In a recent New York Times Op-ed piece, economist Daniel S. Hamermesh asked a provocative question: should ugly people be a legally protected class?
Hamermesh definitively thinks so. And he’s proposing that anti-discrimination laws be extended to more, er, homely people.
But why, exactly, should something as seemingly subjective as beauty be the subject of anti-discrimination laws? For one thing, as Hamermesh points out, extensive research has shown that attractive people have measurable advantages over unattractive people.
Unattractive people are more likely than their attractive counterparts to earn less money, recieve longer prison sentences and be poorer. Attractive people, on the other hand, are more likely to recieve more attention from their bosses, get better deals on their mortgages and find a higher-earning spouse. The list goes on.
But how could you possibly offer legal protection to unattractive people when beauty is so subjective? Hamermesh offers an important counterpoint: Individuals might have different opinions on who the most attractive person in the room is, but when it comes down to it, most people agree on who is generally considered attractive and who isn’t.
And, perhaps the supposed subjectivity of attractiveness is precisely the problem for outlawing appearance-based discrimination. As Deboarah L. Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University and author of The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law said in an interview,
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.
In 2000, a bartender at Harrah’s in Las Vegas lost her job because she wouldn’t wear makeup. The Nevada Supreme Court later sided with the casino. In 2002, Jazzercise turned a fitness instructor in San Francisco down for a franchise because the company thought she was too fat. Jazzercise ultimately reversed its decision and stopped requiring its instructors to look “trim and fit”.
What explains the different outcomes of these two cases? Indeed, San Francisco, unlike Las Vegas, has appearance-based anti-discrimination laws on the books.
What do you think? Should unattractive people have special legal protections?