Being beautiful is really convenient. Studies show that good looking people get offered more money and better jobs. They're also treated better by their teachers, their students, their waiters and even their jury. Not even moms are immune: they favor their prettier babies. All of us, actually, assume beautiful people are healthier, more intelligent, nicer and more competent. And those assumptions help us feel a little bit better about the fact that these pretty people are treated better than we are.
But should they be? Ruth Graham at the Boston Globe recently explored the ways in which the law isn’t really equipped to deal with “lookism.” Laws protect people from discrimination based on race, sex and other qualities that are, as a rule, out of our control and not indicative of actual qualifications or skills. And yet, creating and enforcing laws that protect the less-amazing-looking is really difficult.
“There is no lobby for the homely,” Graham writes. “How do you change a discriminatory behavior that, even though unfair, is obviously deep, hard to pin down, and largely unconscious—and affects people who would be hurt even to admit they’re in the stigmatized category?” She outlines a few of the solutions that have cropped up in the past few years:
Tentatively, experts are beginning to float possible solutions. Some have proposed legal remedies including designating unattractive people as a protected class, creating affirmative action programs for the homely, or compensating disfigured but otherwise healthy people in personal-injury courts. Others have suggested using technology to help fight the bias, through methods like blind interviews that take attraction out of job selection. There’s promising evidence from psychology that good old-fashioned consciousness-raising has a role to play, too.
According to Graham, beauty is a lot more objective than perhaps we would like it to be. Studies have shown that what people consider “beautiful” is pretty consistent, even across cultures. So if it's possible to establish who is and who isn’t benefitting from so-called “lookism,” what’s keeping us from creating legislation to protect people who are discrimated against?
One issue is that laws don't necessarily solve the problem. Some states have laws that address discrimination against people based on weight and height. But nobody really uses them. But the biggest problem, Graham argues, is that ugly people aren’t united like other lobbies. “There are no ‘unattractive’ lobbies,” Connor Principe, a research at Pacific University, told Graham. “For that to really work, you have to have people who are willing to be recognized as unattractive.” And nobody wants to join the ugly club.
Some researchers say that we might be able to tackle lookism like we tackle racism—by convincing people to admit they have a bias and to start recognizing it in their daily lives. But that'll mean changing the story we've been telling kids from very early on—that looks don't matter. Perhaps instead of stories that champion the idea that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” we need some stories that are honest about our bias for beauty, or a rousing tale of a young princess who rallies the ugly people together to fight for equal rights. Because most of us are more like the frog than the prince.