Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor, recently published “The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Work.” In her book, she puts forth the argument that appearance-based discrimination is pervasive. She also proposed that it could be addressed, at least in part, through legislation, in effect, “anti-lookism” laws. Her conclusions flow from the reality that employees report looks-based discrimination at about the same rate as gender or racial discrimination and that such unfairness translates into loads of other tangible problems.
This is not a novel concept; six cities and one state already forbid various kinds of appearance-based discrimination. Michigan outlawed height and weight discrimination in the 1970s. The city of Santa Cruz bans discrimination based on any physical characteristic outside the individual’s control. (No one has ever filed a complaint in the 15 years the law has been on Santa Cruz’s books and Michigan sees about 30 complaints and one lawsuit a year due to its law.)
I learned of Ms. Rhode’s ideas while reading a Newsweek column by Dahlia Lithwick. Ms. Lithwick points out, “discrimination against unattractive women and short men is as pernicious and widespread as bias based on race, sex, age, ethnicity, religion, and disability.” She cites an ice-water-in-your-face statistic: “Eleven percent of surveyed couples say they would abort a fetus predisposed toward obesity. College students tell surveyors they’d rather have a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or a shoplifter than one who is obese.”
Let’s rewind: Eleven percent would get an abortion if they felt their unborn child was pre-disposed to obesity?! College couples would rather have a criminal for a life-partner instead of someone who is obese?! I am shocked and saddened; not from some naïve belief that looks matter not but because of how much emphasis we put on one’s external attributes, instead of what really matters, what resides inside.
In many ways, we have progressed. Boorish comments about race, heritage, gender, ability, and intelligence are looked at with disgust. The purveyor of such statements is often isolated and shunned. Yet - in many places - a churlish remark about one’s physical characteristics is still considered up to standard, even witty.
Even if I thought legislation was the right approach to cure such societal ills, how could it be enforced? Will we post beauty cops at street corners? Will some futuristic mega-attractive society require us to have our Body Mass Index tested as regularly as our driver’s license?
Yet, it begs a much deeper question. What is “beauty?”
A celebrity super-model who will not control her rage and hurls objects at her employees is far more unsightly than a plump receptionist with what I might consider to be a poorly designed hairstyle and an unfortunate choice of outfits. Is a well-toned athlete with a foul temper and a pattern of cheating on his spouse more appealing to us than a rotund, undersized, middle-aged fellow who dotes on this family and brings an uplifting sense of humor to his workplace? I sense not.
I do not think we can legislate such opinions, but the very conversation of whether or not we can or should calls for us to re-evaluate yet again which traits we deem as appealing. Speaking for myself, I know short men to whom I must look up. And I am fortunate to know heavy women who lighten my life.
Scott “Q” Marcus is a THINspirational speaker and author. Since losing 70 pounds over 15 years ago, he works with overloaded people and organizations who are looking to improve communication, change bad habits, and reduce stress. He can be reached for consulting, workshops, or presentations at 707-442-6243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He will sometimes work in exchange for chocolate.