“Yes Virginia, There Is …”

In the spirit of the season, to paraphrase a nineteenth century newspaper quote which became a cultural maxim, “Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as ‘beauty bias.’”

Christmas, Xmas, Santa, Nicholas

On November 9th I did a post which I entitled Beauty Bias” Should Looks Be a Protected Category?and gave a shout out to Julia Baird, the author of “Being Dishonest About Ugliness,” who wrote a thought piece in the New York Times.

She wrote that adults find it difficult to discuss physical appearance with children and try to “iron out differences by insisting they don’t matter.”  But they matter.   She said that “The advantage of beauty has been long established in social science; we know now that it’s not just employers, teachers, lovers and voters who favor the aesthetically gifted, but parents, too.”

I then followed with a lengthy discussion about “lookism,” beauty” or appearance bias, and weight and height discrimination, citing Title VII, various cases, and numerous published studies which have confirmed that attractive employees – both male and female – will earn more over a career than less attractive ones.

I asked whether “anti-lookism” could made law, and ended by saying that “The issue is clear, and the studies are clear, but a workable legal definition may be quite elusive – or at least this is claimed by opponents of legislation to combat such discrimination.”

In today’s Times, Bonnie Berry, author of “Beauty Bias: Discrimination and Social Power,” wrote a letter to the editor in response to the Baird essay.  I am re-publishing it below in full, because this is an important subject and worthy of careful thought.

“In my research on appearance bias, I have remarked that bias against physical appearance is the last ‘acceptable’ form of discrimination. Although it should be otherwise if things were right in the world, those who are looks-challenged are denied a vast range of social opportunities.

Unattractiveness can mean many things: deformities, advanced age, disability and so on. Most of these physical differences are unavoidable and as Ms. Baird points out, have nothing to do with worth or ability. Of course. Yet this form of bias occurs anyway, and it occurs largely because it is visual, with the first visual impression upon viewing someone forcing a (usually) unfair judgment.

This can happen even with attractive people who aren’t attractive enough, like those who hope to land a job at Abercrombie & Fitch or as a fashion model. But unfair treatment happens far more commonly with the unattractive and plain.

Ms. Baird points out correctly that we assign moral judgments against the unattractive. I am working with two research teams examining police reaction to suspects’ appearance and public reaction to crime victims’ appearance. I can barely wait to see what we discover.”

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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]