Ugly-ism

22 Nov

In his newly released book Beauty Pays, University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh argues, “Being good-looking is useful in so many ways” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/opinion/sunday/ugly-you-may-have-a-case.html).

That sounds about right.

In case you want specifics, Hamermesh elaborates:

“In addition to whatever personal pleasure it gives you, being attractive also helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse (and one who looks better, too!) and get better deals on mortgages. Each of these facts has been demonstrated over the past 20 years by many economists and other researchers. The effects are not small: one study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.”

The effects of attractiveness hold when you look at specific “attractive” features, for instance height:

  • Since 1896, the US has not elected a president who is below average height. (McKinley, at 5’7″, was derided as “a little boy.”)
  • A 2004 study found that controlling for sex, age and weight, people standing at 6’2″ could expect to make $166,000 more over a 30 yr career than their 5’5″ colleagues (Judge & Cable).

The studies are diverse but consistent: being tall (but not too tall–juries tend to like their prosecutors commanding, but not intimidating) enhances social esteem, authority and perceived (and sometimes actualized) competence. Similar studies and effects have been noted regarding height’s attractiveness complement: weight. In the US, slender people tend to be viewed more positively than heavy people, and they reap real and practical benefits as a result.

So Hamermesh is on to something that we’ve suspected anecdotally and now have considerable research to back up. Not content just to observe this widespread social discrimination, he asks, “why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?” (He notes that parts of California and the District of Columbia already prohibit discrimination on the basis of appearance.)

Hamermesh answers his own question by fleetingly noting the challenges of classifying the “looks-challenged” (although he also points out that there is demonstrated consistency when people are asked to assign individuals to “classes of beauty”). However, the real issue, he posits, is that “[w]ith increasingly tight limits on government resources, expanding rights to yet another protected group would reduce protection for groups that have commanded our legislative and other attention for over 50 years.”

Really? The “one legitimate concern” that would keep us from intervening in discriminatory, enduringly impactful behavior is limited government resources?

I’m so glad times were flush when we hashed out women’s suffrage. Tickled that we could afford the 13th and 14th Amendments. Thrilled that the gay marriage controversy started before the recession (a few years later and we would have had to wait for a full economic recovery to take on that expense!)

Hamermesh completely loses me at this point, and his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (http://www.hulu.com/watch/300226/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-ugly-people) does not help. By framing the question as a matter of “sharing a piece of the social justice pie” (as The Daily Show interprets Hamermesh’s position), Hamermesh invites a spirit of competition that reminds me of Rome’s gladiator games, with historically oppressed groups pitted against each other in a fight to the death while the masses watch from a safe distance, until finally one victor emerges to claim the spoils (which all too rarely include actual freedom).

I reject the notion that social justice is a zero-sum pie, wherein I lose some of my right to justice because you deserve justice, too. Social justice is only possible when our mutual rights to thrive are valued, when our diverse and sometimes conflicting interests are reconciled, and when a gain for any one or group of us has liberatory, transformative potential for us all. Women’s suffrage was good even for the men and women who opposed it, as much as they would have said otherwise at the time. That’s the thing about social justice: it’s not about what (I think) makes me happy right now, but rather what empowers me, you and all of us as a community to grow and be vibrant.

By that measure, I don’t think ranking -isms is helpful. I don’t think acknowledging injustice but claiming we don’t have the budget or time to deal with it is helpful. And I don’t think asking people if they mind moving their social justice item over just a tad to make space for someone else’s is helpful.

I do think we need to reframe social justice as an all or none–as in, we either strive for inclusive and unconditional justice, or we accept that justice for some is no justice at all. What that means is asking groups and individuals to be intentional about how their striving for social justice necessarily includes and helps others. Because as much as we can’t afford to add new expenses right now, we can’t afford selective justice, which comes at a really high cost to each of us.

* Thanks to EB for the Daily Show link.

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