Our Beauty Bias Is Unfair

By Lithwick, Dahlia | Newsweek, June 14, 2010 | Go to article overview

Our Beauty Bias Is Unfair


Lithwick, Dahlia, Newsweek


Byline: Dahlia Lithwick

But should it also be illegal?

if you are anything like me, you left the theater after Sex and the City 2 and thought, there ought to be a law against a looks-based culture in which the only way for 40-year-old actresses to be compensated like 40-year-old actors is to have them look and dress like the teenage daughters of 40-year-old actors. You can't even look at Sarah Jessica Parker without longing to feed her croissants.

Meet Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor who proposes a legal regime in which discrimination on the basis of looks is as serious as discrimination based on gender or race. In a provocative new book, The Beauty Bias, Rhode lays out the case for an America in which appearance discrimination is no longer allowed. That means Hooters can't fire its servers for being too heavy, as allegedly happened last month to a waitress in Michigan who says she received nothing but excellent reviews but weighed 132 pounds. And the top management at Abercrombie & Fitch couldn't hold weekly meetings, as they allegedly did, at which photos of its sales associates were reviewed and purged for any sign of breakouts, weight gain, or unacceptable quantities of ethnicity.

Rhode is at her most persuasive when arguing that in America, discrimination against unattractive women and short men is as pernicious and widespread as bias based on race, sex, age, ethnicity, religion, and disability. Rhode cites research to prove her point: 11 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. The less attractive you are in America, the more likely you are to receive a longer prison sentence, a lower damage award, a lower salary, and poorer performance reviews. You are less likely to be married and more likely to be poor.

And all of this is compounded by a virtually unregulated beauty and diet industry and soaring rates of elective cosmetic surgery. Rhode reminds us how Hillary Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor were savaged by the media for their looks, and says it's no surprise that Sarah Palin paid her makeup artist more than any member of her staff in her run for the vice presidency.

Critics such as Andrew Sullivan claim that if we legally ban appearance discrimination, the next step will be legal protection of "the short, the skinny, the bald, the knobbly kneed, the flat-chested and the stupid. …

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