Although someone’s looks and attractiveness aren’t explicitly mentioned in human rights law as prohibited grounds of discrimination, we can safely say that the general prohibition on discrimination does apply to discrimination based on appearance, just like it applies to discrimination of people belonging to a certain race, sex, religion etc. This statement may sound extreme – and some will call it the first step on a slippery slope – but I think it’s a justified statement given the fact that appearance based discrimination can be just as harmful as more traditional types of discrimination.
People generally prefer beautiful individuals and express this preference by giving them certain advantages. One symptom of the beauty bias is the beauty premium: in the U.S., and probably in most other countries, an attractive person earns more: the premium is about $250.000 over the course of a lifetime, compared to the least attractive. Monthly averages point to a difference between 10 and 12%, even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter. Daniel Hamermesh (in “Beauty Pays“) found evidence of differences in promotions, risks of unemployment, credit facilities etc.
A number of role-playing, laboratory studies have demonstrated that more attractive men are more often hired, but the laboratory data for women are less consistent. … more attractive men had higher starting salaries and they continued to earn more over time. For women, there was no effect of attractiveness for starting salaries, but more attractive women earned more later on in their jobs. (source)
There’s no reason to believe that beautiful people deserve this kind of advantage since they generally aren’t more intelligent, productive, etc. (although some disagree about productivity). It’s simply the case that people who decide about employment, pay and career prefer beautiful people. Beauty brings along a degree of self-confidence I guess, which may persuade (possible) employers and makes them believe – correctly or not – that with higher self-confidence comes higher productivity. But that isn’t all that’s happening:
even when the experimenters controlled for self-confidence, they found that employers overestimated the productivity of beautiful people. (source)
So it looks like the beauty bias is just that, a bias, much like the bias against women and blacks.
The beauty bias can be measured because a
common standard of beauty does exist. Based on an attractiveness scale of one to five, most people surveyed will come to near agreement on a test subject’s looks, a finding that holds true across all cultures. (source)
By the way, the beauty bias operates in other areas as well. Beautiful candidates are more successful in democratic elections. And ugly criminals face rough justice:
Stephen Ceci and Justin Gunnell, two researchers at Cornell University, gave students case studies involving real criminal defendants and asked them to come to a verdict and a punishment for each. The students gave unattractive defendants prison sentences that were, on average, 22 months longer than those they gave to attractive defendants. (source)
11 percent of surveyed couples say they would abort a fetus predisposed toward obesity. College students tell surveyors they’d rather have a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or a shoplifter than one who is obese. (source)
Of course, earning a little less and having a smaller chance of being elected aren’t the world’s gravest human rights violations. It’s not as if we still banish the ugly from the public square:
In the 19th century, many American cities banned public appearances by “unsightly” individuals. A Chicago ordinance was typical: “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting subject … shall not … expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense.” (source)
However, the evidence above suggests that beauty does play an important role in many different areas, making the impact of appearance based discrimination potentially large. Hence the obvious question: should ugly people be protected against discrimination? Should there be a law making it illegal to pay people more simply because of their looks? After all, there seems to be no difference between this form of discrimination and more traditional forms. All forms of discrimination impose a disadvantage on a group of people for no other reason than their group membership.
However, legal protections would require a public determination of beauty and ugliness. And they would require the ugly to step forward and claim damages or benefits. That’s stigmatizing, and open to discussion: there is, as stated, a common standard of beauty, but there can still be disagreement on specific cases, especially along the margins. Beauty is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, and if you’re labeled as ugly by some or even by the majority, there may still be others who think the world of you. Including yourself. De gustibus non est disputandum. The same isn’t true for gender, sexual orientation and race (with some caveats for the latter). When governments sanction a universal scale of attractiveness we’re going down a dangerous route because this can ossify opinions about beauty and lead to even more discrimination. And then there’s the issue of self-esteem: would people be willing to apply for official recognition of their ugliness, even if the money is good?