Anti-discrimination law hasn’t been controversial for years, but recently it has returned to the public debate. In Kentucky, GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul touched a nerve by suggesting that the government shouldn’t have forced southern businesses to desegregate. And in her new book The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, Stanford Law School’s Deborah L. Rhode says quite the opposite: that today we should expand anti-discrimination law to outlaw bias based on appearance.
Of course, one’s opinion about anti-discrimination law depends a lot on one’s opinion about the role of government. Those who tend toward Paul’s view — even those who concede that the Jim Crow South was an extreme case and an exception — will not be sympathetic to Rhode’s thesis. Liberals who think that every unfair decision by a business justifies government intervention will see things completely differently.
That’s a fundamental conflict that no one can resolve. But in thinking about The Beauty Bias, it helps to keep some key questions in mind: To what degree is “appearance discrimination” a problem? What solutions are available, and what tradeoffs do they pose?
As Rhode demonstrates, the social science is quite clear: Appearance, especially height in men and beauty in women, matters. Studies of all kinds have come to the conclusion that good-looking people fare better than ugly people, even in situations where appearance is completely unrelated to the task at hand.
In many cases, the discrimination is explicit, and most of the time, it’s legal. Businesses often seek to present a certain “brand” or “look,” and hire only people who fit in. They also impose grooming requirements that restrict self-expression and sometimes hold men and women to different standards.
These practices are largely a result of our natural tendency to prefer the beautiful over the ugly — a fact that Rhode, to her great credit, concedes, noting that some elements of attractiveness (symmetry, unblemished skin, hourglass figures for women) are human universals. But our tolerance of appearance discrimination compounds that tendency and encourages a variety of unhealthy behaviors and trends. Rhode rounds up the usual suspects to document our appearance obsession: Women’s anxieties about their looks often lead them into plastic surgery; those same anxieties make them easy prey for marketers of useless beauty products and weight-loss aids; women’s sports don’t get enough attention, and much of the attention they do get sexualizes the athletes; we focus way too much on female politicians’ fashion choices; the dolls we give little girls have physically impossible figures and are often dressed like whores; and so on.