Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Skin deep is deep enough

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, civil rights, appearance bias

Civil rights attorney Laura Einstein may have said it best, stating that nobody is likely "to say they were wronged because they are ugly." As Deborah L. Rhode writes in The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, this may be the biggest reason for the general silence about appearance bias in business, school admissions and many other areas of life. People would simply rather "edit reality," spending billions on cosmetics and plastic surgery ($160 billion worldwide in 2003, according to the Economist article Pots of Promise).

In The Beauty Bias Dr. Rhode (yes, JD is a Doctor's degree) systematically surveys the cultural and legal history of the human preference for "attractive" people, however one might define that. It is at once subtler and more widespread than the xenophobia that underlies racism. It seems there is an unspoken calculus each of us performs, to surround ourselves with potential mates of the highest quality, "in case there is a disaster and we'll have to repopulate the planet, just me and this or that one…" We don't say this, even to ourselves, but it underlies all our choices of those we want to have near us.

The most effective salespeople are attractive; of course pretty or handsome, but also witty and cheerful. We may laugh at Rodney Dangerfield, who "can't get no respect," but we're unlikely to buy a refrigerator from him. But I knew a businessman once who stood all this on its head. Knowing that plain people have to work harder just to stay even, he hired only competent, ordinary-looking folks for his office staff. The office ran with frightening efficiency. He also selected salespeople with a gift for gab and a natural integrity, regardless of their looks, and while they might have built up their sales figures more slowly, they built solid sales organizations upon repeat business with very loyal customers.

But his way is not the way most businesses run. How does a typical small business look? Front office and sales floor: the most attractive employees the boss can afford; back office and repair shop: homely, efficient workers. Dress codes abound. A local small hardware store employs young men who must wear ties and long sleeved shirts. Fortunately, the women at the register are not required to "make up" their faces, though I can tell which ones do. But at many places, makeup is required of all the women.

In her introduction, Dr. Rhode tells the quite entertaining saga of a succession of makeovers performed by well-meaning friends and colleagues when she began to appear in public. Her preferred "look" is "Bohemian Stanford professor", sweater over blouse and jeans, and an unadorned face. wysiwyg. Her friends would have none of it, and she found just how time-consuming and costly it is to "look your best" as a professional woman.

The book leads onward to a final discussion of the legal options for attacking and possibly reducing "appearance discrimination." She acknowledges that in certain professions, such as a Hooters waitress or a casino cocktail server, a superbly sexy appearance is de rigeur, but really, is it necessary for a female cashier at a box store to be required to make up her face? And can it be legislated?

It resembles other civil rights legislation. The argument has always been, "You can't legislate morality." The author replies that what we legislate is behavior, and interestingly enough, morality gradually shifts to match the behavior. My own reply is that we legislate nothing but morality; that is what it is for. As a society, we decide what will be considered "moral", and in particular, what immoralities might constitute a danger, then legislate to coerce those who are now defined as immoral, to conform.

Suppose we had strong laws that prohibited nearly all hiring based on "attractiveness". Consider wait staff, who live by tips (their hourly pay it a pittance). I suspect the more attractive waiters and waitresses would garner more tips, gradually driving the less attractive ones to other lines of work. Consider also salespeople, who live by commissions (with nearly no hourly "salary"): a similar trend would ensue. Call it business Darwinism. While it might have nearly the same end result as the pre-law situation, it would come about through customer action rather than employer preference. But it would have this salutary effect: A plain-looking person who knows how to "chat up" a customer would have a chance to succeed, that might otherwise be denied. In that, alone, I find justification for such laws.

I wonder what the financial situation of my household would be if my wife were an avid clothes horse and makeup artist; the kind of consumer the beauty industry tries to produce. I have never known her to wear makeup. She says she did so for a while in her late teens, before we met. She is a genuine, natural beauty. Now that she's sixty-five, of course she isn't the looker she was at thirty. But hers is still my favorite face. And what about me? We hosted a college group at our house a few months back, and one of them asked what I was like at their age. I showed them my high school senior portrait. One girl blurted out, "You used to be so handsome!" I guess that says it all. I hope my face is still my wife's favorite face.

Fortunately, I work for an employer that doesn't drive older workers out. Just a few years ago, two people retired who had each worked for this company for 58 years; both were 76. My father worked until he was 75 (he is 89 now), and I just might do so also. But I'd never make it as a commissioned salesman.

The Beauty Bias is scholarly—a third of the book is the end notes—and can be preachy at times, but is a compelling read. I imagine some people will read it and say, "So what?" But it makes more clear than ever, that as our civilization "grows up", we have to have laws that reinforce adult values and wean us from the childish behaviors that some so naturally. We're about halfway along the way to eliminating racism, and as my wife recently remarked, "It is getting fashionable to be gay!", but we've just begun to address the unfairness inherent in taking the easy way and letting someone's appearance dictate their chances of success.

1 comment:

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