Friday, June 11, 2010

Beauty Bias

In this week's edition of Newsweek, columnist Dahlia Lithwick discusses the "massive social problem" of "appearance bias." Her column begins:

"If you are anything like me, you left the theater after Sex and the City 2 and thought, there ought to be a law against a looks-based culture in which the only way for 40-year-old actresses to be compensated like 40-year-old actors is to have them look and dress like the teenage daughters of 40-year-old actors. You can't even look at Sarah Jessica Parker without longing to feed her croissants."

Well, I've never longed to feed SJP anything, but I'm on board for the rest of her claim. Ageism is alive and well at the movies. When Catherine Zeta Jones plays the love interest of an almost 70-year-old Sean Connery or Maggie Gyllenhall is paired with an aging Jeff Bridges, no one blinks an eye. But switch it around to an older woman/younger man scenario, and she's disparagingly referred to as a "cougar," and the relationship becomes the stuff of comedy.

But it's not simply ageism. My dissertation dealt with beauty theory, and I find it fascinating. There's no denying that humans (all ages, both genders) are drawn to beauty. I remember watching a segment of some news show in which they'd trained two kindergarten teachers--one very pretty, one not-so-attractive--to teach the same lesson in exactly the same way. After the two teachers taught, the reporter asked the children, "Which teacher is the best teacher?" The answer? You guessed it--the pretty one won out, every time. Psychologist Nancy Etcoff argues that beauty preference is biological--we can't help it. It represents health, the survival of our species,and even the survival of our own genes.

However, feminists like Naomi Wolf argue that it's more than a natural preference for facial symmetry, the proper layout of features, good proportion, and a straight profile. She sees beauty expectations as coercive, sexist power-plays, and historian Arthur Marwick warns that any beauty theory that leaves out the power of sexual desire is incomplete.

In Lithwick's Newsweek article, she talks about a new book by Deborah Rhode, a professor of law at Stanford, called The Beauty Bias, in which she "proposes a legal regime in which discrimination on the basis of looks is as serious as discrimination based on gender or race." Very interesting. But is that even possible? I've already ordered the book, so I'll give you an update on it after it comes in and I've read it. I'm pretty sure it'll move to the top of my to-read list.


Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

Interesting discussion. Three things, though.

1. I admit I'm neither old in the general sense, nor, obviously, a woman. But as a guy who tends to date what at least some view as significantly younger women, let me tell you that disparagement about age differences is not limited to one gender, nor even to very large age differences. It also doesn't have anything to do with the beauty of the respective partners -- it's just one more obvious thing to jump on for cheap shots. I wouldn't conflate ageism or bad manners with beauty bias. Unless you're saying that, objectively, older people cannot be beautiful.

2. "Cougar" is supposedly a compliment. I don't actually think the cougar phenomenon exists -- I think it's been made up by media types to please a certain demographic with a great deal of purchasing power and the desire to be desired -- but I believe it's supposed to denote a sexually aggressive, powerful older woman, not weird and predatory one.

3. There sort of comes a point for me when I don't understand what the supposed ideal is that people who advance critiques of this nature are looking for. So apparently physical beauty and its biases is to a degree a natural mechanism. And so is to view more aged members of one's species differently than younger members. And so is to prefer healthy, fertile mates sexually. That's hardly news. And now what? Is the idea that we should, ideally, pretend that these things aren't the case so everyone can have really high self-esteem for the rest of their life, no matter what they're like? What's the model of values and discourse where people make no biased judgments of any sort about anyone, on any basis that manifests physically (which frankly include everything, since the brain is also physical)? What would be the purpose of that? That's something that I feel tends to be missing from these conversations -- a sensical vision of what improvement might look like. Otherwise, this sort of things always sounds to me like people past their prime crying foul because the world does, in fact, move on and nature is, in fact, competitive, and does not just base that competition on "merit." I mean, you and I, Stephanie, were probably born with better brains than others -- are we supposed to pretend nature and society shouldn't think we've got more to offer than someone differently blessed? A society based on such premises sounds like a hyper-conformist horror scenario to me.

Stephanie said...


I agree that ageism and beauty bias are two different issues, but they are related, especially when it comes to gender, and I think it often has to do with power. Aging men (although no one denies that they are aging) are still seen as attractive--the gray temples are "distinguished," lines add "character," and I think this is related in some ways to the fact that men often gain in power and affluence as they age. Because, traditionally, women's value came from childbearing potential, signs of aging equated to a decrease in value. I realize that this is a simplification and not true in every instance, but it's interesting. I also think the age bias is changing for women, but ONLY if they work hard to remain beautiful and as youthful as possible--keeping a toned body, getting rid of gray hair, maintaining a stylish appearance, etc.--things which, of course, are also highly dependent upon economic status. Good looking women are still status symbols for men--the trophy wife hasn't gone away. But it works the other way, too, except power and money are draw (sugar daddies), not looks.

The idea that a preference for good looking people can be regulated by law seems unrealistic to me. Of course, prejudice for beauty exists. Quite a few years ago I was working in an office that advertised for a receptionist. An obese, harried-looking woman applied for the job, and after her interview the boss said, "There's no way I'd hire that woman. That's not the image I want my business to project." Well, she might have been a great receptionist, but I can understand where he was coming from. (All the feminists are coming after me now, I know.) Whether we like to admit it or not, we are influenced by how people look. As we mature, one would hope that we learn to appreciate people for who they are rather than how they look, but I don't believe that ever overcomes our innate reactions to beauty. We just learn to control it.

And how, exactly, would someone prove that they were discriminated against because of looks? I guess if your boss said he fired you because you don't wear a size 8 or revealed that he was hiring the other guy because he was more handsome, you might have a case. But it seems much more complicated than that to me.

Your cougar comment has given me a good idea for another post. Watch for it next week--