Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Biased toward beauty


I wonder how many of us will be telling our children the plain, cold truth about life: if you are good looking, your life will be easier.

Instead of telling them that they are fine human beings the way they are; that they will find love and happiness with the right frame of mind and tenacity of spirit, the more honest thing to do - according to the statistics - would be to appraise their attractiveness and then prepare them for the kind of life their looks might afford.

Perhaps a mother isn't the best person to do this, as they tend to think even their scrawny, ruddy-faced issue is a show-stopper. Perhaps it's a task best left to a tactless uncle or brutally honest godmother.

But forewarned about what to expect from life is forearmed, as they say.

As Deborah Rhode outlines in a provocative new book storming America, The Beauty Bias, scores of research have shown that less attractive people are assumed to be less intelligent, capable and trustworthy.

Obesity in women is particularly damning for the individual according to a range of surveys of college students, children, and most hauntingly, employers.

Because while being unattractive is devastating enough when it comes to personal relationships, it is also disastrous to your employment prospects.

Rhode's figures show 43 per cent of overweight working women in the US feel stigmatised by their employers. They also earn less than normal-weight colleagues with the same qualifications, and are far more likely to be living in poverty.

Rhode argues in The Beauty Bias that a law found in a smattering of US states against workplace discrimination on the basis of looks should be extended nationwide.

That means that where suitably qualified people apply for jobs, and where it can be shown that hiring decisions were simply made on the basis of looks, a lawsuit can be filed - as it can be, conversely, in the recent case of the "too sexy" female banker, because of her looks and the way she was treated at work.

While no one is claiming that laws can change real, ingrained bigotry and intolerance, as commentators have pointed out, when you discourage discrimination, tolerance becomes a habit.

Meanwhile, what do we tell our children - specifically our girls, who - without question - pay a price for not being attractive? (Apparently short men also face ingrained discrimination).

We may make ourselves nauseous at the padded bras for 12-year-olds and plastic surgery for teenagers, and we try to discourage our children from being hung up about the way they look, but is that a realistic stance to take?

And, as Dahlia Lithwick points out in this Slate article reviewing The Beauty Bias, while we pillory the women of Sex and the City 2, for example, for their pained and strained attempts to look ever younger, should we not applaud them for doing everything they can to try and stave off the (also well documented) discrimination against older women?

It's easy to run off trite platitudes about how we should be happy with the way we are - Lord knows I heard enough of them growing up as a fat, frizzy haired teenager by my well-meaning parents. The truth was a lot harder, and far more hurtful.

The question is, now, how to improve on that approach - and whether legislation is one way of doing that.

On the web:

The beauty bias at work and what should be done about it

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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