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“Beauty is Pain”: Beauty Discrimination

February 25th, 2011

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.