Reviews | Why is it okay to be mean to the ugly?


A manager sits behind a table and decides he’s going to fire a woman because he doesn’t like her skin. If he fires her because her skin is brown, that is called racism and there is a legal remedy. If he fires her because her skin is feminine, we call that sexism and there is a legal remedy. If he fires her because her skin is pockmarked and he finds her unattractive, well, we don’t talk about it much, and in most places in America there is no legal recourse.

It’s confusing. We live in a society that abhors discrimination on the basis of many traits. And yet, one of the major forms of discrimination is lookism, the prejudice against the unsightly. And it hardly attracts any attention and arouses little outrage. Why?

Lookism begins, like any form of sectarianism, with prejudices and stereotypes.

Studies show that most people consider an “attractive” face to have clean, symmetrical features. We find it easier to recognize and categorize these prototypical faces than the irregular and “unattractive” faces. So we find it easier – from a brain processing point of view – to look at attractive people.

Attractive people therefore leave with a slight physical advantage. But then people project all kinds of unrelated stereotypes onto them. Poll after poll, beautiful people are described as trustworthy, knowledgeable, friendly, likable and intelligent, while ugly people are given the opposite labels. This is a version of the halo effect.

Not all of the time, but the good looking people often get first class treatment. Research suggests that they are more likely to be offered job interviews, more likely to be hired during the interview, and more likely to be promoted than less attractive people. They are more likely to receive loans and more likely to receive lower interest rates on these loans.

The discriminatory effects of lookism are omnipresent. Attractive economists are more likely to study in high-level graduate programs, and their articles are cited more often than articles by their less attractive peers. A study found that when unattractive felons committed moderate felony, their fines were about four times higher than those of attractive felons.

Daniel Hamermesh, a leading scholar in this field, observed that an American worker who is in the bottom seventh in terms of appearance earns about 10 to 15% less per year than a worker in the top third. An unattractive person loses almost a quarter of a million dollars in earnings in their lifetime.

The overall effect of these biases is vast. A 2004 study found that more people report being discriminated against because of their appearance than because of their ethnicity.

In a study published in the current issue of the American Journal of Sociology, Ellis P. Monk Jr., Michael H. Esposito and Hedwig Lee report that the income gap between people perceived as attractive and unattractive rivals or exceeds the income gap between whites and black adults. They find that the attractiveness curve is particularly penalizing for black women. Those who meet socially dominant beauty criteria see their incomes increase; those who don’t earn an average of 63 cents on the dollar of those who do.

Why are we so jaded about this kind of discrimination? Maybe people think lookism is ingrained in human nature and there’s not much they can do about it. Maybe it’s because there is no national ugly people association pushing for change. Economist Tyler Cowen notes that it is often the educated coastal class that enforces standards of thinness and dress the most strictly. Maybe we don’t like controlling the bigotry we are most guilty of?

My general response is that it’s very difficult to go against the core values ​​of your culture, even when you know it’s the right thing to do.

Over the past few decades, social media, meritocracy, and celebrity culture have merged to form a modern culture with almost pagan values. That is, it places a huge emphasis on competitive display, personal success, and the idea that physical beauty is an outward sign of moral beauty and overall worth.

Pagan culture supports a certain ideal hero – those who are genetically endowed in the fields of athleticism, intelligence and beauty. This culture views obesity as a moral weakness and a sign that you are in a lower social class.

Our pagan culture places great importance on the sports arena, college, and social media screen, where beauty, strength, and IQ can be displayed in the most impressive way.

This philosophy underlies many advertisements for athletic shoes and gyms, which retain heroes in whom physical endowments and moral goodness are one. It’s the paganism of the CEO who likes to be flanked by a team of sexy employees. (“I have to be a winner because I’m surrounded by the beautiful.”) This is the fashion magazine in which articles on social justice are interspersed with photos of the incredibly beautiful. (“We believe in social equality, as long as you are gorgeous.”) This is TikTok’s lookist bidding.

A society that celebrates beauty so obsessively will be a social context in which the less beautiful will be looked down upon. The only solution is to change the standards and practices. A positive example comes, curiously, from Victoria’s Secret, which replaced its “Angels” by seven women of more diverse morphologies. When Victoria’s Secret is at the forefront of the fight against lookism, the rest of us have some catching up to do.


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