Appearance Discrimination

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"Appearance Discrimination"

By Matt Zeitlin

In tomorrow’s Times Book Review, Emily Bazelon has a review of Deborah Rhode’s “The Beauty Bias,” which talks about discrimination based on personal appearance. I, of course, haven’t read the book, but from the review, you can get a hint of both the scale of the problem and the limited ground for possible remediation. Here’s an explanation of how society has largely accepted the view that spending lots of time and money on ones appearance is necessary for advancement:

Cosmetic surgery has quadrupled over the last decade. Women still wear stiletto heels that ruin their feet and backs and buy any wrinkle-smoothing cream for any price. Being fat, Rhode says, continues to carry “as much stigma as AIDS, drug addiction and criminal behavior.” (Meanwhile, men walk around largely unplagued by their imperfections. Unless they’re short, in which case they suffer, too.)

It does no good to urge women to sally forth in sensible flat shoes while their hair grays and their faces prune. Feminists learned long ago that taking this line only makes enemies. Rhode has internalized the lesson. When she points out that there is no visible gray hair on the heads of any of the 16 female United States senators, ages 46 to 74, she chalks it up to “professional necessity.” Rhode herself is a blonde (I’ve met her and once edited her work for Slate). But that hasn’t saved her from “emergency remedial shopping” at the hands of her Stanford colleagues and a stylist who disastrously teased her hair before a fancy event that she was supervising for the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. (Yes, Rhode sees the irony in forced primping for an event to promote women’s equality.)

But then — once again according to Bazelon — Rhode makes the movie of offering the idea of allowing discrimination suits as “a solution in a limited number of rankly unfair cases” like when “a nursing school student who was expelled because officials thought her obesity made her a bad role model for patients.” But while such suits may allow for just outcomes in such cases, it doesn’t really do much about the more general problem of people thinking they have to look a certain way to be successful and thus exacting great personal, financial and emotional costs on themselves or about the fact that people who are naturally better looking just get more money throughout their lifetimes.

For example, we know from our good friend Greg Mankiw, that tall people can expect a substantial earnings premium over shorter people on account of their height. We also know that, in general, the stuff that people get rewarded for — having wealthy, well educated parents; genes that make them tall; well proportioned facial features and so on — have, in themselves, no real moral content and thus people’s claims to the goods gained due to these features are weaker than they think they are. But the disparities exist anyway, and are probably too deeply entrenched to be redressed through discrimination suits. So this just leaves us with, to evoke Yglesias, “higher taxes to finance more and better public services.”

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