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Fair Enough?

Publication Date: 
September 16, 2010
Stanford Magazine
Kara Platoni

Professor Deborah Rhode's book The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law is reviewed by Kara Platoni of the Stanford Magazine:

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."


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."


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."