BRIGHT IDEAS: Deborah Rhode’s The Beauty Bias
Oxford University Press has just published Professor Deborah L. Rhode’s newest book, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law. I got my copy from Amazon on Friday and enjoyed every moment reading it over the weekend. The book is illuminating and important: it explores the often unacknowledged, yet pervasive, discrimination against people, particularly women, who don’t conform to mainstream notions of beauty and appearance. Professor Deborah Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. She is the one of the country’s leading scholars in legal ethics and gender. Professor Rhode is incredibly prolific: she has written over 20 books and countless articles. She is the director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession and a columnist for the National Law Journal. Before joining the Stanford Law faculty, she was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Lucky for CoOp readers, I had a chance to interview Professor Rhode about The Beauty Bias. I reproduce our conversation below:
DC: What prompted you to write this book?
DR: It partly started with shoes. I have always viewed women’s footwear design as a haven for closet misogynists; so much of what they produce is so dysfunctional for its primary purpose—comfortable walking. Yet in many contexts, including my years as Chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, I was struck by how often some of the nation’s most prominent, powerful, and otherwise sensible women were hobbling about in what we described in high school as “killer shoes.” They were stranded in cab lines and late for meetings — held back both literally and figuratively — because of shoes. And inconvenience is the least of the problems. High heels are a major contributor to serious back and foot problems, and four-fifths of women eventually experience such difficulties. A growing percentage are even willing to undergo foot surgery to fit into their designer footwear. I was sufficiently irritated to write an op for the New York Times and it triggered more of a response than probably anything I’ve ever published.
That experience underscored a question I had long puzzled over. Of all the inequities that the contemporary women’s movement has targeted, why have those related to appearance shown among the least improvement? Half of American women report unhappiness with how they look, a figure greater than a quarter century ago. In a country where large percentages of the population can’t afford basic health care, cosmetic surgery is the fastest growing specialty. Our global investment in appearance is over 200 billion, and millions of individuals, particularly women, are paying a huge cost not just in money but in time, physical health, and psychological well-being. Discrimination based on appearance, especially weight, is among the most common forms of bias; it is much more frequent and equally arbitrary as many forms of discrimination that are now unlawful. But except in a few jurisdictions, bias based on appearance is perfectly legal.
DC: How does this fit into your broader scholarship?
DR: As a legal academic with a particular interest in gender equality, I wanted a better understanding of where our preoccupation with appearance comes from, what costs it imposes, and what could we do about it from a policy perspective. I’ve always been interested in the gap between our aspirations and achievements involving social justice in general and women’s rights in particular. Appearance raises those issues and provides a window on questions involving the law’s capacities and constraints in producing social change. Appearance discrimination has also attracted relatively little public or scholarly attention, and part of the problem is that so few individuals realize that we have a serious problem. This project offered the chance to provide the first comprehensive overview of the law in this area, and new research on the experience of the few jurisdictions that explicitly prohibit some form of appearance discrimination. And because I’m always interested in connecting research to practice, I tried to write in a way that will be interesting and accessible to a broad public and policy audience.
DC: Are you hopeful that we might combat this bias?
DR: I’m optimistic about reform but not naive about what stands in the way. The importance of attractiveness is deeply rooted, and the economic stakes in its pursuit are enormous. But the costs of our preoccupation with appearance are also considerable and could be much more fully appreciated. Many individuals realize that it hurts to be beautiful, but few realize how much and how many billions are squandered in worthless or unhealthful cosmetic and weight reduction efforts. And even fewer of us realize how much it hurts not to be beautiful, or to conform to culturally prescribed norms that are much more demanding for women than men, and that compound disadvantages based on race, class and ethnicity. Most Americans have bumped up against some aspect of the problem and might be energized to do something if they came to see this as not just an individual problem but a social injustice and cultural challenge.
The final chapter of the book offers a wide range of strategies — at both the individual and policy level — that would move us towards a more attainable, healthy, and inclusive standards of attractiveness and less arbitrary discrimination based on appearance. The chapter also identifies further protections that could be available from fraudulent or risky appearance related products and services, and further ways to support healthy lifestyles without demonizing those who fall short.
I surely don’t want to overstate the attention that I think can or should be devoted to the issue. On the reform agenda of women’s rights advocates, appearance does not deserve top billing. But in terms of public recognition of a problem, it remains a major challenge. The kind of attention people once gave to the state of their souls, they now give to the state of their bodies. And too often, the result is far from constructive. Beauty may be only skin deep, but the costs associated with its pursuit go much deeper, and demand closer attention and collective action. We will never eliminate all the injustices, but we can surely do better.