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The Beauty Bias

Do we need laws to protect as from discrimination based on looks?

By Kate Vander Wiede / May 20, 2010

The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Law and Life By Deborah L. Rhode Oxford University Press 272 pp., $24.95

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If you’ve ever assumed fat meant lazy, threw on high heels even though you knew they’d kill your feet, considered using an antiwrinkle lotions based on promises of prolonged youth, or made a snap judgment based on appearance alone, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law is written for you.

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In this day and age we have legal protections from discrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity, and disabilities. But what author and Stanford professor Deborah L. Rhode says we’re missing out on is protection from something almost more basic: appearance-related discrimination. Part of the problem, she explains, is our present culture’s preoccupation with all things beauty- and appearance-related.

“The Beauty Bias” first attempts to convince us of our preoccupation and describes the need for protection from discrimination related to height, weight, accessories, hair, looks, and more. By using examples of past laws and laws from other countries, Rhode offers a road map as to how the United States can change its legal system – and more important – its attitude toward appearance.

Rhode reveals that what turned her on to this subject in the first place was her own battle with appearance-related discrimination and double standards. As the director of Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the past chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, Rhode was always considered “frumpy” by her colleagues. Make-up artists, hair stylists, and personal shoppers were engaged for meetings with important clients and conferences with large attendances.

This experience and others like it forced Rhode to ask some tough questions about why appearance is so important to most.

“[W]hy have we made too little headway, in law, politics, and public education, in addressing the injustices of appearance?” she asks.

As it turns out, appearance has been important for much of history, not just in recent years. In some societies, women weren’t allowed to appear in public without a corset. Teeth-whitening cosmetics consisted of toxic bleaches that could lead to early deaths. While today’s beauty enhancers might not have such fatal consequences, Rhode demonstrates that life as we know it isn’t so far from our past.

Those who are said to be too short, too fat, too feminine, too masculine, too pretty or not pretty enough are seeing a multitude of consequences in salaries and social circles. And those who feel they need to or who are required to reach a certain level of attractiveness spend large amounts of money and time on its pursuit.

Despite this, Rhode says, no one seems ready make a change.

Schools still have requirements for yearbook outfits. Companies requiring a certain look from their employees, like short hair and no earrings for men or high heels for women, often argue they have a dress code in order to provide clients with what they want.

Why need such preference be given to consumer desires? “Hooters’ customers who want cleavage with their burgers are no more worthy of deference than the male airline passengers in the 1970s who preferred stewardesses in hot pants,” Rhode rightly argues.

Rhode doesn’t dispute that when it comes to women’s issues, poverty, rape, unequal pay, and domestic violence are higher on the totem pole of importance than appearance, but she insists it does matter.

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