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Nota Bene: Ugly Laws; Naked Truth

Publication Date: 
May 09, 2010
The Chronicle Review
Evan R. Goldstein

Professor Deborah Rhode's book The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law is reviewed in this article by Evan R. Goldstein of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

"As a happily married academic, I have been blissfully insulated from serious concerns about appearance," writes Deborah L. Rhode, a professor of law at Stanford University and a self-described sartorial sinner. Rhode's blasé attitude toward her looks makes her an outlier, at least according to the research she cites in her new book, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law (Oxford University Press). In one "representative" survey, three-quarters of women said that their appearance is one of the main factors affecting their self-image; a third ranked it above job performance and intelligence. Another poll indicates that half of women are very or moderately unhappy with their bodies. Perhaps most troubling, by age 9, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of girls want to lose weight.

Rhode, who seems appalled by those figures, spends more than a few pages fingering, among other targets, the news media and advertisers for pushing an unattainable standard of female attractiveness. Only 5 percent of American women are in the same weight category as models and actresses, and, Rhode writes, "efforts to replicate their figures often lead to eating disorders and related psychological dysfunctions." The pursuit of perfection also leads to debt. The annual global investment in grooming is at least $115-billion; Americans also spend $40-billion annually on diets. Liposuction is the world's most common surgery. "Beauty may be only skin deep," Rhode writes, "but the damages associated with its pursuit go much deeper."

In our looks-obsessed culture, appearance-related prejudice is rampant. "Discrimination based on appearance appears at least as widespread as other forms of prohibited bias," Rhode writes. Legal scholars, however, have consistently played down its deleterious consequences. Among those she takes to task is Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford colleague, who has argued that unattractive people are "spread pretty evenly across families and social classes, so the ill effects of bias against them are often ameliorated by other social advantages." "Ford is simply wrong," Rhode writes. "Overweight individuals are the most common targets of appearance discrimination," and "they are overrepresented among low-income and minority groups."

But is the problem amenable to legal remedy? Some critics of prohibitions on appearance-based discrimination note that standards of physical attractiveness are hard-wired and therefore impervious to legal intervention. Rhode disagrees. Pointing to civil-rights statutes, Rhode insists that "we can legislate conduct, and a half-century's experience makes clear that changes in attitudes can follow. Providing legal forums to expose injustice and break down racial segregation has helped to transform cultural perceptions and practices."

Only one state—Michigan—and six cities or counties prohibit discrimination strictly on the basis of appearance (i.e. not race, sex, or disability). Other jurisdictions, of course, have statutes that ban discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, and religion. But those frameworks, Rhode argues, don't adequately apply to appearance bias. In the book's concluding chapter, she proposes new legal interventions, like strengthening consumer protection to police marketers' dubious cosmetic and weight-loss claims, and expanding current bans on discrimination to explicitly include appearance. Rhode writes, "A nation committed to individual liberty and equal opportunity should more actively foster those values where matters of appearance are at stake."