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Beauty Bias: How Your Looks Could Cost You Your Job

Unattractive people are less likely to get hired and promoted and earn less on average. Should discrimination based on looks be outlawed?

This piece originally appeared on Working In These Times.

In her provocative new book, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Law and Life, Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode argues that workers deserve legal protection against appearance-based discrimination unless their looks are directly relevant to their job performance.

Six cities and one state already ban various kinds of appearance-based discrimination. Contrary to the dire predictions of critics, these laws have not generated a flurry of litigation. Michigan, which banned appearance discrimination in the 1970s, averages one such lawsuit a year.

Rhode convingingly argues that beauty bias in the workplace is a widespread problem with serious consequences. Between 12 and 14 percent of workers say they've suffered some kind of appearance-based discrimination on the job.

It should go without saying that discrimination on the basis of appearance is unjust, especially when it comes to features individuals have little or no control over. Rhode does a good job of spelling out why such bias is offensive to human dignity and equal opportunity.

Volumes of psychological research have shown that unattractive people are assumed to be less intelligent, less capable and less trustworthy. Almost from birth, infants stare longer at faces that adults rate as attractive.

Employers are not immune. Resumes get less consideration if the boss thinks they're coming from an unattractive person. Rhode notes that unattractive people are less likely to get hired and promoted and that they earn less on average, even in occupations where appearance has nothing to do with the job.

The increasing prevalence of obesity in America has done nothing to curb virulent prejudice against fat people. Ironically, immobilizing obesity is protected as a disability, but discrimination based purely on cosmetic aversion to fat is totally legal. In one study, 43 percent of overweight women reported feeling stigmatized by their employers. Obese women earn 12 percent less than their thinner counterparts with comparable qualifications. Obese women are more likely to live in poverty, even after controlling for other factors.

Rhode notes that beauty bias also exacerbates and perpetuates other kinds of discrimination. Female workers are held to more elaborate grooming standards than their male counterparts. Then again, women also face discrimination in more senior positions for being too pretty or too sexy. Debrahlee Lorenzana, a Citibank employee is making headlines for claiming that she was fired for distracting her male colleagues with excessive sexiness.

There's a lot of overlap between appearance discrimination and racism. Some have speculated that coworkers perceived Lorenzana in a more sexualized way because she's Latina. Stereotypically Anglo-European features like smooth hair, slim hips, and pert noses loom large in our prevailing beauty ideals. There's a class component in beauty bias, too. A gleaming smile engineered by an orthodontist is a badge of membership in the middle class. As we all know, poverty increases the risk of obesity.

Thanks to the skyrocketing popularity of plastic surgery, a gulf is emerging between those who can afford Botox and facelifts and those who have to wear the natural signs of aging as gracefully as they can. Last year, the National Organization for Women came out against a proposed plastic surgery tax on the grounds that older women need work to get jobs in today's economy.

Rhode acknowledges that the law can only do so much to mitigate the effects of such deep-seated prejudices, but she argues that the enormity of the problem is no excuse for inaction. Sexism, racism and homophobia are certainly ingrained, but that doesn't mean that the law is powerless against them. As segregationists said in the era of Brown, you can't legally force people not to be bigots. On the other hand, when you discourage people from acting like bigots, tolerance can become a habit.