BRIGHT IDEAS: Deborah Rhode’s The Beauty Bias

Oxford University Press has just published Professor Deborah L. Rhode’s newest book, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law. I got my copy from Amazon on Friday and enjoyed every moment reading it over the weekend.  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.   Professor Deborah Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.   She is the one of the country’s leading scholars in legal ethics and gender.  Professor Rhode is incredibly prolific: she has written over 20 books and countless articles.  She is the director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession and a columnist for the National Law Journal.  Before joining the Stanford Law faculty, she was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Lucky for CoOp readers, I had a chance to interview Professor Rhode about The Beauty Bias.  I reproduce our conversation below:

DC:  What prompted you to write this book?

DR:  It partly started with shoes.  I have always viewed women’s footwear design as a haven for closet misogynists;  so much of what they produce is so dysfunctional for its primary purpose—comfortable walking.  Yet in many contexts, including my years as Chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, I was struck by how often some of the nation’s most prominent,  powerful, and otherwise sensible women were hobbling about  in what we described in high school as “killer shoes.”  They were stranded in cab lines and late for meetings — held back both literally and figuratively — because of shoes.  And inconvenience is the least of the problems. High heels are a major contributor to serious back and foot problems, and four-fifths of women eventually experience such difficulties. A growing percentage are even willing to undergo foot surgery to fit into their designer footwear. I was sufficiently irritated to write an op for the New York Times and it triggered more of a response than probably anything I’ve ever published.

That experience underscored a question  I had long puzzled over.   Of all the inequities that the contemporary women’s movement has targeted, why have those related to appearance shown among the least improvement?  Half of American women report unhappiness with how they look, a figure greater than a quarter century ago. In a country where large percentages of the population can’t afford basic health care, cosmetic surgery is the fastest growing specialty. Our global investment in appearance is over  200 billion, and millions of individuals, particularly women, are paying a huge cost not just in money but in time,  physical health, and psychological well-being.  Discrimination based on appearance, especially weight, is among the most common forms of bias; it is much more frequent and equally arbitrary as many forms of discrimination that are now unlawful. But except in a few jurisdictions, bias based on appearance  is perfectly legal.

DC:  How does this fit into your broader scholarship?

DR:  As a legal academic with a particular interest in  gender equality,  I wanted a better understanding of where our preoccupation with appearance comes from, what costs it imposes, and what could we do about it from a policy perspective.  I’ve always been interested in the gap between our aspirations and achievements  involving social justice in general and women’s rights in particular.  Appearance raises those issues and provides a window on questions involving the law’s capacities and constraints in producing social change. Appearance discrimination has also attracted relatively little public or scholarly attention, and part of the problem  is that so few individuals realize that we have a serious problem.  This project offered the chance to provide the first comprehensive overview of the law in this area, and new  research on the experience  of  the few jurisdictions that explicitly prohibit some form of appearance discrimination.  And because I’m always interested in connecting research to practice,  I tried to write in a way that will be interesting and accessible to a broad public and policy audience.

DC:  Are you hopeful that we might combat this bias?

DR:  I’m optimistic about reform but not naive about what stands in the way. The importance of attractiveness is deeply rooted, and the economic stakes in its pursuit are enormous.  But the costs of  our preoccupation with appearance are also considerable and could be much more fully appreciated.   Many individuals realize that it hurts to be beautiful, but few  realize how much and how many billions are squandered in worthless or unhealthful cosmetic and weight reduction efforts. And even fewer of us realize how much it hurts not to be beautiful, or to conform to culturally prescribed norms that are much more demanding for women than men, and that compound disadvantages based on race, class and ethnicity.  Most Americans have bumped up against some aspect of the problem and might be energized to do something if they came to see this as not just an individual problem but a social injustice and cultural challenge.

The final chapter of the book offers a wide range of  strategies — at both the individual and policy level — that would move us towards a  more attainable, healthy, and inclusive standards of attractiveness and less arbitrary discrimination based on appearance. The chapter also identifies further  protections that  could be available from fraudulent or risky appearance related products and services, and further ways to support healthy lifestyles  without demonizing those who fall short.

I surely don’t want to overstate the attention that I think can or should be devoted to the issue. On the reform agenda of women’s rights advocates, appearance does not deserve top billing.  But in terms of public recognition of a problem, it remains a major challenge. The kind of attention people once gave to the state of their souls, they now give to the state of their bodies. And too often, the result is far from constructive. Beauty may be only skin deep, but the costs associated with its pursuit go much deeper, and demand  closer attention and collective action. We will never eliminate all the injustices, but we can surely do better.

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10 Responses

  1. Logan says:

    While I’m not well versed on this topic in regard to the legal field, I conducted a nationwide survey, while I was working on my undergraduate degree in Marketing for my Marketing Research class, that looked at perceptions hiring managers have on applicants based on how they dressed. I found that an individual’s dress has a fairly large impact on the hiring managers perceptions but that it had no impact on whether the individual was hired; except for in cases where two applicants had the same level of experience (the more attractice and/or better dressed individual was hired). This was the case for both men and women.

    For instance, men who wear lace-up shoes were considered to be more intelligent than men who wear loafers. For women, wearing hosiery made one more intelligent than one that did not wear them, with their skirt/dress.

    I would imagine you would find similar results in the legal field and the potential impact one’s dress has on a jury during trial could be tremendous (i.e. you’re argument might be consider more or less valid/credible based on your appearance).

  2. Kaimi says:

    Beautifully stated, Professors Citron and Rhode.

  3. jimbino says:

    So, if I started a Fat Ugly Poorly-Dressed Women’s Detective Society, I might well kill the competition?

  4. AYY says:

    I haven’t read the book but I’ve been fighting this battle for years and to no avail. At every opportunity I’ve urged, begged, and pleaded for women to wear less makeup, but do they listen? Not at all. So if Prof. Rhode wants to have laws that make it a mandatory 25 years to life for possession for sale of eye shadow, or a law that says “use an eyeliner go to jail”, she can count on my support.

    At this point though I’d be happy if she can get women to stop getting tattoos, piercings, nose rings, and those ridiculous little sparkling thingies they wear on the sides of their noses.

  5. Uno Hu says:

    There oughta be a law, sure ‘nough. And I can’t wait to see how you would word a law to make illegal appearance bias (never mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder).

    Maybe simply a law that says if a sasquatch and babe both apply for the same job, it is presumptive evidence, or perhaps even that there is a non-rebuttable assumption, of bias, if one hires the babe??

    Would utilizing an opaque screen between interviewer and interviewee protect the employer if the babe was hired?? What about if you could still smell the sasquatch behind the screen. Would blinded telephone interviews be only safe way to interview?

    The idiocy of this notion just goes on and on!

  6. John David Galt says:

    I agree with Uno Hu. I defy anyone to write a law against this that wouldn’t create worse problems than it solves.

    If Hollywood couldn’t discriminate by appearance, most of its works could not have been made (or would lose the desired artistic effects). Similarly, TV news people and anyone in a sales or public-relations job have to look good lest they drive away customers.

    It sounds like the only way to achieve Ms. Rhode’s goal is to lobotomize everybody so that we no longer have the concepts of “beauty” and “ugliness”. Perish forbid!

  7. Dennis says:

    The answer is simple. All women shall be required to wear the Niqab.

  8. I just plain do not like these “better than thou” people

  9. anon says:

    Former Judge Nottingham resigned after it came out that he hired prostitutes for years and hung out in strip clubs.

    I was in his court several times with a female lawyer in whose favor he always ruled. She always wore tight skirts with a high slit up the back and sling back shoes. I thought at the time she looked like a whore.