cases. (Rhode's book reports that in Michigan, an average of just one case a year makes it to court.)

But that kind of pragmatism doesn't hold water for many advocates. “To say that hiring salespeople who are attractive is good for business is the same argument whites made for hiring whites only during the early civil rights era,” Rhode pointed out. The law no longer allows airlines to cater to the preferences of male business travelers with all-female steward staff, for example, so why is looks-based discrimination acceptable just because customers may prefer it? Moreover, it's clear that we trust beauty beyond the realms in which it actually makes a difference. Beautiful people may be likelier to receive loans and receive lower interest rates, but research says they're just as likely to default. That alone suggests there are areas where more objective kinds of evaluation would be helpful.