A review of Deborah Rhode's The Beauty Bias.

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June 7 2010 9:33 AM

Should It Be Legal To Fire the Unattractive?

A review of Deborah Rhode's The Beauty Bias.

Deborah Rhode's The Beauty Bias.

If you are anything like me, you left the theater after Sex and the City 2 last week and thought to yourself, "There ought to be a law." A law against 40-plus-year-old women starving, sawing, and Spanxing themselves into brittle 27-year-old bodies. A law against a looks-based culture in which the only way for 40-year-old actresses to be equitably compensated is to have them look and dress like their teenage daughters. You can't even look at Sarah Jessica Parker anymore without longing to sit on her chest and feed her croissants.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Meet Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor who proposes a legal regime in which discrimination on the basis of looks is as serious as discrimination based on gender or race. And no, she isn't kidding. In a provocative new book entitled The Beauty Bias, Rhode lays out the case for an America in which appearance discrimination is no longer permitted as a sort of inevitability of human nature. That means Hooters can't fire its servers for being too heavy—as allegedly happened last month to a waitress in Michigan who says she received nothing but excellent reviews but weighed 132 pounds. And the top management at Abercrombie & Fitch couldn't hold weekly meetings, as they allegedly did several years ago, at which photos of its sales associates were reviewed and purged for any sign of breakouts, weight gain, or unacceptable quantities of ethnicity.

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Rhode is at her most persuasive when arguing that in the United States, the penchant to discriminate against unattractive women (and also short men) is as pernicious and widespread as bias based on race, sex, age, ethnicity, religion, and disability. She provides overwhelming evidence of bias against the overweight, the unattractive, and the aging. And while some of these cases may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or race discrimination law, most are not. For the most part, we tolerate appearance-based discrimination as unfortunate but inevitable.

In a survey, college students said that they would rather have a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or shoplifter than one who is obese, reports Rhode. The less attractive you are in America, the more likely you are to receive a higher prison sentence, a lower damage award, a lower salary, and poor performance reviews. You are less likely to be married and more likely to be poor if you are not attractive. Given that, according to the American Obesity Association 127 million American adults are overweight, 60 million are clinically obese, and 9 million are severely obese, the scope of this problem is vast. Also, Miss Texas can gain only two pounds before they take away her crown.

Rhode's case against age discrimination is compounded by the existence of a virtually unregulated beauty and diet industry (they make bras for preschoolers!?) and soaring rates of elective cosmetic surgery. She would like to see more regulation of beauty creams and diet pills that make outrageous promises of eternal gorgeousness. Rhode reminds us how Hillary Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor were savaged by the media for their looks and says it's no surprise to learn that the GOP apparently paid Sarah Palin's make-up artist more than any member of her staff during her run for the vice-presidency.

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