Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /afs/ir.stanford.edu/group/womenscourage/cgi-bin/blogs/wpmu-settings.php on line 45
“Beauty is Pain”: Beauty Discrimination » Women's Courage

“Beauty is Pain”: Beauty Discrimination

February 25th, 2011 by kaking Leave a reply »

For the past several weeks, I have discussed the many ways in which women seek to conform to society’s standard of beauty. I have discussed various cosmetic procedures women have done as well how perceptions of beauty affect women’s mental health and well-being. For this week, I will be shifting gears a bit and focusing on a very real problem that exists in our society – beauty and weight discrimination.

I was first exposed to the idea of beauty discrimination by an article in the “Stanford” magazine that discussed law school professor Deborah Rhode’s new book, Beauty Bias. It was from this article that I got the idea for what would later become my blog topic for this class. A quote that really stuck with me from the article was when Rhode stated that, “We all know that looks matter, but few of us realize how much.” Thus, this blog post will focus on how much looks matter in terms of things like job promotion and perceived intelligence. At the end of this blog post, I hope everyone comes away with a sense of how powerful appearance bias is in our society that unfortunately grants rewards or disadvantages unto people based on their physical looks.

As we are all undoubtedly aware, physical appearance can play a large role in determining whether or not people find you attractive. In a society where appearance matters and physical attractiveness is idealized, it should come to no surprise that this preference for “beautiful” people has been expressed in the workplace. In fact, a reported 12 to 14% of people claim that they have suffered from appearance-based discrimination at their job (Beyerstein). Hiring managers in a wide variety of fields have systematically chosen more “attractive” candidates for positions over those considered unattractive. Researchers found that even in the law profession, graduates of a certain law school who were considered attractive earned more than their less attractive former classmates and also had more opportunities for career advancement (Biddle, Hamermesh).

Thus, for those considered unattractive, research has shown that these people are more likely to be considered less capable, less intelligent, and less trustworthy by society. Furthermore, Rhode found in her research that unattractive people not only get paid less, but that less attractive children get less attention from not only their teachers but also their parents (Platoni, Rhode). This starkly contrasts to the situation of those people considered by society to be attractive. Rhode found that attractive people are not only thought to be more intelligent but that their resumes and essays get more positive responses when hiring managers believe they come from an attractive person.

While women are often held to higher standards of beauty, appearance-based discrimination also affects men. Researchers Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh found that there is “a significant penalty for bad looks among men.” They found that of the 9 percent of working men that were ranked by interviewers as being either “below average” or “homely” in terms of their physical appearance, that these men also made 9% less in terms of hourly wages. In contrast, the 32% of men that were judged to be “handsome” or “above average” earned 5% more (Lesley).

Thus, biases not only work in favor for those perceived to be pretty, but can work against people who are considered overweight. Known as weight discrimination, this type of discrimination is based on the stereotype that associates overweight people with being unhealthy or lazy (Platoni) and even socially handicapped (Roehling). Indeed, large amounts of research have concluded that there exists a pervasive bias against overweight people in western culture (Roehling). In terms of the workplace, the statistics and studies suggesting that discrimination occurs against overweight people are abundant. In his summary of current research, Roehling found that there is evidence of discrimination against overweight people at every stage of the employment cycle, including hiring, placement, compensation, and promotion.

And indeed, overweight people do believe they are discriminated against. One study found that around 43% of overweight women felt that their employers had discriminated them against. Even more surprising was the differences in pay between overweight people and their thinner coworkers. One study found that obese women earn 12% less than their thinner female coworkers, even if they have comparable qualifications (Breyerstein). In fact, perceptions and stereotypes about overweight people are so ingrained in people’s minds that one study found that even sitting next to an overweight person in a waiting room before an interview could have negative effects on how one is perceived. Researchers found that people who sat next to overweight people were judged as having “inferior professional and interpersonal skills.” (Platoni).

So what to do?
So if beauty and weight discrimination are legitimate problems that might be hampering the ability of a more homely or overweight person from reaching their full potential – especially in the work place – what can be done to prevent this? While undoubtedly our preferences for “beautiful” and “slender” people are subconsciously ingrained in us, Rhode suggests that more states and local districts should adopt ordinances that forbid appearance-based discrimination. Current federal law does not expressly prohibit discrimination based on weight or appearance. While critics argues that such ordinances would lead to an increase in phony litigation, of the localities that do have such laws preventing discrimination based on looks (currently six cities and one state), there have been only a few lawsuits filed (Platoni).

It is easy for many to dismiss the prevalence and relevance of discrimination based on physical appearance. However, as I hope this blog post has showed, discrimination based on physical traits is not only ubiquitous, but it has very real and harmful effects on those people considered unattractive by today’s society.

“Fair Enough?” by Kara Platoni. Published in Stanford Magazine. September/October 2010 issue.

“The Influence of Appearance Discrimination on Career Development.” Joseph Lesley.

“The ‘Beauty Bias’ at Work, and What Should Be Done About It.” Lindsay Beyerstein. June 11, 2010. Inthesetimes.com

“Weight-based Discrimination in Employment: Psychological and Legal Aspects.” Mark Roehling. Personnel Psychology, 1999.

Biddle, Jeff. Hamermesh, Daniel. “Beauty, Productivity, and Discrimination: Lawyer’s Looks and Lucre.” National Bureau of Economic Research.



  1. amayacc says:

    Many comments, and I think a topic we can all relate to at some point. This summer (as I keep mentioning due to the life-changingness of the experience), I was in India in the South. It was SUCH an interesting experience that really helped me reconceive of myself, especially in regards to beauty. I think fundamental to brainwashing society about beauty is the media and television. Without even realizing it, from a very young age we begin constructing concepts about beauty based on what becomes normalized. It’s quite fascinating because I think, although intellectually I knew better, growing up I think that society brainwashed me into believing that “beauty” existed with thinness, whiteness, and soft femininity. As a curvy, brown, and increasingly tough young woman, I think that I often struggled with how to define myself as beautiful, especially in a place like Kansas, where I went to high school. Even still, I have certain physical privileges that allow me to operate within this mainstream concept of beauty (e.g. lighter skin, curly hair etc.). In India, I was forced to really think about why I saw myself this way, especially since in Tamil Nadu, I fit the traditional standard of beauty. In living in a society, where I suddenly did not have to feel the pressure of making myself beautiful, I was able to really realize that beauty is something that is instilled within us. We only believe that certain things are beautiful based on what we have always been told about beauty, and I believe these concepts are perpetuated and normalized in our society by images in the media.

  2. ntahir says:

    I’m really glad you shed light on the relationship between beauty and weight. I was really shocked reading the results from the survey (obese women earn 12% less than their thinner counterparts). The female gender has been through so much, batting with the other gender for the right to work, the right to equal opportunities and equal pay, it is unimaginable to think about them fighting with other women who “look” different from them. I recently read an article titled “The Ugly Faces of Discrimination” that also spoke about overweight individuals and how they are automatically perceived as unattractive or ugly in society. It was also great that you touched upon the mental effects of this kind of discrimination; the condescending attitude and discriminatory comments are very hurtful (to say the least), and definitely have an impact on a person’s self-esteem and confidence level. This attitude is also very exclusionary, in my opinion, making overweight individuals feel excluded from society. This is precisely how a lot of these individuals develop inferiority complexes that last a lifetime, and affect everything that they do – from their school work to their career – they take this complex with them.

  3. ayflores says:

    Thanks for this post. I think from a young age, we’re each ingrained with certain perceptions of what “beauty” entails: modern media constantly reinforces how we should look if we wish to be socially successful. What I found most intriguing about your post were the statistics on weight-discrimination in hiring and pay practices. Somehow, these more superficial applications of “beauty” (such as its effect on popularity, etc) have insidiously translated into workplace success and hiring practices. In this way, beauty standards not only constrain equal treatment in traditional social or societal contexts; they also apply to financial realms of mobility and fair salaries. That additional context is truly troubling, and I appreciate the attention you brought to the issue through your post.

  4. sbyron says:

    Really interesting blog entry. As you highlighted, appearance biases are powerful and it’s discouraging to know that your resume and intellect might not mean anything when it comes to getting hired. Your blog post reminds of a conversation I had with a friend as we were preparing for our internship interviews. As an African American, she said that she needed to take her braids out and get her hair pressed before her week of interviews — she didn’t want to look “ghetto.” In reflecting on past interviews, I’ve also been cautious of my appearance when preparing for job or internship interviews. I’ve straightened my hair for every interview and although I don’t wear makeup on a regular basis, I’ve always worn makeup for interviews. In the African American community, these powerful appearance biases force Black women to chemically straighten their hair or purchase fake hair in order to look like their white counterparts.

  5. labrian says:

    Very interesting comment. I had not heard stories about how weight discrimination affected women in the workplace. It’s a very touchy subject, and one that most people don’t want to hear about, but one that should be addressed, as we seek to eliminate all forms of biases in the workplace. Is there any direct evidence linking weight discrimination to career opportunity costs? I’d be curious to see whether any blatant examples of such discrimination exists.

  6. skaewert says:

    This was so interesting to read because this discrimination happens all the time, but I feel like lots of people never think about it or even realize it if it happens right in front of them. I’m wondering more about the laws against appearance and weight discrimination. It’s easy to imagine how those could be complicated, and I would be interested in knowing more about how they work. I’m also interested in knowing more about the reasons that people think that “slender” and more attractive people are more competent/deserve more pay. Obviously, this is often a subconscious decision, but even so, it’s been engrained in Western minds and my question is: how?

  7. jennawg says:

    Kelly, this is such an interesting and relevant post. It’s striking to think about how huge an impact appearance, which one might think is trivial next work ethic and qualifications, for example, can have on one’s success. I have to wonder what difference laws or raising awareness can make given the deeply ingrained bias towards attractive people thrown at us by the media and even our biology. It seems like job promotion or hiring can often come down to an overall feeling about someone’s competency, once they’ve met a standard of qualifications–and a bias towards skinny, attractive people could sway that feeling. At the same time, I’m in support of laws that do what they can to prohibit appearance-based discrimination (within reason). This seems like an especially crucial issue with obesity rates rising in the US.

  8. ritam1 says:

    Great post, I enjoyed reading about how appearances can translate into legitimate biases in society and the workplace. You discussed the many ways in which people deemed “unattractive” suffer disadvantages, but I would also be interested in hearing perhaps about how “attractive” people can be at a disadvantage at times. I don’t know if much research has been done through that perspective, but it would be interesting to see if they face other types of emotional pressure to maintain their “attractive” appearance.

    In response to your question about what we should do about this issue, I think that having more people aware of their conscious/subconscious biases about would be a great way to avoid having it manifest into beauty discrimination in the workplace. It is unclear what exactly people can do in their day-to-day lives to not unjustly favor “attractive” persons because at the end of the day that is a personal freedom people have, but I think the important part is that society is able to act fairly in terms of hiring opportunities.

  9. wsallman says:

    Thank you for writing this interesting post! As a member of Western society, I definitely feel the pressure to look and present myself a certain way. My mother from an early age raised me with a sensitivity to my appearance and it persists today. I was impressed by the number of statistics you gathered and their significance. Your information on weight discrimination was particularly intriguing. I was not aware of how common the problem was or how often overweight people felt discriminated against. The suggestion of creating laws that protect against this type of discrimination would follow the logic that has protected other vulnerable minorities from comparable treatment. However I can see how a company would find fault with this. Overweight people have elevated health risks for a number of reasons and this could affect their insurance costs, which companies often incur as part of a compensation package. Furthermore, overweight employees could legitimately be less productive, and if this is the case, they would merit a lower salary. I recognize that I am playing a bit of devil’s advocate but I believe these questions need to be answered when confronting this type of discrimination. Great post!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.