Being buff and beautiful is nice, but attractiveness doesn't confer merit. And if we're prone to think it does, how should we deal with discrimination based on looks?
Photo: Ashton Worthington
By Kara Platoni
Stanford Law Professor Deborah L. Rhode's odyssey into the unseemly world of beauty bias began a decade ago with too-tight shoes. She was in London for a conference. The Tube was closed because of a bomb scare. Traffic was jammed for the Queen Mother's birthday. Rhode and her colleagues had to get across town on foot, except, she recalls, "I was with a group of very high-powered women who were hobbled by their footwear."
The irony of their high heels' sacrifice of function for form was not lost on Rhode, who sent an op-ed to the New York Times wryly calling the women's shoe industry "the last acceptable haven for misogynists." Rhode was surprised that the Times took it—"after years of turning down my earnest op-ed pieces on far more important issues!"—but even more surprised by what happened next. Women commiserated. Footwear companies mailed catalogues. Podiatrists sent research on shoe-related maladies. "I don't think anything I've ever written has gotten more of an outpouring of immediate response," says Rhode, who has written 20 books.
A few years later, after learning that women were having toe surgery to fit into what she dubs "killer shoes," Rhode decided to do a little more research into the pains people take to keep up appearances. "And then of course I got hooked," she says. "The more that I read about the beauty industry and saw what the women's movement was up against, just in terms of the $200 billion grooming-products industry stacked up to make us feel anxious about our appearance, I thought this was an issue that deserved some attention."
In her new book, The Beauty Bias (Oxford University Press), Rhode laments not just crimes against feet, but also decries a much larger system that penalizes the plain, the overweight, the short, the frumpy and anyone else who doesn't fit within certain parameters of attractiveness. That, she says, is a serious problem: "Prejudice based on appearance is the last bastion of socially and legally acceptable bigotry."
Although the book's focus is largely on legal matters, it treads on turf that researchers at Stanford and elsewhere are exploring about the provenance and nature of appearance biases, those that reward or disadvantage people for their physical traits. Appearance bias is powerful, Rhode argues, and has real consequences in the workplace, schools, the justice system and other arenas we suppose to be meritocracies. But where does it come from, why does it persist, and is there anything we can do about it?
"We all know that looks matter," says Rhode, "but few of us realize how much." In her book, she attempts to answer that question, pointing to the enormousness of appearance-related industries—America's $40 billion diet market, a $20 billion global market for cosmetic surgery—and whipping through a long list of studies that document the slings and arrows suffered by the unpretty. Among them: Less attractive children receive less attention from parents and teachers. In higher education, attractive students are perceived by their teachers to be more intelligent, and good-looking faculty get better student reviews. At work, unattractive people make lower salaries. In politics, good-looking candidates get more votes. Résumés and essays get more favorable evaluations when reviewers believe attractive people wrote them.
But the crux of The Beauty Bias lies in Rhode's survey of legal cases that contest appearance discrimination, many of them concerning employment. Rhode says she has no quarrel with favoring beauty in positions where the essence of the job is beauty—modeling, for example—nor with job requirements that workers adhere to basic grooming practices. "If you're selling suits, you ought to be wearing something that looks like you can pick one out," she says. Yet in many cases, she says, workplace appearance mandates "vastly exceed the needs of a particular employment position" and can undermine equal opportunity or exacerbate other discriminatory effects.
Take the story of Darlene Jespersen, a bartender at Harrah's in Reno, who in 2000 challenged the casino's policy mandating makeup, nail polish and "teased, curled or styled" hair for women, but merely short hair and "neatly trimmed" nails for men. Jespersen argued that being required to look "dolled up" was insulting and made it harder to handle tough customers. "If unadorned faces were good enough for men, why shouldn't they be good enough for women, especially when, as in her case, she had an excellent performance record?" Rhode asks. A court rejected Jespersen's claim, saying she had not proved that the dress code was disproportionately burdensome to women. This suggests, Rhode deadpans, "that federal judges are just vastly out of touch with reality and don't realize how much time and effort and expense is required with cosmetics, hairstyling and manicures."
The bigger problem, Rhode writes, is that "Holding only women to sexualized standards diverts attention from competence and perpetuates gender roles that are separate but by no means equal." In fact, women also can pay a penalty for being too attractive. "Although less common, it tends to happen in formerly male professions, high-status jobs in which too sexy or too attractive an appearance is a negative characteristic," Rhode says. "It's just assumed that those women aren't too bright."
Beauty bias is also closely tied to weight discrimination: The stereotype that overweight people are unhealthy or lazy often underlies biases against their hire. Rhode describes a 2001 complaint filed with San Francisco's Human Rights Commission by aerobics instructor Jennifer Portnick, who was denied a Jazzercise franchise because, at 240 pounds, she didn't fit the company's expectations for "fit, toned" body types. "In fact she was fit and toned, she worked out, had back-to-back workouts on a daily basis and was a highly successful teacher," Rhode says. After Portnick filed her complaint, "a lot of women lined up to say, 'I like having an instructor who looks like me,' and in that case the company changed its policy."
Rhode says that insults about weight and beauty are often levied at powerful women, like Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "I think that's a form of punishing pushy women," she says. "It's an easy way to take down someone who is delivering a message you find unwelcome or threatening."
In Rhode's own case, reviews of The Beauty Bias and a related op-ed exposed her to a flood of nasty appearance-related comments. "I guess I shouldn't have been shocked by my own little experience of hate mail . . . [or by] how many people were willing to take time out of their busy day to let me know just what an ugly 'expletive deleted' person I must be," Rhode muses. "A number were annoyed that there had been no picture with the editorial, [and] so took it upon themselves to look me up on the Stanford website and confirm what they suspected, which was that the aesthetics of Stanford would be much improved if we took up a collection and bought the professor a burqa."
There are several theories about why we care so vehemently about looks. In Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (1999), Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff argues that beauty bias is more nature than nurture. "If our ancestors did not have radar for healthy fertile bodies we'd have become biological dead ends long ago," she writes. Beauty preferences start in the crib, she writes: Newborns stare longer at attractive faces; mothers pay more attention to attractive babies and favor the twin who appears healthier. As adults, Etcoff writes, "men are automatically excited by signs of a woman who is fertile, healthy and hasn't been pregnant before." In cultures where disease or parasites are prevalent, beauty is even more prized because "a glorious mane of hair, clear skin, and a muscular lean body are visual certificates of health." Ultimately, good-looking women are more likely to get married, and to men with greater income or education than their own; both increase their likelihood of reproducing and supporting their offspring.
Etcoff examines several theories about what makes a face beautiful, including symmetry or certain geometric ratios, but she gives the most credence to the idea that we prefer faces that are "average," meaning the size and shape of features is typical for the population. She cites the work of anthropologist Donald Symons, who theorized that averageness reflects the "optimal design" of a trait, and therefore the greatest chance of survival. Indeed, studies show that composite images of many faces are judged more attractive than the individual faces. The exception, Etcoff writes, is for a few extreme traits that exaggerate youthfulness or sex differences between adults—for women, think large eyes, femininely tapered jaws, plump lips and smooth brows.
"Beauty is our evolved response to good genes and good health," says evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, PhD '93, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico. "It's in the adaptations of the beholder." Yet while physical beauty is an important signifier in mate choice because it's easy to perceive quickly, he says, it's not our only criterion. We also evolved to be acutely sensitive to intangible qualities like intelligence and morality, because, he says, "somebody with a good body might not necessarily have a good mind." As Miller wrote in The Mating Mind (2000), "The human mind's most impressive abilities are like the peacock's tail: they are courtship tools, evolved to attract and entertain sexual partners."
"Wit, kindness, creativity, virtue—those are all very socially and sexually attractive because it's hard for the human brain to produce them consistently," Miller says. Their constancy indicates healthy mental function. In evolutionary survival terms, the cooperative and reliable parent is likely rewarded; liars and cheats are, in the main, shunned. "We have the capacity for moral behavior and moral judgments today because our ancestors favored sexual partners who were kind, generous, helpful and fair," Miller writes. "We still have the same preferences."
In his 2009 book Spent, Miller explores how consumer products allow us to "flaunt and fake our biological fitness" by advertising desirable traits—both physical and ephemeral—to one another. Cosmetics let women of all ages mimic the peak-fertility cues of women in their 20s (pouty lips, shiny hair). Other products are visual stand-ins for toughness (a Hummer), conscientiousness (high-maintenance homes or pets) or intelligence (gadgetry, news media). Products even let us trick evolution; for example, birth control pills produce clearer skin (a health signifier) while inhibiting reproduction. They can backfire, too, says Miller: Steroids make you strong but unromantically aggressive; Botox makes you look younger by easing brow wrinkles, but also undoes "the crow's-feet around the eyes that indicate that a smile is genuine"—which might be more attractive to a compassion-seeking partner.
Nature laughs last, though. "Most cosmetic enhancements will only last until the second or third time you wake up with somebody and you see them with the puffy morning eyes and the makeup smeared and the naked body instead of the body shaped by the Wonderbra or the well-tailored suit," Miller says.
For her part, Rhode acknowledges the biological argument for bias, but says we can't blame everything on evolution. Body-shape ideals, for example, vary by culture, indicating they are more about social status than genetic fitness. "In cultures where food is scarce, large body size is a mark of affluence and status," Rhode says. "In cultures where food is abundant, it's thinness that we prize." Miller agrees that food availability shapes cultural body-type preferences, although he thinks there's some universal math at work, too: "What doesn't seem to change very much are the proportions of bodies favored, things like the shoulder-to-waist ratio for males, usually the higher the better, or the waist-hip ratio for females, usually the lower the better."
But like Rhode, he insists that even if beauty bias has some biological underpinnings in helping us choose mates, it's out of place at work or school. "Beauty bias in college admissions or corporate hiring is a legitimate problem of bias and prejudice," Miller says. "We're applying our sexual psychology to an evolutionarily novel domain—education or work—where the sexual psychology and its criteria for choosing people are not as relevant." In other words, even if genetic programming might explain why you get a date, it shouldn't explain why you get a job.
Despite decades of social policy and good intentions, we haven't stamped out bias based on race, gender—or even attractiveness. Why, when we strive to be egalitarian and kind, are we still prejudiced? Well, sorry to make you feel bad about your brain, but the answer lies there: in your unconscious.
In The Hidden Brain (2010), Washington Post reporter Shankar Vedantam, MA '93, explains that our brains learn—and develop unconscious biases—through familiarity and repetition. From a very young age, we study the faces around us, including those in the media, absorbing cultural norms not only about beauty, but also about power, social roles and how to react to others. Being able to make snap judgments based on faces is useful, Vedantam says: It's important to know when someone else is angry or alarmed.
"The problem arises," he says, "when we're trying to read facial features for very, very complex human tasks," like choosing someone for a job. For example, he says, one study of male military cadets found that having dominant features, such as a square jaw, was a strong predictor of how far they progressed up the chain of command. Because our minds unconsciously associate square jaws with leadership, we are more likely to promote men who have them. Yet a bias about the shape of someone's chin can't actually help us gauge their job qualifications. "It's just not going to be possible to look at someone's facial features and say 'This person is going to be a good general,' " Vedantam says. "But the unconscious algorithms in the mind don't stop."
These algorithms can be troubling, not only because they develop without awareness or explicit teaching, but also because they subtly shape our perceptions of appearance characteristics about which we'd like to think ourselves unbiased, such as race. For example, in his book Vedantam describes a study of Canadian children in daycare, some as young as 3, who when tested consistently associated white faces with words like "good" and "clean" and black faces with words like "cruel" and "ugly."
The researchers wondered if the kids' parents were to blame for these attitudes, but the parents seemed eager to promote racial tolerance. Ultimately, Vedantam writes, the children had absorbed their biases from simply living in a place where whiteness was the norm. (This study involved white children, but others have found nearly identical views among black children.) "It's not conscious learning, where someone has consciously had to sit down and tell the African-American child that white faces are more beautiful, or kinder or happier or richer," Vedantam says. "But by seeing . . . repetitious examples of white faces that are seen as beautiful, or are rich or are wealthy or are seen on television or as movie stars, the little black child in North America learns to make those associations."
Vedantam argues that many modern appearance biases are more culturally absorbed than innate and points out that often beauty standards are man-made. For example, by choosing our movie stars, Hollywood executives give us templates for desirability—and those are different than the templates chosen by Bollywood executives in India, where Vedantam grew up. "The evolutionary biologists' argument basically says . . . We may not like that nature is red in tooth and claw, but that's the way it is," says Vedantam. "But it turns out that's actually not just the way it is, because when you look from culture to culture, you have different norms of attractiveness surface."
Plus, he says, some of our beauty biases don't make Darwinian sense. In his book, Vedantam describes a study in which participants chose a person to "hire" after seeing the applicant either seated in a waiting room alone, seated next to a person of average weight or seated next to an overweight person. Participants were less likely to hire the applicants seated next to overweight people and perceived them as having inferior professional and interpersonal skills.
"Perhaps some of our beliefs about attractiveness are shaped by the distant hand of evolution," Vedantam muses, but "when we think about the fact that we are biased not just against the overweight, but against people who merely happen to be standing next to the overweight, it's very difficult to make an evolutionary argument for this. It's very difficult to say that it makes evolutionary sense to reject a mate who might be very attractive—and might be eminently fit evolutionarily—because he or she happened to be standing next to somebody who was overweight. That tells us that these biases in many ways are much more recent."
Ultimately, he says, norms of attractiveness "are choices and policies that human beings have created and that human beings can change."
How could change happen? Rhode would like to see more localities adopt ordinances forbidding appearance-based discrimination. Although some critics warn that these ordinances would lead to a deluge of "loony litigation," the few jurisdictions that have them—including San Francisco and Santa Cruz—have so far seen only a handful of complaints. This is probably because the financial and psychological cost of such litigation is high, says Rhode, but also because ordinances deter bad behavior.
She draws a strong link to the civil rights movement, which called for equal hiring opportunities based on merit, not gender or race. Just as employers today sometimes say they select the slim or the pretty because customers prefer them, she says, business owners once argued that they shouldn't have to hire black workers because white customers wouldn't buy from them.
"You can't legislate morality," went conventional wisdom, says Rhode, but "What a half-century of experience with this legislation has taught us is that in point of fact you can do a bit by legislating morality. . . . Certainly the world is a better place for women and people of color because of our effort with race and sex discrimination laws, and I think the same would be true if we had appearance-related ordinances."
Other remedies, she says, might include more rigorous consumer protections against fraudulent beauty and weight-loss products that take advantage of appearance anxieties as well as efforts to encourage acceptance of a wider range of healthy ideals. Most of all, Rhode says, we have to take beauty bias seriously. "Beauty may only be skin deep," she says, "but the costs associated with its pursuit go much deeper."
KARA PLATONI is a frequent contributor who lives in Oakland.
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