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March 4, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

High Cheekbones & Human Rights: the Oppression of the Ugly

Next time you pop into a store in Wellington, whilst perusing the clothes, stop and consider the people serving you. They probably weren’t hired because of the colour of their skin; they may have been hired because of their gender; but more often than not, the great sales staff selling you clothes and wearing the business’ merchandise, will have got the job due to the sheer brilliance of being born with good looks. The miraculous skill of their DNA ordering itself in a manner, that we find attractive.

The discussion of discrimination and equal rights has ignored perhaps the most pervasive form of discrimination. Discrimination based on one’s appearance, beauty discrimination, permeates throughout the job market, whether it be as a waiter or at a quietly boring office job. This human rights deficit has consequences for our broader treatment of those not predisposed with good looks and the way, as a community, we seek to help them.

Obviously, beauty is subjective. Yet that doesn’t mean there can’t be subjective ideals of beauty, which are accepted by the majority: attributes likes having high cheekbones, or being tall or slim or tanned. For in the job market, you require more than one person in the world to think you have a respectable appearance.

It is interesting that those who purport to care about the least well-off have done nothing to improve the lives of those not blessed with good looks. They are a group for which our current welfare state doesn’t cater. It may help them when they’re unemployed but it ignores the reality that their life will probably be worse emotionally as well. A real rascal of a philosopher, Robert Nozick, once sought to belittle the welfare state by comparing it to a beauty transfer. The parallel is stark but isn’t a reason to devolve welfare; rather a reason to extend it. If we believe that redistribution is moral (and not theft) and that it helps people (rather than trapping them in poverty by distorting their incentives) then we ought to redistribute specially to those who do not possess the general characteristics of beauty. That doesn’t just mean token financial payments; to really help them we need to subsidise dates; give free hand-outs of facial cleanser; even redistribute looks, if plastic surgery becomes good enough.

A few years back, Abercrombie and Fitch were famously found to have a policy of looking at photos of their employees. They would search for skin problems, weight gains and other less aesthetically pleasing traits, and fire those who had let themselves down in the looks department. Yet a selection policy that involves one’s appearance occurs everywhere. Everyday you will see it whether wandering into Levi’s or Moore Wilsons or some fancy shmancy restaurant: businesses value their appearance and their employees have a disproportionate effect upon their appearance. In a competitive marketplace, first impressions are crucial in order to gain a returning customer. That first impression is fostered from many aspects of the experience but people too often ignore the pervasive influence of the employee’s appearance in garnering the right impression. You’re more likely to be a waiter if you’re good looking; you could well be hopeless at plate-carrying and remembering people’s names but if you’re a bit handsome, the job is yours.

This disgusting treatment of the ugly extends to office jobs as well. Employers routinely fall back on simplistic signaling gained from someone’s appearance. In the short space of an interview, it is difficult to gauge the personality of the person before them; how nice they are to be around; how comfortable you will be to work with them: all crucial characteristics for an employer. Human beings have a bad habit of relying on one’s appearance to deduce completely distinct traits. We more easily warm to someone who is good looking and fits our conception of beauty. Furthermore, as Jeremy Pope, a member of the NZ Human Rights Commission, suggested, ”perhaps an absence of glamour leads to a feeling of vulnerability, which in turn undermines confidence when it comes to facing an interview panel[.]” In that immediate, short space of time, looks matter. In the long run, employers may realize too late that the bimbo they hired isn’t in fact a caring, considerate Buddhist but, in the interview, appearance often equals personality.

However, beauty discrimination does also occur in reverse. Debrahlee Lorenzana filed a court case in 2010 against her past employer, Citigroup, alleging that she was fired because she was too attractive and distracted the male colleagues too much. An exception to the general rule, the Lorenzana example only reiterates the pervasive influence of looks within the workplace.

Just as it is harder to get a job if you’re not clever, it is also harder to get a job if you’re not good looking; yet looks and brains are importantly different. Brains are far more meritocratic. With effort, anyone can up skill or retrain in order to pursue their good life. This option does not exist for beauty. Apart from applying another moisturiser or going for one more run, the opportunities available to look good are few: what the lottery of life gives us, we are stuck with; this means that we should consider looks arbitrary in a similar way as regards race and gender. They are characteristics that are completely beyond our control.

Our society cripples the ugly further, when it discriminates against them in the social arena. It is objectively harder to have a partner with whom you want genuinely to spend the rest of your life, if you are ugly. People dismiss you at the first date; before you’ve even met; before you’ve had time to explain how you’re incredibly cool and have read all these amazing books, can cook incredible food and like all the same songs that she does. Personality doesn’t even get a shoe in the door. Hugh Jackman will always be more likely to marry Scarlett Johansson than I am, even after I have a library and complete my record collection. People without good looks are down trodden— they feel more self conscious; are less confident; they are more likely to spend their life alone and without a job. Life is tough.

The mere fact that one man is born beautiful and the next is born ugly should not determine their respective futures. Our society perpetuates a gross patriarchal oppression, where looks get you places, just as your last name used to decide your future back in past eras of social hierarchy. Being ugly does not mean that you’re not cool or friendly or compassionate, yet our community allows looks to signal personality to the extent that you struggle to get a job or a partner without good looks. Beautiful people are not that great.


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  1. S says:

    This reminds me of an old boss of mine who didn’t hire a fat girl to work in his restaurant, for the fact she wouldn’t be able to squeeze through small gaps between tables and the rest of the wait team during busy service.

    To argue why it is easier to get work in department or boutique clothing stores etc, it is because the salesperson is essentially representing the brand. You wonder why Miranda Kerr’s skincare line ‘Kora’ is so successful? Just take a look at Miranda’s skin.

  2. Jean says:

    What’s with, all, the, commas stunting, the piece?

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