cameron russell

Lookism is a term used to refer to the positive stereotypes, prejudice, and preferential treatment given to physically attractive people, or more generally to people whose appearance matches cultural preferences.

The pejorative term ‘body fascism’ is also used as a synonym and educator and activist Warren Farrell has proposed the term ‘genetic celebrity’ to describe adoration of the attractive.

Physical attractiveness is associated with good things, such as beautiful princesses; in contrast, physically unattractiveness is associated with negative things, such as wicked witches. Based on physical appearance, many people make automatic judgments of others that influence how they respond to those people. Research on the ‘What is beautiful is good’ stereotype shows that, overall, those who are physically attractive benefit from their good looks. Researchers found that physically attractive individuals are perceived more positively and that physical attractiveness has a strong influence on judgements of a person’s competence. In return, physically attractive people benefit from these stereotypical beliefs. Research shows that on average, physically attractive individuals have more friends, better social skills, and more active sex lives. However, attractiveness does not have any effect on the level of happiness experienced by the individual.

A 2001 study suggested that infants seem to have high agreement about which shapes are more attractive than others. This shows that judgements of attractiveness are not entirely influenced by culture. On average, smooth-skinned, youthful, symmetrical faces are seen as more attractive. Those with muscular body types are seen as more attractive, healthy, and adventuresome. Overweight individuals are often stereotypically categorized as unattractive. Although there has been little research on the topic, taller people seem to benefit more from their stature and are more likely to get dates, be hired, and be seen as competent and powerful. A study by Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable (2004) showed that an individual who is 6′ is predicted to earn almost $166,000 more across a 30 year career than an individual who is 5’4″.

The term ‘lookism’ was first coined within the fat acceptance movement (also known as the size acceptance or fat power movement). It was used in the ‘The Washington Post Magazine’ in 1978, which asserted that the term was coined by ‘fat people’ who created the word to refer to ‘discrimination based on looks.’ The word appears in several major English language dictionaries. Lookism has received scholarly attention both from a cultural studies and an economics perspective. In the former context, lookism relates to preconceived notions of beauty and cultural stereotyping based on appearance as well as gender roles and expectations. Important economic considerations include the question of income gaps based on looks, as well as increased or decreased productivity from workers considered beautiful or ugly by their co-workers.

Some writers have examined body fascism among gay men. Author Michelangelo Signorile described it as ‘the setting of a rigid set of standards of physical beauty that pressures everyone within a particular group to conform to them. Any person who doesn’t meet those very specific standards is deemed physically unattractive and sexually undesirable. In a culture in which the physical body is held in such high esteem and given such power, body fascism then not only deems those who don’t or can’t conform to be be sexually less desirable, but in extreme sometimes dubbed lookism also deems a person completely worthless as a person, based solely on his exterior. In this sense it is not unlike racism or sexism, or homophobia itself.’

According to Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, ‘we face a world where lookism is one of the most pervasive but denied prejudices.’ Referring to several studies, Angela Stalcup writes that ‘The evidence clearly indicates that not only is there a premium for prettiness in Western culture, there is also penalty for plainness.’ Research by psychologist Dan Ariely found that American women exhibit a marked preference for dating taller men, and that for shorter men to be judged attractive by women, they must earn substantially more money than taller men.

In the article ‘Is Lookism Unjust,’ educators Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap discuss when discrimination based on looks can legitimately be described as unjust. Tietje and Cresap quote evidence that suggests there exists ‘a 7–to–9 percent ‘penalty’ for being in the lowest 9 percent of looks among all workers, and a 5 percent ‘premium’ for being in the top 33 percent.’ While accepting that the evidence indicates that such discrimination does occur, the authors argue that it has been pervasive throughout history. Therefore there can be no clear model of injustice in such discrimination, nor would legislation to address it be practicable. The authors conclude: ‘We do not see how any policy interventions to redress beauty discrimination can be justified.’

Until the 1970s, lookism in the United States was sometimes codified into law. In many jurisdictions, so-called ‘ugly laws’ barred people from appearing in public if they had diseases or disfigurements that were considered unsightly. Today, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers extreme obesity to be a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a few cities protect against discrimination based on appearance.


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