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Just One Look

Publication Date: 
May 16, 2010
Source: 
The New York Times Book Review
Author: 
Emily Bazelon

Professor Deborah Rhode's book The Beauty Bias is reviewed in the New York Times:

In 2002, Jennifer Portnick taught ex-ercise classes and worked out almost every day. But the fitness company Jazzercise turned her down for a franchise because she weighed 240 pounds (height 5-foot-8). Jazzercise told Portnick that its instructors "must have a high muscle-to-fat ratio and look leaner than the public."

Portnick complained to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, under a law the city had passed in 2000 to prevent discrimination on the basis of appearance. She won. And Jazzercise changed its tune nationally, saying it would no longer demand thinness from its instructors.

To the Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode, this is a rare and signature triumph against the cruelty and waste that are the effects of appearance-based bias. She points out that Portnick's size didn't interfere with her teaching, yet Jazzercise shut her out reflexively. And in almost every other place in the country, that would have been that. Portnick would have had no legal remedy. Rhode's new book is her brief for changing this. She sees discrimination against people based on what they look like as deep-seated — and she also has deep faith in the power of law to address it.

...

The Constitution bars discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin and ethnicity. By contrast, only the state of Michigan and six locales — the District of Columbia; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; Urbana, Ill.; and Howard County, Md., along with San Francisco — have laws that protect against appear-ance discrimination. Rhode understands that plenty of her readers will think it "asks too much" to add this new category to the list of legally protected groups. "From their perspective, even if such discrimination is unfair, the law is incapable of eliminating it, and efforts to do so will result in unwarranted costs and corrosive backlash," she writes.