For every beautiful person, there is a bulk of ugly folk. But amidst a corporate culture with a heavy emphasis on attractiveness, where should the unsightly seek jobs? And do recruiters have the right to discriminate against the less than gorgeous?
This summer I waited tables at the "trendiest" restaurant on Long Island — an upscale Italian bistro with an obnoxious, designer clientele. On my third day, an "average" looking waitress spontaneously was fired. When she stormed off, the wait staff held a gossip session, noting her admirable work ethic — we concluded that she was terminated because the greasy-haired, middle-aged owner found her unattractive.
At a stint as a waterfront cocktail waitress, a manager threatened to fire a slightly overweight girl, declaring her clothing "too revealing." The supervisor ignored the other waitresses' scantly clad attire, ranging from crop stretch T-shirts and risqué shorts to cleavage-baring corsets. This year, the establishment attempted to create a more equal work environment by implementing a dress code; notwithstanding the new policy, a heavy-set waitress will never be hired to carry martinis.
Appearance discrimination, unlike more publicized forms of discrimination, is challenging to document. By law, companies are required to keep the applications of candidates on file; oftentimes these forms contain optional questions about race, sex, and country of origin and can serve as evidence in discrimination lawsuits. But because lookism — the discrimination or prejudice against people based on their appearance — is variable and determined by the interviewer's perspective, tracking an instance of wrongdoing is a close to impossible feat.
As the old cliché states, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and the only consistent factor in determining beauty is sexual attractiveness. Assuming a strikingly good-looking candidate meets the general criteria, he/she will outshine a heavy-set and unattractive candidate.
Discrimination laws ban racism, sexism and ageism, but no federal law bans prejudice based on appearance. In an interview, candidates can be eliminated solely based on their looks sans measurable evidence.
A string of studies show that the overweight and unattractive fare worse in obtaining jobs. The research of two academic economists, Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle, reveal that pretty people earn more money. People perceived as "good-looking" earned about 10 percent more than those perceived as "homely." Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health found that fat women had "household incomes nearly $7,000 a year below average." Another recent study cited in London's "Financial Times" states that "the average American male chief executive is three inches taller than his plebeian counterpart."
In August, John Stossel hosted an ABC News special entitled "Like it or Not, Looks do Matter." The show argued America is anything but a meritocracy, citing a study that links beauty and addiction. A team of doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology used MRI technology to monitor the activity in men's brains when shown pictures of beautiful women. The researchers concluded that "the same part of the brain lights up as when a hungry person sees food, or a gambler eyes cash, or a drug addict sees a fix." While such evidence explains why employers discriminate against revolting individuals, it fails to explain a solution to the problem — how can we avoid lookism?
Like the overweight and unattractive, the vertically challenged and vertically gifted face prejudice, but on a less severe level. As kids, the too tall are forced to duck on the school bus; but later in life, the vertically gifted are perceived to be more competent, intelligent and possess better leadership qualities, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.
For safety reasons, airlines are the most discriminatory. Commercial carriers have minimum and maximum height requirements — they claim that short people (under 5-ft.-2) will have difficulty reaching overhead compartments and tall people will find long journeys in small galleys too confining. Once hired, flight attendants must maintain a proportionate height to weight ratio and stay physically fit. Unlike lookism, a form of unjust discrimination, these policies regulating height, weight, and physical ability are necessary prerequisites for satisfactory job performance.
In hiring and retaining employees, companies should not discriminate based on appearance. Despite research linking higher salaries with attractiveness and height, no conclusive study indicates the better looking are superior employees. Sure, handsome and pretty individuals are more sexual attractive, and thus may have an increased ability to flirt as a means of sealing a business deal, but beauty cannot be distinctly linked to quality or value of an employee.
If a job requires a certain physical attribute — such as being able to carry 50 pounds — then employers have the right to discriminate. But employers need to implement fair hiring practices based on social norms not model-like physiques.
Rachel Alkon ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in English/creative writing.