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, we call that racism and there is legal recourse. If he fires her because her skin is female, we call that sexism and there is legal recourse. If he fires her because her skin is pockmarked and he finds her unattractive, well, we don’t talk about that much and, in most places in America, there is no legal recourse.
This is puzzling. 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, prejudice against the unattractive. And this gets almost no attention and sparks little outrage. Why?
Lookism starts, like every form of bigotry, with prejudice 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 we do irregular and “unattractive” ones. So we find it easier — from a brain processing perspective — to look at attractive people.
Attractive people thus start off with a slight physical advantage. But then people project all sorts of widely unrelated stereotypes onto them. In survey after survey, beautiful people are described as trustworthy, competent, friendly, likable and intelligent, while ugly people get the opposite labels. This is a version of the halo effect.
Not all the time, but often, the attractive get the first-class treatment. Research suggests they are more likely to be offered job interviews, more likely to be hired when interviewed and more likely to be promoted than less attractive individuals. They are more likely to receive loans and more likely to receive lower interest rates on those loans.
The discriminatory effects of lookism are pervasive. Attractive economists are more likely to study at high-ranked graduate programs, and their papers are cited more often than papers from their less attractive peers. One study found that when unattractive criminals committed a moderate misdemeanor, their fines were about four times as large as those of attractive criminals.
Daniel Hamermesh, a leading scholar in this field, observed that an American worker who is among the bottom one-seventh in looks earns about 10% to 15% less a year than one in the top third. An unattractive person misses out on nearly a quarter-million dollars in earnings over a lifetime.
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 earnings gap between people perceived as attractive and unattractive rivals or exceeds the earnings gap between white and Black adults. They find the attractiveness curve is especially punishing for Black women. Those who meet the socially dominant criteria for beauty see an earnings boost; those who don’t earn on average just 63 cents to the dollar of those who do.
Why are we so blasé about this kind of discrimination? Maybe people think lookism is baked into human nature and there’s not much they can do about it. Maybe it’s because there’s no National Association of Ugly People lobbying for change. The economist Tyler Cowen notices that it’s often the educated coastal class that most strictly enforces norms about thinness and dress. Maybe we don’t like policing the bigotry we’re most guilty of?
My general answer is that it’s very hard to buck the core values of your culture, even when you know it’s the right thing to do.
Over the past few decades, social media, the meritocracy and celebrity culture have fused to form a modern culture that is almost pagan in its values. That is, it places tremendous emphasis on competitive display, personal achievement and the idea that physical beauty is an external sign of moral beauty and overall worth.
This ethos underlies many athletic shoe and gym ads, which hold up 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 hot staffers. (“I must be a winner because I’m surrounded by the beautiful.”) It’s the fashion magazine in which articles about social justice are interspersed with photo spreads of the impossibly beautiful. (“We believe in social equality, as long as you’re gorgeous.”) It’s the lookist one-upmanship of TikTok.
A society that celebrates beauty this obsessively is going to be a social context in which the less beautiful will be slighted. The only solution is to shift the norms and practices. One positive example comes, oddly, from Victoria’s Secret, which replaced its “Angels” with seven women of more diverse body types. When Victoria’s Secret is on the cutting edge of the fight against lookism, the rest of us have some catching up to do.
David Brooks (Twitter: @nytdavidbrooks) is a columnist for The New York Times.