Wednesday, September 22, 2010

fair enough?


Video - UbyKotex unamiguously beautiful woman commercial.

StanfordAlumni | Being buff and beautiful is nice, but attractiveness doesn't confer merit. And if we're prone to think it does, how should we deal with discrimination based on looks? Professor Deborah L. Rhode's odyssey into the unseemly world of beauty bias began a decade ago with too-tight shoes. She was in London for a conference. The Tube was closed because of a bomb scare. Traffic was jammed for the Queen Mother's birthday. Rhode and her colleagues had to get across town on foot, except, she recalls, "I was with a group of very high-powered women who were hobbled by their footwear."

The irony of their high heels' sacrifice of function for form was not lost on Rhode, who sent an op-ed to the New York Times wryly calling the women's shoe industry "the last acceptable haven for misogynists." Rhode was surprised that the Times took it—"after years of turning down my earnest op-ed pieces on far more important issues!"—but even more surprised by what happened next. Women commiserated. Footwear companies mailed catalogues. Podiatrists sent research on shoe-related maladies. "I don't think anything I've ever written has gotten more of an outpouring of immediate response," says Rhode, who has written 20 books.

A few years later, after learning that women were having toe surgery to fit into what she dubs "killer shoes," Rhode decided to do a little more research into the pains people take to keep up appearances. "And then of course I got hooked," she says. "The more that I read about the beauty industry and saw what the women's movement was up against, just in terms of the $200 billion grooming-products industry stacked up to make us feel anxious about our appearance, I thought this was an issue that deserved some attention."

In her new book, The Beauty Bias (Oxford University Press), Rhode laments not just crimes against feet, but also decries a much larger system that penalizes the plain, the overweight, the short, the frumpy and anyone else who doesn't fit within certain parameters of attractiveness. That, she says, is a serious problem: "Prejudice based on appearance is the last bastion of socially and legally acceptable bigotry."

Although the book's focus is largely on legal matters, it treads on turf that researchers at Stanford and elsewhere are exploring about the provenance and nature of appearance biases, those that reward or disadvantage people for their physical traits. Appearance bias is powerful, Rhode argues, and has real consequences in the workplace, schools, the justice system and other arenas we suppose to be meritocracies. But where does it come from, why does it persist, and is there anything we can do about it? Fist tap Arnach.