Beauty & Discrimination

Hooters Bikini Contest. Annual bikini contest ...
Image via Wikipedia

Dahlia Lithwick wrote an interesting essay in the June 14th issue of Newsweek about the law and beauty bias. This got me thinking about the issues she raised.

It is reasonable well established that attractive people generally have an advantage over people who are less attractive. It is also reasonable well established that some businesses discriminate against people who fail to meet up with their standards of attractiveness. For example, Hooters famously fired a waitress for being too heavy.

Currently, there is little legal protection against discrimination based on appearance. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether there should be such protection.

On one hand, it could argued that there is no need for such laws. First, such laws could be seen as intuitively absurd. A law against not liking ugly people? How absurd!  Of course, this might simply be an appeal to ridicule: the mere fact that something can be laughed at or seems silly is hardly prove that it is.

Second, there is the reasonable concern that such laws would set a legal precedent for even more laws that would lead to either real legal harms or at least to a degree of absurdity that would be undesirable. For example, what if laws were passed to prevent “discrimination” against people for being foolish. Of course, this could be seen as a slippery slope argument. Unless, of course, reasons can be given showing that these negative results would follow.

Third, there is also the reasonable concern that people are naturally biased in favor of attractive people and also biased against people they regard as unattractive.  This can be seen as being analogous to the fact that people tend to be biased in favor of people who are pleasant, friendly or entertaining while they tend to biased against people who are unpleasant, unfriendly or boring.  It would seem absurd to pass laws that attempt to compensate for the bias people have in favor of such people. If the analogy holds between looks and personality, then it would seem absurd to pass laws against discriminating based on appearance.

Despite these points, there is a rather significant reason to favor such a law. This reason has nothing to do with unattractiveness but rather to do with the notion of relevance. From a moral standpoint, to fire or otherwise mistreat a person in a professional context (for the law to cover personal relationships would be rather absurd) based on appearance would seem to be unacceptable. To use a specific example, if a Hooters Girl is doing her job as a waitress to fire her because she weighs “too much” would be unjust. After all, as long as she is physically able to perform her job, then her weight would not be relevant.

One possible reply to this is that there are certain jobs in which attractiveness would be a relevant factor. To use an obvious example, super models are supposed to be beautiful and it would be rather odd for someone of average or less appearance to argue that they are a victim of discrimination if they were not chosen to be a supermodel. To use an analogy, if a job required a great deal of physical strength or a high degree of intelligence or creativity it would hardly be discrimination if people who lacked those attributes were not hired for such jobs.

That, it might be said, can be seen as a crucial part of the matter. If appearance is a legitimate asset and actually part of certain jobs, then to hire (or not hire) people based on appearance would not be discriminatory in these cases.

Of course, there is the concern  that there should not be jobs that are based on physical appearance. Such jobs, it might be argued, are inherently discriminatory and also serve to create various problems. Feminists, for example, often present such arguments. However, it could also be argued that there should not be jobs based on other natural assets such as wit, humor, intelligence or creativity. After all, if valuing beauty is somehow wrong, then it would seem that valuing these other qualities would also be wrong.

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  1. Ah but you see, we need to first specify what kind of beauty, wit, humor or intelligence we’re talking about. Because you can’t help what face you’re born with but you might do something about your physical strength or your intellectual ability, as long as no illness impairs you for that. Broad terms rarely have any use in intelligent discussions.

  2. OK, don’t hate me because I’m pretty…Beauty is not completely immutable either. Note television shows like “What Not to Wear”, etc. Yes, some people are born with horribly disfiguring features, but people are also born with physical and mental impairments.

    As to the Hooters girl…Attractiveness was a significant part of what got her hired in the first place. It’s just that now that she’s put on a few pounds, suddenly she’s had an epiphany. BTW (and yes I know this is just trouble, but I feel it must be said), it’s been my observation that not all Hooters girls are natural born beauties. Many of them consider it part of their job to look their best. And it’s not like Hooters has some absolute standard across the entire organization. If being a Hooters waitress was her ambition, I’m sure there are several locations she could move on to without resorting to a law suit…or dropping a few pounds.

    I agree about relevance but whatever happened to the idea that you can’t legislate morality? Must everything that is stupid or immoral also be illegal? What sort of legislation should be passed? Intangible factors are a significant part of the hiring decision. Depending on the environment, factors such as how well someone is likely to get along with the existing staff, who they have worked for in the past, the aesthetic quality of their work, etc. are extremely important. Who is qualified to overrule these decisions that the employer ultimately will be responsible for? At what point do excessive rules become effective control of a private enterprise? Perhaps it would be more efficient all around if people don’t like the way a business operates, they just work or shop somewhere else.

  3. Uncle Jed,

    In the ideal, the only factors that should affect hiring decisions should be those that are objectively relevant to the job. In reality, this obviously would be impossible to enforce. For example, people who are friendly and pleasant would tend to do better at interviews even for jobs that have no requirements for being friendly or pleasant.

    An important challenge is addressing the sort of points that have been raised such as what sort of discrimination is suitable for legal concern and what sort of qualities should be considered legitimately relevant and which should not?

  4. Isn’t it interesting how, often, interacting on the Internet (blogs, chat rooms) and doing business on the Internet (eg eBay and have nothing to do and in no way implicate the physical appearance and other typical characteristics of the persons involved? On the Internet, one’s words are often the only indicator of one’s personality, character, etc. And from even this scant evidence, we can discriminate, we can choose and reject bloggers, eg, that we do not “like.” Should there be a law that requires that words and communication NOT be used that could be the basis for such “discrimination”?

  5. Paul Dempster

    Let’s suppose that an office hires a stunningly handsome Johnny Depp lookalike; all the women in the office spend so much time fawning over him that they neglect their jobs, and the decision is made by the management that something needs to change. Do they get rid of the 5 women who are failing to do their jobs, or the 1 new guy who’s causing all the problems? Obviously, it would cost considerably less (and affect fewer peoples’ livelihoods) to sack the handsome one, but to do so purely because he’s handsome would be ‘illegal’, so 5 new people must be hired (some of whom will no doubt experience the same distracting attraction for this Adonis)

    This also helps to show the ultimate futility of such rules: in the vast majority (if not all) cases where such discrimination could occur, the companies’ actions could just be put down to eg. adverse effects on morale/profit.
    Discrimination against such things would be completely counter to the principles of a capitalist society.

  6. Mike,

    Ideal or not, the reality is that the job belongs to the employer. It is conceived and defined by the employer. The employer knows what is relevant to the job, often intuitively. The legitimacy of what is relevant is determined by the factors necessary to get the job done, not by a legal system influenced by politics and lacking responsibility for the end product.

  7. I am among those that are really turned off by mainstream ideas of beauty. The thought that anyone would attempt to create a measure of beauty that would be sufficiently consistent for legal or professional evaluation seems ludicrous.

    While I may not have a taste for the Hooters standard of beauty, I’m don’t think that marketing aspects of appearance is any worse then any other form of status-related marketing. And, attempting to establish legal mechanisms that regulate how attractiveness is considered is too much like censorship.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t see problems of exploitation in marketing. However, I really doubt that there will be any obvious approach to qualities that are essentially illusion.

  8. Guy,

    Interesting point. Writing style could be seen as a form of beauty (or ugliness) in the online world. That said, it would not be discrimination to favor a more coherent, logical and clear writer over someone who types things like “yu teh suc cause u a lib an libs iz iditz.” After all, those seem to be relevant when assessing writing quality.

  9. Paul,

    I’d be inclined to say that the women would be failing (I’d say the same if the situation were reversed with one hot woman and 5 men) in their duties. However, if his power was so great that no woman could resist, then he probably should be moved somewhere else (such as sales or doing ads for the company). This would not be discrimination since he would not be moved because of his beauty, but because he presents a workplace hazard. 🙂

  10. Uncle Jed,

    I almost agree. On the one hand, the employer would know the job requirements better than the bureaucrats (or should). On the other hand, suppose that the employer believed (as some did and no doubt do) that being a specific ethnicity is relevant to the job. Should that be left to the discretion of employers?

  11. TesserId,

    Never underestimate the role of the ludicrous in the law. 🙂

  12. Mike,
    Sometimes being a specific ethnicity is relevant to the job. If I have a business that performs culturally sensitive work in say Japan or Kyrgyzstan, I will hire someone from that ethnic background over someone who only studied the culture in school.

    I once worked for a company that had a contract opportunity in Saudi Arabia. We had a Pakistani gentleman on our staff who spoke Arabic who was the logical choice. Due to some sort of PC nonsense, we sent an American woman to do the job. It was a stupid move and wasted a lot of time. Reminds me of Mr. Bird’s quote from elsewhere today, ‘Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the adherence of fools’. Fortunately for us, our only viable competition in that market was from an Israeli company. As you may know, the major Islamic countries have explicit boycotts against doing any business at all with any Israeli company.

    Yes, there is a concern when discrimination is wide-spread against certain minorities to the point that their general civil liberties are at stake. Such a situation is a threat to a free and open society in ways that go beyond the persecution of those minorities. In such extraordinary circumstances, extraordinary methods are required. What has been discussed here does not qualify, in my opinion. To me it is shameful when others try to piggyback on the misery of the truly persecuted for personal benefit.

  13. I have actually not gotten a job because I was going to be the only white boy in the office. When the clinical director first saw me I new I wasn’t getting the job. Also, the interview lasted about 5 minutes or 30 minutes less than all my other interviews. Also, due to my looks and having money everyone who doesn’t fit that category sees me as a person they should compete with. Especially at work and often in conversations. Personally I learn to ignore the elephant they put in the room, but it does get old day in and day out. Yes sirrrr.

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  15. Beauty appeals not only to our aesthetical senses, but perhaps much more importantly triggers our fantasies and is deserving of admiration. Whether we are beautiful is not in the eye the beholder; the enormous engine of a global beauty and fashion industry dictates a clear vision of what beauty looks like and entices us to conform.

    Alas, the fantasy has been conformed to a reality that feeds on emaciated and airbrushed models who portray a vision of beauty that is unobtainable for most. People have a choice between trying harder or giving up altogether, either decision can lead to obsessive and unhealthy behavior. I would dare argue that it also leads to unhappiness. After all Da Vinci famously portrayed a smile rather than a particular physical attribute to express his vision of beauty.

    By the way speaking of Da Vinci – what happened to the geniuses of this world – how popular is it to appreciate a brilliant mind and how much are we missing by ignoring their presence.

  16. Men need something from women and woman need something from men.

    Something that not all girls know, is that, for men might be very easy to lie speaking sweet words without feeling guilty. And this is not known until some bad consequence occurs.

    In my case, I think that girls support this falsehood, if just searching vain stuff as outer beauty.

    I note with sadness how some girls just listen, and trust in a false reality, and they choose to do so.

    There are so many “little things” that stimulate the man that many women do not have the slightest idea of “all messages sent through them”

    Men are stimulated visually. Since the trend in women is more to romance, feelings, when the man on the other hand tend more to react to what they perceive their eyes. I do not want to say this man is not romantic, or that do not give importance to their feelings, no, I want to emphasize is that their sexual response is much faster than the women with what is perceived visually.

    The design that God created for man and woman is written in the Bible.

    The importance of knowing the nature of our bodies and their reactions is not excluded in the Bible, this design does not dispute any of our special physiological needs.

    so, what is wrong with beauty?: Nothing.

    The Bible says:

    “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Mark 7:15

    so, what come out from men? All what they see is publicity, “beautiful” faces and bodies around the world.

    Perhaps the desire to be with that person, but not love.

    and, What come out from Women? Just doing this, (I’m not sure), and I’m sorry about many girls hide, forget, or don’t take care and pay Attention to the Important Things.

    What a woman need from a man?
    (Surely Not Exactly a muscle man, it could be common into our Minds. Who put this in our mind?. ) .

    I’m afraid, because I think that someone or something is blinding all those girls, many men found something special into girls and they are afraid that girls will to leave that aside. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

    God teach us:

    The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a HELPER SUITABLE FOR HIM” Genesis 2:18

    In this Same Way, Their Husbands ought to love wives as Their Own Bodies. He who loves His wife loves Himself. Ephesians 5:28

    Wives, submit to your Husbands as to the Lord. Ephesians 5:22

    Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and Gave Himself up for her
    Ephesians 5:25

    Women (For the spiritual state) before God is equal to man.
    The Bible does NOT say that the role of man is more important than the role of women.

    Ok, it is all about Husbands and wifes, but, what God teach us is too close similary to what we really need, because God knows what is good for us. He made us, and it is his model.

    Now answering the question: what a woman need from a man?

    God says:

    “After all, no one ever Hated His own body, but he cares about it and feeds, just as Christ does the church.”
    “For We Are members of His body.”
    “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”
    Ephesians 5:29-31

    I know I can do it, with the love that God gives me, to give this to people, without cheating or making false promises, because the human feelings are fickle and weak.

    The Bible describes good women, like, prudent, suitable helper and many other adjectives.
    I believe in that and I really pay lot of attention to this. Now I know it’s what I really need.
    I would like to know from a woman, if a man like bible describes is the right one for women.

    God says:

    “Your beauty should Not Come from outward adornments, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.
    Instead, it Should Be That of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, Which is of great worth in God’s sight. “Peter 2:3-4

    Also in the bible:

    “Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels.”
    Song of Solomon 1:10
    “How Beautiful You Are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your Eyes Are Doves.”
    Song of Solomon 1:15

    When we give our life to the Lord we are saved and we can learn what the Bible teaches us to love with love that He gives and teaches us.

    “” For God so loved the World That He Gave His one and only Son, That whoever Believes In Him Shall Not Perish But Have everlasting life. “John 3:16

    “For the Wages of Sin is death, But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus Our Lord.” Romans 6:23

    “That if you confess with your mouth,” Jesus is Lord, “and believe in your heart That God raised him from the dead, you will Be saved” Romans 10:9

    There are many Attitudes toward beauty, some of which are harmful (INCLUDING RACISM, DISCRIMINACION ETC.) (Again Mark 7:15)

    This is God’s perspective.

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