Why Looks and Beauty Matter

Do we have to look like Megan Fox to succeed in life? (courtesy of cras_dub)

Looks matter more than we think, according to Beauty Bias - Discrimination and Social Power authored by sociologist Bonnie Berry, and "lookism" is probably one of the last bastion of legally uncensured discrimination. Society at large is biased in many ways towards people who are beautiful or handsome, whether we like it or not. Often associated traits to one's looks like ethnicity, skin colour, height, weight, age, disabilities and deformities, and the condition of the teeth also go hand in hand with that partiality towards the pretty.

The ones born with the right symmetrical and often Northern European features - a slim and straight nose, big round eyes, fair skin, tall, and light haired - often fair better than others in job markets. This is especially unfair, states Berry, because one's looks are often difficult to change, and often have very little relation to how one performs in a job. You can't choose your parents, or opt out of an obesity gene.

Unfortunately, one's looks does affect one's career in the States. According to Berry, studies have shown that the CEOs of top US firms are all several inches taller than the average American in height. There is a "beauty premium" which comes with being "tall, slender and attractive and is worth roughly an extra 5 percent in pay per hour". Heavy people are also paid less than thinner people, especially amongst women-of-size with heavier ladies receiving almost one-fifths less than those of "average" weight. Some companies are explicitly "lookist" with the cosmetic giant L'Oreal, the Gap and the W hotel chain openly seeking people who are "sexy, sleek, and good looking".

Healthcare prejudices also occur. Those who are considered "morbidly obese" (ie more than twice normal weight) in the US have to pay health insurance premiums that are considerably more expensive than those in a "normal" weight category. While a deaf woman (Heather Whitestone) could win the Miss America contest in 1995 as her disability do not result in any compromises in look, other more serious disabilities usually result in a disqualification from conventional beauty pageants. The discriminations in the area of health are especially spiteful as the differently abled in the US are often marginalised because of their disability with poverty rates ranging from 50% to 300% more than the general population.

Looks also matter in the markets for romance, with the cliqued "tall, dark and handsome" or "fair and pretty" statements helping to reinforce age-old prejudices. In a study, Berry cited that out of 10,000 men in their early 20s, heavy men were 11 percent and heavy women were 20 percent less likely to be married than their thinner counterparts. Often those with physical disabilities are socially isolated, twice as likely than the abled to live alone, marry later (if at all), and are viewed as "asexual".

Berry claimed that many of these injustices were perpetuated by the media and fed by big business. Models, newscasters, actors and actresses, and much of Hollywood, Bollywood or the East Asian film market is predicated on slim, tall and good looking lead actors and actresses. The diet, fitness and supplements industries, which is worth some US$15.2 billion in the US in 2003, the cosmetic and cosmeceutical industries, as well as the plastic surgery industry. Entire systems like the medical and health insurance communities, legal communities, and the broader economy are also predicated on people's obsession with the superficial as a passport to a better quality of life.

Several ironies exist.

First, the almost universal standard of Caucasian models of beauty have resulted in a homogenisation of beauty throughout the world. Roughly 75% of African American women use straightening combs and chemical relaxers to achieve a straighter and more Aryan hairstyle, while plastic surgery for double eyelids to widen "almond shaped" Asian eyes are common in many East Asian cities. However, by trying to use plastic surgery or other methods to more closely resemble beautiful icons, we are increasingly becoming similar in our looks.

The entire food business is also fraught with such inconsistencies. For example, McDonald's restaurant has refused to hire a man who weighted 420 pounds claiming that he is overweight when the restaurant chain itself serves fatty and sugary foods that cause weight gain! Combined with the dieting and exercising industries, the food businesses form a tag-team that feeds on the insecurities of human kind and utilises them for profitable ends.

Fortunately, according to Berry, there are social movements that adjust these imbalances. They inslude the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in the US, as well as the International Size Acceptance Association (ISAA) Aspirations group (for shortness-based folks). "Ugly laws" were also repealed - the last in Chicago in 1974. Companies like Dove with their "Real Beauty" campaign has also done some positive work here, although Berry cynically commented that their "above average sized" models were still pretty good looking and a far cry from the real "plus-sized" ladies in America.

Berry has also advocated for the media to play a lead role in fighting these biasednesses, as well as education, interpersonal influences (eg refraining from making comments like "what awful teeth!" or "Hey, shorty!"), as well as legislative and policy changes that remove obstacles to look-oriented discrimination.

Overall, I would say that this book does a fairly comprehensive job in describing how commonplace looks-based discrimination has become, and how it impinges on other forms of related discrimination like one's ethnicity (which would affect skin colour and eye shape), size, physical ability, and economic standing (the poorer people usually ate less healthily and were thus heavier in the US). It is also a useful reminder for us to make conscious decisions not to let "lookism" rule our lives.

As the saying goes, "beauty is more than skin deep". Perhaps it is a timely reminder for us to look beyond the superficial in all dimensions of our lives.

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