Affirmative action for the “ugly”?

by Mê-Linh Riemann

A couple of weeks ago, I went to our university study store and stumbled upon a book with the title Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. The author of the book Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas, claims that the importance of physical attractiveness in the labour market is much more pervasive than one might expect. According to his research, being good-looking not only improves our chances of getting a job but also increases our earning potential once hired. Attractive employees supposedly earn up to 15% more than their average looking colleagues. Hamermesh calculates that over a lifetime a handsome worker might on average make $230.000 more than an unattractive one in the same position.

The tendency for employers to discriminate in favour of attractive applicants (also referred to as “lookism”) has served as a source of much controversy in the past. While some voices argue that it is natural human instinct and should therefore not be outlawed, others – such as Hamermesh – call for legal protection.

Hamermesh proposes an extension of the “Americans with Disabilities Act”, which would enable the “ugly” to seek help from the government in cases of discrimination. Inspired by quotas that have been introduced for women and ethnic minorities, he argues that big companies should legally be obliged to hire a certain percentage of unattractive employees.

Hamermesh’s line of argumentation raises a lot of questions… What makes a human being “ugly”? Is “lookism” really such a big issue? What would it imply for our society if we classify unattractiveness as a disability?

Personally, I believe that there is a lot of truth to the saying that “true beauty comes from within”. I was therefore quite uneasy about the way Hamermesh categorizes an entire segment of society as inherently “ugly”. I felt his terminology was really misleading and inappropriate for the issue at hand, since it is a very sensitive issue for people who have experienced discrimination based on their looks.

Although I dislike Hamermesh’s way of labeling people, it would be hypocritical to deny the existence of certain beauty ideals in our society. Some of our standards concerning physical attractiveness are socially constructed and vary across cultures (e.g. slimness) while others, such as our preference for symmetric facial features, are innate and therefore universal. Through advertisements, we are constantly bombarded with images of incredibly gorgeous (and photo-shopped) people. It is well documented that this media exposure influences our self-perception, as we often feel inadequate when comparing ourselves to the images we see. To me it seems, however, that the impact of the media does not stop there but also influences the way we perceive and treat others.

That said, I understand Hamermesh’s point that some people – whose appearance strongly deviates from common beauty ideals – are disadvantaged in our society. I also think that many employers (subconsciously) prefer good-looking applicants to their less attractive competitors and that this can be seen as an act of unfair discrimination.

What struck me as odd, however, is the way Hamermesh tries to support his argument with concrete numbers, arguing that a handsome worker makes on average $230.000 more due to his appearance. How does he come up with these numbers? And can it really be proven that the differences in income are causally related to looks?

Furthermore, I think that those statistics are misleading as they give the impression that unattractive people are doomed to failure, while their good-looking counterparts have it incredibly easy in life. This is definitely not the case as much of one’s professional success depends on the individual’s upbringing, education, talents and drive to pursue his/her dreams. All those factors are not really related to one’s appearance. I’m pretty positive that Bill Gates, for example, wasn’t simply handed his fortune due to his handsomeness.

Assuming, however, that some people really do suffer from “lookism” it is worth discussing Hamermesh’s proposal of introducing quotas.  For me, classifying unattractiveness as a disability seems counter-intuitive  It would reinforce differences between people rather than it helps to reduce prejudice. A law that classifies “ugliness” as a disability would simultaneously reaffirm “beauty” as the norm. Everybody who deviates from that ideal would then be categorized as “abnormal”, even if he/she has a rather positive self-perception.

Another reason why I believe that introducing quotas might not be the best solution to the problem is that affirmative action often causes tensions between those who benefit from it and others who don’t. I spent my semester abroad in the US and while I was there I witnessed a heated, almost hostile debate about whether the African American students (who were accepted due to quotas) even had a right to be there – given that their academic achievement was below average. The African American students were then put in the uncomfortable position of always having to justify themselves by proving that they are smart enough to study at this university (regardless of the quota system).

Due to the scarcity of jobs, work environments can be much more competitive and tougher than universities. That said I imagine that it must be an awful feeling to go to work on your very first day, knowing to be the one employee who got hired for being “ugly”.

Mê-Linh Riemann

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