Uncomfortable shoes trouble Deborah Rhode.

And not only because they hurt. She’s concerned that ninety years after women got the vote and almost five decades after The Feminine Mystique was published—in a time dubbed “post-feminist” when women are now in the majority at universities and in the workforce (if not the boardroom)—there is a surgery specifically designed to sculpt a woman’s foot so that it fits into pointed shoes. Leaving aside the risks of going under the knife, she wonders why women feel compelled to do such a thing.

Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and Director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, understood the shoe dichotomy firsthand when she was chair of the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession and spoke at its London conference. A proud fashion dropout, she was encouraged by the conference organizers to undergo “styling” before speaking to the assembled group. That surprised her—but what surprised her more was what she witnessed: her colleagues with their feet stuffed into stilettos.

“All these high-achieving women were hobbled by their footwear,” she says.

So Rhode wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about shoe design as the last refuge for closet misogynists. “It was serious, but with some humor,” she says. “I was careful to note that this was not at the top of the hierarchy of priorities for the women’s movement. On the other hand, this is the kind of petty indignity that holds women back, literally and figuratively. I gave some statistics and examples, a reference or two to foot binding in China, etc. I’ve never written anything that’s gotten more of a response. My e-mail was flooded.”

Book Cover of the Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law by Deborah L. Rhode. A single red pump is placed against a black background.

As a metaphor for social inequality, the shoe seems to fit. Rhode even insisted that it be the cover of her new book The Beauty Bias (Oxford University Press, USA, 2010) and objected to the publisher’s suggestion of thin, beautiful women on the cover, which she thought would only “contribute to the problem.” But the analysis that Rhode offers in this latest scholarship extends to all aspects of appearance and, crucially, to how this area of the law has been widely ignored—and even trivialized. Eye-opening for many is the revelation that the law does not offer protection against appearance discrimination. Rhode’s research shows that only one state and a handful of municipalities have laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on appearance.

Why, in this day and age, haven’t lawmakers taken up appearance discrimination? Rhode suggests that concepts of appearance and attractiveness are so ingrained in our culture that most of us aren’t even aware of our own prejudices. But the stakes are indeed high where appearance—and beauty—are concerned.

Rhode points to a Newsweek article that came out following publication of her book. A poll conducted for the article revealed that two-thirds of hiring managers ranked appearance above education in importance for hiring. And the same percentage agreed that appearance would affect job performance ratings. “Doesn’t that speak volumes?” asks Rhode.

And members of the judiciary suffer from the same biases. Take the case of a bartender in Nevada who was required by her employer to show up for work with her hair styled, her nails manicured, and her face made up—while male bartenders just had to basically show up dressed. With no law in place prohibiting discrimination based on appearance, the bartender sued her employer for sexual harassment, claiming that the requirements imposed “objectionable standards” that were not equally applied to women and men. Yet a majority of the federal court judges who heard her case decided to throw it out on the grounds that she hadn’t produced sufficient evidence that it was a disproportionate burden.

“It was clearly a case of sex discrimination in the sense that the underlying assumption was that a woman’s unadorned face is unattractive—and a man’s isn’t,” says Rhode, noting that skill and job performance were not related to this woman’s appearance. “Getting people to see the real injustice and the extent of the injustice is important.”

While researching the book, Rhode also discovered that the law does not adequately protect consumers from fraudulent claims by those peddling beauty remedies. Rhode points to an entire industry dedicated to beauty products and services—and regulation that is shoddy, at best, and perhaps even negligent. Yet, in a society in which many go without health care, the global beauty industry accounts for an estimated value of $200 billion and rising, she says.

“I was shocked by the absence of oversight of the cosmetics industry, the fact that there’s no testing requirement even on products that—by industry standards as well as the standards in other countries—are viewed as unsafe. And the fact that our regulators have pretty much given up on any effort to enforce fraud unless there’s a real, and proven, health risk in the product—I found this appalling,” she says.

Rhode references another poll indicating that approximately half of the American public falsely believe that there is a solid factual basis for claims about effectiveness of cosmetic products and treatments. But more important, Rhode is concerned that most of us don’t even know the law, or lack of it.

“I think that if more Americans knew how the actual law worked, they’d be outraged,” she says. “That was the point of writing the book—to build that cultural consciousness about this important, but largely ignored, issue.”

To read more about The Beauty Bias, go to www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2010/sepoct.