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Title: Lookism  
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Subject: Discrimination, Ageism, Ableism, Attributional ambiguity, Linguistic discrimination
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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[1] and Warren Farrell has proposed the term genetic celebrity to describe adoration of the attractive.[2]

Physical attractiveness is associated with good things, such as princesses; in contrast, physical unattractiveness is associated with negative things, such as witches. Many people make automatic judgments of others based on their physical appearance 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: physically attractive individuals are perceived more positively and physical attractiveness has a strong influence on judgement of a person’s competence.[3] 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.[4]


Though the term "lookism" is of recent coinage, cultures and traditions worldwide have often warned against placing undue value on physical appearance:

To judge by appearances is to get entangled in the Veil of Maya [in Buddhist thought] [...] From ancient times until relatively recently, there was widespread worry about lookism, because the appearance of others may deceive, especially in romance, or it may be personally or politically imprudent to judge or act on appearances. Judging by appearances was prohibited by monotheistic religions (“no graven images”) and criticized in ancient and medieval philosophies. Skeptics, Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans and Scholastics elaborated various reasons to avoid or subordinate the role of appearances.[5]

However, the term "Lookism" was first coined in the 1970s within the fat acceptance movement. It was used in 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."[6] The word appears in several major English language dictionaries.[7]

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 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."[8]

Empirical support

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."[9] 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."[10]

Research by 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.[11]

In the article "Is Lookism Unjust", Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap discuss when discrimination based on looks can legitimately be described as unjust.[12] 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."[12]

Political lookism

Lookism has been an issue in politics for centuries, with a long tradition in the United Kingdom of "mercilessly exaggerat[ing]" the physical flaws of politicians in newspaper cartoons.[13] In the 1960 Presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, it was often believed that Kennedy's more conventionally handsome appearance contributed to his winning more approval in their first televised debate,[14] but some researchers have challenged this widespread idea and argued that Kennedy's appearance had little or no influence.[15]

There are several variables that might contribute to the objectification of masculinity and femininity in politics. Scholar Charlotte Hooper argued that “gender intersects with other social divisions such as class, race and sexuality to produce complex hierarchies of (gendered) identities[.]”[16] Hooper argues that institutional practices, such as military combat in war, have greatly defined what it means to be a man. Furthermore, the symbolic dimension, which includes sports, media, current affairs, etc. has “disseminate[d] a wealth of popular iconography which links Western masculinities to the wider world beyond the borders of the state.”[17] This is where the ideology of lookism is firmly entrenched according to Hooper. Similarly, Laura Shepherd suggests that men are required to fit into the “matrix of intelligibility”[18] by acting a certain way, dressing a certain way, and have a mentality that is devoid of emotion or anything effeminate; if they are successful in becoming the ultimate “man’s man” then they are virtually untouchable. However, others have suggested that there is only an explicit interest in the analysis of masculinity within this political sphere, it will be impossible to develop a reliable analysis of femininity within this same sphere.[19]

Some argue lookism affects women in an even more detrimental way than men. Drawing examples from Madeline Albright’s TED talk in 2010, “On Being a Woman and Diplomat”, Albright expressed her frustrations with how her male colleagues and media commentators would pick apart her appearance. Being the first female Secretary of State for the United States, Albright was in the spotlight on the domestic and international stage; everything from her age, weight, hairstyle and choice of dress were scrutinized; yet ironically, the policy positions she believed to be her most important accomplishments (initiation of the G7, attempts to promote gender equality, etc.) were hardly taken into account.[20] The fact that Albright’s general appearance didn't fit into the narrow category of “attractive” made it even more difficult for her to navigate the space between being a woman and a diplomat. Albright is not the only woman in a position of power, or otherwise, that has been discriminated against because of her appearance. An article published in The Washington Post in 2005 labeled Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, as a “dominatrix” when she stepped out in thigh-high black-heeled boots during a visit to Wiesbaden Military Base in Germany.[21] Although the article was meant to give credit to Rice for “challeng[ing] expectations and assumptions”,[22] some argue that the article gave her a hyper-sexualized image, and further removed the audience from focusing on the purpose of her visit to the military place. Similarly, media commentators have often chosen to report on Hillary Clinton’s “man suits” and Julia Gillard’s short hairstyle, instead of focusing on these women’s professional accomplishments. Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, was the subject of much media attention due to her conventionally attractive appearance,[23] with Palin suggesting that the focus on her appearance ignored her professional and policy accomplishments.[24]


United States

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.[25][26] 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.[27] Otherwise, there is no federal law protecting against discrimination based on physical appearance.

See also


  1. ^ O'Brien, Jodi (2008). Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, Volume 1. SAGE, ISBN 9781412909167
  2. ^ Farrell, Warren (2005). Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth About the Pay Gap -- And What Women Can Do About It. AMACOM, ISBN 0814472109 p. 193
  3. ^ Eagly, Alice; Ashmore, Richard; Makhijani, Mona G.; Longo, Laura C. (1991). "What is beautiful is good, but.". Psychological Bulletin 110: 109–128.  
  4. ^ Rhodes, Gillian last2 = Simmons; Simmons, Leigh; Peters, Marianne (2005). "Attractiveness and Sexual Behavior: Does Attractiveness Enhance Mating Success?". Evolution and Human Behavior 26 (2): 186–201.  
  5. ^ Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap (2005). "Is Lookism Unjust? The History and Ethics of Aesthetics and Public Policy Implications." Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 19 No. 2, Spring 2005, pp. 31–50
  6. ^ John Ayto, 20th Century Words, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-19-860230-9
  7. ^ — "Lookism". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
  8. ^ Morrison, Todd Eclectic Views on Gay Male Pornography: Pornucopia, Volume 47, Psychology Press, ISBN 9781560232919
  9. ^ William Safire. "The Way We Live Now: 8-27-00: On Language; Lookism", New York Times Magazine, August 27, 2000.
  10. ^ Angela Stalcup. .The Plainness Penalty: Lookism in Western Culture
  11. ^ "Ariely found that a 5'4" man would need to make $229,000 more than a 6' man to have equal appeal; a 5'6" man would need $183,000 more; a 5'10" man would need $32,000 more." Lori Gottlieb (2010). Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. Penguin, ISBN 9781101185209 p. 239
  12. ^ a b Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap. (2005). "Is Lookism Unjust?: The Ethics of Aesthetics and Public Policy Implications". Journal of Libertarian Studies 19 (2): 31-50.
  13. ^ Jones, Johnathan (2012). "Can you be too ugly for politics?", The Guardian 10 January 2012; accessed 19 October 2013
  14. ^ "THE KENNEDY-NIXON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES, 1960 – The Museum of Broadcast Communications". The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC). Retrieved 2010-10-08. 
  15. ^ Vancil, David L.; Pendell, Sue D. (1987). "The myth of viewer‐listener disagreement in the first Kennedy‐Nixon debate". Central States Speech Journal (The Central States Speech Journal) 38: 16.  
  16. ^ Hooper, Charlotte (1999). "Masculinities, IR and the 'gender variable': a cost-benefit analysis for (sympathetic) gender sceptics". Review of International Studies 25 (3): 475–480.  
  17. ^ Hooper, Charlotte (1999). "Masculinities, IR and the 'gender variable': a cost-benefit analysis for (sympathetic) gender sceptics". Review of International Studies 25 (3): 475–580.  
  18. ^ Shepherd, Laura J. (2010). "1". Sex or Gender? Bodies in World Politics and Why Gender Matters. New York: Routledge. 
  19. ^ Enloe, Cynthia. "‘Gender’ is not enough: the need for a feminist consciousness". International Affairs: 97. 
  20. ^ Albright, Madeleine. "On Being a Woman and a Diplomat". TED Talk. TEDwomen. 
  21. ^ Givhan, Robin (February 25, 2005). "Condoleezza Rice's Commanding Clothes". The Washington Post. 
  22. ^ Gavhin, Robin (February 25, 2005). "Condoleezza Rice's Commanding Clothes". The Washington Post. 
  23. ^ Frick, Ali (2008). CNBC host praises Palin for ‘putting a skirt on’: ‘I want her laying next to me in bed.’, accessed 19 October 2013
  24. ^ Orr, Jimmy (2009). Sarah Palin Newsweek cover sexist? Palin says yes, accessed 19 October 2013
  25. ^ Brown, Patricia Leigh. "Viewing Ahab and Barbie Through the Lens of Disability." New York Times (August 20, 2000) as quoted by
  26. ^ Begging the question: disability, mendicancy, speech and the law.(Viewpoint essay), 01-JAN-07, Schweik, Susan, Ohio State University Press
  27. ^ Gomez, Evangeline (31 January 2012). "Should Businesses Worry About Appearance-Based Discrimination in the Workplace?". Retrieved 27 February 2013. 

Further reading

  • Albright, Madeleine. "On being a woman and a diplomat." TEDWomen Recorded December 2010. TED Talk February 2011. Web.
  • Enloe, Cynthia. "‘Gender’ is not enough: the need for a feminist consciousness." International Affairs.: 97.
  • Givhan, Robin. "Condoleezza Rice's Commanding Clothes." The Washington Post, sec. Fashion and Beauty, February 25, 2005. (accessed September 23, 2013).
  • Hooper, Charlotte. "Masculinities, IR and the ‘gender variable’: a cost-benefit analysis for (sympathetic) gender sceptics." Review of International Studies. (1999): 475-480.
  • Shepherd, Laura J. Sex or Gender? Bodies in World Politics and Why Gender Matters. New York: Routlege, 2010.

External links

  • – German site on lookism, with English translations
  • – "The Ugly Truth About Beauty" - article on lookism
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