The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law

The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law

by Deborah L. Rhode

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"It hurts to be beautiful" has been a cliche for centuries. What has been far less appreciated is how much it hurts not to be beautiful. The Beauty Bias explores our cultural preoccupation with attractiveness, the costs it imposes, and the responses it demands. Beauty may be only skin deep, but the damages associated with its absence go much deeper. Unattractive


"It hurts to be beautiful" has been a cliche for centuries. What has been far less appreciated is how much it hurts not to be beautiful. The Beauty Bias explores our cultural preoccupation with attractiveness, the costs it imposes, and the responses it demands. Beauty may be only skin deep, but the damages associated with its absence go much deeper. Unattractive individuals are less likely to be hired and promoted, and are assumed less likely to have desirable traits, such as goodness, kindness, and honesty. Three quarters of women consider appearance important to their self image and over a third rank it as the most important factor. Although appearance can be a significant source of pleasure, its price can also be excessive, not only in time and money, but also in physical and psychological health. Our annual global investment in appearance totals close to $200 billion. Many individuals experience stigma, discrimination, and related difficulties, such as eating disorders, depression, and risky dieting and cosmetic procedures. Women bear a vastly disproportionate share of these costs, in part because they face standards more exacting than those for men, and pay greater penalties for falling short. The Beauty Bias explores the social, biological, market, and media forces that have contributed to appearance-related problems, as well as feminism's difficulties in confronting them. The book also reviews why it matters. Appearance-related bias infringes fundamental rights, compromises merit principles, reinforces debilitating stereotypes, and compounds the disadvantages of race, class, and gender. Yet only one state and a half dozen localities explicitly prohibit such discrimination. The Beauty Bias provides the first systematic survey of how appearance laws work in practice, and a compelling argument for extending their reach. The book offers case histories of invidious discrimination and a plausible legal and political strategy for addressing them. Our prejudices run deep, but we can do far more to promote realistic and healthy images of attractiveness, and to reduce the price of their pursuit.

Editorial Reviews

Emily Bazelon
As Rhode acknowledges, her framework for The Beauty Bias owes much to The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf, which lit up the feminist stratosphere almost 20 years ago. Wolf argued that because appearance matters so much for their success—in work, love and almost everything else—women were sacrificing the gains of feminist liberation on the altar of breast implants and doomed diets. It would be lovely to dismiss this analysis as outdated. But of course it isn't, as Rhode convincingly shows.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Beauty is in the eye of the job-holder, evidently. Referencing Plessy v. Ferguson (the 1896 Supreme Court decision affirming "separate but equal" racial policies) is proven more than apropos in Rhodes' riveting overview of the ways in which appearance impacts hiring practices and job qualifications, in both overt and subtle ways. Legal or illegal is often beside the point when it comes to cases like those she surveys, though there are civil rights issues that immediately spring to mind for scholars in this field. The author's own experience with appearance expectations in the seemingly egalitarian world of academia notwithstanding, most of the cases and examples she provides are unfortunately not surprising. Covering a range of social classes, and tackling issues ranging from weight bias to the legality of forcing a college professor to change hairstyles, the book raises issues that will be debated for years to come. Rhodes argues that in jurisdictions with provisions protecting individuals from appearance-related discrimination in the workplace, the courts are not clogged with cases, contrary to the assumption of critics. Rhodes' analysis includes many new cases for the edification of students and readers interested in law, sociology, or business.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
"The book is illuminating and important: it explores the often unacknowledged, yet pervasive, discrimination against people, particularly women, who don t conform to mainstream notions of beauty and appearance [Rhode] is the one of the country's leading scholars in legal ethics and gender Rhode is incredibly prolific."—Danielle Citron, Concurring Opinions

"[Rhode] is convincing in her arguments that laws punishing appearance discrimination might be a logical step in exactly the right direction it's hard to deny the validity of the problem that she confronts. And it's even harder to ignore the extent to which concerns about appearance shape our daily lives. Rhode so clearly enumerates the costs to society incurred by appearance discrimination that readers judges and lawmakers included will find themselves unsettled."—Christian Science Monitor

"Provocative Rhode is at her most persuasive when arguing that in the United States, the penchant to discriminate against unattractive women (and also short men) is as pernicious and widespread as bias based on race, sex, age, ethnicity, religion, and disability. She provides overwhelming evidence of bias against the overweight, the unattractive, and the aging. And while some of these cases may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or race discrimination law, most are not."—Dahlia Lithwick,

"This book is extremely well written. There are plenty of everyday examples of appearance discrimination and the book is written with a passion and enthusiasm that sweeps the reader along...a call to arms...No doubt it will create a considerable body of literature and much debate."—Legal Studies

"Rhode writes clearly and thinks deeply. I found her case convincing morally and legally."—Dallas Morning News

"This is a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of beauty ideals in legal, professional and other hard-hitting real-life spheres. A serious contribution to the literature of the politics of appearance."—Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth

"Rhode's insightful analysis and lively writing style brilliantly lays out the ways in which prescriptions about appearance, whether mandated by the law, influenced by the billion dollar cosmetics industry, or the leaders of social movements, affect people's opportunities and their everyday lives."—Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Past President, American Sociological Association; Professor of Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center

"When the fastest-growing medical specialty is cosmetic surgery, we should all be concerned. Deborah Rhode's analysis offers real insight into what compels our 'beauty behavior,' the economic consequences, and what we can-and must-do about it. This book should be on every woman's bookshelf."—Kim Gandy, Former President, National Organization for Women

"Deborah Rhode uncovers 'beauty bias' as an obstacle for women every bit as disabling as sex or gender discrimination, but more damaging because it is virtually immune to legal challenge. Her discourse and strategies for ending appearance discrimination speak to every woman and should be supported by all people concerned with social justice."—Herma Hill Kay, University of California, Berkeley School of Law

Product Details

Oxford University Press
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Meet the Author

Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and the Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University. She has a Yale BA and JD, and is a former law clerk of Justice Thurgood Marshall, a former president of the Association of American Law Schools, a former chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession, and a former director of both Stanford's Center on Ethics and its Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She is the author or coauthor of twenty books, including In the Interests of Justice (OUP 2003), Access to Justice (OUP 2004), and Ethics in Practice (OUP 2003), and over 200 articles, and is the nation's most cited scholar on professional responsibility.

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