The Beauty Bias

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

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

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.

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.

“Most people believe that bias based on beauty is inconsequential, inevitable, or unobjectionable,” Rhode says, before quickly squashing the idea. Simply, she continues, “They are wrong.” Later, she further explains that many people affected by dress codes and society’s idea of “normal” are often not free to express themselves and their personal beliefs through their appearance.

While some of Rhode’s arguments might seem far-fetched at the outset of “The Beauty Bias,” most readers will begin to see the need for some kind of change by (at least) the close of the third chapter.

Rhode considers the way that the proportions of Barbie and GI Joe (55 inch chest, 27 inch biceps, 29 inch waist) skew our body image. She also looks at the price we pay for appearance enhancement: globally, over $200 billion every year. She notes that Miss Texas can only gain two pounds before losing her crown, high heels are proven to cause back problems, short men are underrepresented and underpaid in companies, and women with big breasts are assumed to be less intelligent. She also looks at websites like Miss Bimbo that allow you to give diet pills and breast implants to create a beautiful and thin doll, minifacials (now becoming popular at spas), and the way that Hilary Clinton was lambasted for her looks during her Senate campaign and her presidential bid.

The problem we’re facing becomes much more tangible as Rhode spits out these statistics and figures. And her reliance on them is both the strongest and weakest point of her book.

Simply put, this book is tough to read. As you take in point after point, you start to feel a bit ashamed. Some of the examples Rhode uses will surprise you. (Did you know that there are bras designed for preschoolers?) But other examples will leave you feeling uncomfortable: It is likely that you have judged people on their looks – and you will be implicated by Rhode’s findings.

If Rhode had interrupted the fact-based structure of her book with her own thoughts and comments, it would have given readers a breather from what sometimes feels like an attack. But, then again, if she had allowed herself more room to speak, she might have been blamed for whining or overstating the issue.

By relying strictly on facts, Rhode sidesteps these concerns. She is convincing in her arguments that laws punishing appearance discrimination might be a logical step in exactly the right direction.

But her argument hits a bit of a bump when discussing how these laws would affect us. While responding to critics who claim that appearance-related laws would lead to arbitrary and ridiculous trials – wastes of time and money – Rhode explains that states and cities with appearance laws in effect today don’t see much action.

Rhode says this could possibly be attributed to high costs of lawyers and fees, low success rates, and quite possibly the difficult decision a plaintiff must make to publicly declare him or herself unattractive enough to provoke discrimination. Readers will be left wondering if a law that isn’t used might not be unnecessary.

At the same time, Rhode points out, it is also true that unpopular laws – such as those concerning slavery, integration, and sexual harassment – also serve to stir thought. While disliked at first, these laws have helped to redefine cultural values, creating new consensuses which the majority of Americans now agree upon, a point that Rhode also makes.

While Rhode’s argument for laws against appearance-based discrimination sometimes stands on wobbly legs, it’s hard to deny the validity of the problem that she confronts. And it’s even harder to ignore the extent to which concerns about appearance shape our daily lives. Rhode so clearly enumerates the costs to society incurred by appearance discrimination that readers – judges and lawmakers included – will find themselves unsettled.

Kate Vander Wiede is a writer at Boston’s South End Press.

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