Why Looks and Beauty Matter

October 19, 2009 Book Reviews 4 comments

Why Looks and Beauty Matter

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Does being beautiful and handsome give you a head start in life?

Well, despite what should have been a fairer and more equal world, the ugly truth is that looks still matter. At least according to Beauty Bias – Discrimination and Social Power authored by sociologist Bonnie Berry.

Unlike gender, ethnic, age or religious bias however, being judged based on how you look is a difficult “bias” to claim. In fact, the author claims that “lookism” is probably the last bastion of legally uncensured discrimination.

Society’s Nordic Beauty Bias

Society at large is biased in many ways towards people who are beautiful or handsome, whether we like it or not.

Often, associated traits to your looks are also weighted in how you may be judged. They include your ethnicity, skin colour, height, weight, age, disabilities, deformities, and condition of your teeth. These go hand in hand in society’s partiality towards the pretty.

Chances are that if you’re born with the right symmetrical and often Northern European features – a slim and straight nose, big round eyes, fair skin, tall, and light haired – you’ll probably fair better than your peers in job markets.

This is especially unfair, stated Berry, because your looks are often difficult to change. It also has very little relation to how well you would perform in a job. Moreover, you can’t choose your parents, or opt out of an obesity gene.

Good Looking CEOs

Unfortunately, how you look does influence how high you can climb on the corporate ladder. At least in the US.

According to Berry, studies have shown that the CEOs of top US firms were all several inches taller than the average American in height. There was a “beauty premium” which came with being “tall, slender and attractive” and it was “worth roughly an extra 5 percent in pay per hour.”

Heavy people were also paid less than thinner people. This was especially pronounced amongst women-of-size, with heavier ladies receiving almost one-fifths less than those of “average” weight.

Some companies were even explicitly “lookist” with the cosmetic giant L’Oreal, the Gap, Abercrombine and Fitch, and the W hotel chain reported to be openly seeking people who were “sexy, sleek, and good looking”.

Healthcare Prejudices

Healthcare prejudices also occurs.

If you were considered “morbidly obese” (ie more than twice normal weight) in the US, you’d have to pay health insurance premiums that were considerably more expensive than those in a “normal” weight category.

While a deaf woman (Heather Whitestone) could win the Miss America contest in 1995 as her disability do not result in any compromises in how she looked, other more serious disabilities usually resulted in a disqualification from conventional beauty pageants.

The discriminations in the area of health were especially spiteful as the differently abled in the US were often marginalised because of their disability. Their poverty rates ranged from 50% to 300% more than the general population.

Tall, Dark and Handsome Wins in Love

Looks also mattered in the markets for romance, with the cliqued “tall, dark and handsome” or “fair and pretty” statements helping to reinforce age-old prejudices.

In a study, Berry cited that out of 10,000 men in their early 20s, heavy men were 11 percent and heavy women were 20 percent less likely to be married than their thinner counterparts. Often those with physical disabilities are also socially isolated, twice as likely than the abled to live alone, marry later (if at all), and viewed as “asexual”.

The Role of Media Stereotypes

Berry claimed that many of these injustices were perpetuated by the media and fed by big business.

Models, newscasters, actors and actresses, and much of Hollywood, Bollywood or the East Asian film market were heavily biased towards slim, tall and good looking lead actors and actresses.

Our obsession with looks have spawned the diet, fitness and supplements industries. This was worth some US$15.2 billion in the US in 2003. Ditto for the cosmetic and cosmeceutical industries, as well as the plastic surgery industry.

Entire systems like the medical and health insurance communities, legal communities, and the broader economy were also created to cater to people’s obsession with the superficial as a passport to a better quality of life.

Ironies in the Beauty Bias

Several ironies exist.

First, the almost universal standard of Caucasian models of beauty have resulted in a homogenisation of beauty throughout the world.

Roughly 75% of African American women use straightening combs and chemical relaxers to achieve a straighter and more Aryan hairstyle, while plastic surgery for double eyelids to widen “almond shaped” Asian eyes are common in many East Asian cities.

The paradox, however, is this: By trying to use plastic surgery or other methods to more closely resemble beautiful icons, we are increasingly becoming similar in our looks.

The entire food business is also fraught with such inconsistencies.

For example, McDonald’s restaurant refused to hire a man who weighted 420 pounds. The chain claimed that he was overweight when the restaurant chain itself served fatty and sugary foods that caused weight gain!

Combined with the dieting and exercising industries, the food businesses formed a tag-team that fed on the insecurities of human kind and utilised them for profitable ends.

Positive Signs Ahead

Fortunately, according to Berry, there are social movements that adjusted these imbalances.

They include the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in the US, as well as the International Size Acceptance Association (ISAA) Aspirations group (for shortness-based folks).

“Ugly laws” were also repealed – the last in Chicago in 1974.

Companies like Dove with their “Real Beauty” campaign have also done some positive work here, although Berry cynically commented that their “above average sized” models were still pretty good looking and a far cry from the real “plus-sized” ladies in America.

Berry has also advocated for the media to play a lead role in fighting these biases. This could be done through education, interpersonal influences (eg refraining from making comments like “what awful teeth!” or “Hey, shorty!”), as well as legislative and policy changes that removed obstacles to look-oriented discrimination.

An Insightful Read on Looks Based Discrimination

Overall, I would say that this book does a fairly comprehensive job in describing how commonplace looks-based discrimination became.

It was startling to learn how looks impinged upon other forms of related discrimination such as your ethnicity (which would affect skin colour and eye shape), size, physical ability, and economic standing (the poorer people usually ate less healthily and were thus heavier in the US.)

The book also served a useful reminder for us to make conscious decision not to let “lookism” rule our lives.

As the saying goes, “beauty is more than skin deep”. Perhaps it is instructive for us to look beyond the superficial in all dimensions of our lives, and to appreciate real inner beauty.

megan fox
Do we have to look like Megan Fox to succeed in life? (courtesy of cras_dub)

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


  1. Hello. Thank you for your post I think it’s very true what is said there. Unfortunately, discrimination is still a big problem in the US even though many people say otherwise. But the fact that people are even discriminated by the health care system is really terrible. First of all there should be prevention as paying “fines” for obesity is not a solution.
    Take care,

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