Looks Discrimination: Can You Sue?

ThinkstockThinkstockIf you're willing to admit you're unattractive, you just might have a case.

Tired of pretty people getting a free ride? An economics professor says you might be able to sue.

In his book, "Beauty Pays," to be published this month, author Daniel S. Hamermesh, Ph.D., claims that the discrimination unattractive folks endure is not unlike that of a racial or religious nature.

In fact, he says, unattractiveness can literally cost you. In one study of American workers whose looks were graded by casual observers, those who ranked in the bottom one-seventh earned between 10 to 15 percent less than the workers who made the top one-third. That's a lifetime difference of about $230,000.

Other studies in the past couple of decades show that additional earnings aren't the only ancillary benefit that attractive people enjoy. Getting a better mortgage rate and finding a more financially stable partner have also been proven as more common occurrences among the good-looking.

"In the workplace, we are unconsciously drawn to people who are more attractive, because we assume they have their act together and will be more successful," says Beverly Hill psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, M.D.

But the idea of suing based on looks discrimination begs the question: How can you legally determine if someone is unattractive or not?

Hamermesh says it's not about objectively defining beauty, but rather, bringing a case to court just like someone who is disabled and feels discriminated against-and who is currently protected under the law.

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"It's good-faith effort," explains Hamermesh. "Such a law would be enforced, basically as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is today, through civil suits brought typically by groups of workers who feel their employer has engaged in a consistent pattern of discrimination."

As it turns outs, the idea is not so far-fetched. Legal protection against looks discrimination already does exist in some places in the country, like in several California jurisdictions and the District of Columbia, where bias based on what one looks like when hiring or housing is forbidden by law.

However, Florida Assistant State Attorney Abbe Rifkin-who has prosecuted hate crimes-says that while she personally finds bigotry in any form repugnant, it's all but legally unenforceable when it comes down to a question of looks.

"The problem is that it would be exponentially harder to prove than the more obvious discrimination against race and age, which is in and of itself difficult to prove unless there is glaring and uncontroverted evidence that true discrimination is afoot," says Rifkin.

Another scintillating point argued by Hamermesh is that while women often bear the brunt of looks bias in the mating arena, men are more affected by looks discrimination in the professional world, since their gender still comprises the majority of the working population.

"Most men will work, regardless of their looks. Women still have some choice about whether to work for pay," says Hamermesh. "If a woman is bad-looking and she knows she will be penalized in the workplace, she will be less likely to work."

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Hamermesh backs up the bold assertion with study statistics he published in the American Economic Review in 1994 with co-author Jeff Biddle, Ph.D.

In the study, women ranked as the most unattractive seventh of the female population were five percentage points less likely to work than average-looking women. Meanwhile, women who ranked in the top third of attractiveness were five percentage points more likely to work than the average.

Before you think this "choice" is a good thing, consider that women choosing not to work based on their looks shows just how deeply our appearance-driven culture impacts women.

Yet most women in the U.S. today don't actually have the choice to not work, and the ones that do are the most economically privileged, says Feministe executive editor Jill Filipovic. Plus, the blogger argues, looks discrimination takes on unique meaning for women.

"Beauty discrimination against women has been enshrined into law in a way it hasn't been with men," says Filipovic. "Women can be fired for not wearing makeup, not being thin enough, or not wearing revealing enough clothing."

Furthermore, physical attractiveness is often tied to perceptions of power with men, with aging signals like gray hair even seen as a positive attribute, whereas beauty associated with women tends to be much more associated with youth, which requires more upkeep, money and time to attempt to maintain.

And being especially attractive doesn't always work in a woman's favor in the workplace, says Filipovic.

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"If a woman is perceived as being too attractive or too sexy, there's the assumption that she slept her way to the top, she got to where she is because of her looks, or that she's a distraction," says Filipovic. "So while I agree that looks discrimination is a problem for men and women, I'm not convinced that it's worse for men."

Hamermesh says his intent is to stir public conversation (we'd say he's done a good job of that) and to consider how discrimination factors into our lives. And while he portends that legal cases could successfully be brought in the future, he actually doesn't encourage it.

"If we are to expand protection to a new group, protection for those currently aided by anti-discrimination laws will diminish," says the professor. "Since I care personally more about some of those protections-like racial discrimination in particular-I would be against this kind of legislation."

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- Grace Gold

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