“I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.”
~Derek Zoolander, Zoolander
Humans like attractive people. Those blessed with the leading man looks of Brad Pitt or the curves of Beyonce can expect to make, on average, 10% to 15% more money over the course of their life than their more homely friends. Without being consciously aware that they are doing it, people consistently assume that good-looking people are friendly, successful, and trustworthy. They also assume that unattractive people are unfriendly, unsuccessful, and dishonest. It pays to be good looking.
This insight is not lost on Madison Avenue or Hollywood. This is why every beer commercial features an attractive woman and Catherine Zeta-Jones appeared in T Mobile ads. This is why companies hire beautiful women to stand in their tradeshow booths and why Abercrombie & Fitch clothing stores badger attractive customers into applying for sales positions. Consumers associate the perceived positive characteristics of attractive people with their products and companies.
Abercrombie & Fitch might be able to sell more clothes by having good-looking sales associates, but is that legal? Surely, there must be some controls to ensure that unattractive people are not excluded from large swaths of the labor market. So what protections exist for those of us without smooth skin and thin waists?
The surprising answer is none. America has no law preventing companies from using attractiveness as a hiring criteria, regardless of whether the job is exotic dancer, salesman, or software engineer. It’s pretty much okay from a legal standpoint to discriminate based on looks in America.
Is that a problem?
The Science of Beauty
Beauty is often considered subjective and “in the eye of the beholder.”
To some extent this is true. People argue over the attractiveness of various celebrities precisely because differences of opinion exist. Tastes also differ across times and cultures. Victorian England admired pale skin. During the Colonial Era, men showed off their calves like men show off their pecs and biceps today. And skinniness has not always been considered the ideal.
However, academic work on beauty finds that much of what we find attractive is consistent over time and across cultures. In general, people find symmetry and averageness of features attractive in faces. When images of perfectly symmetrical faces are created in Photoshop, people like them better. The same is true of photos created by merging many faces to get a composite. Scientists speculate that we prefer symmetry and average features because they (at least at some point) indicated healthy genes or other evolutionary advantages.
More evidence of a universal, objective basis for beauty comes from studies of babies presented with pictures of different faces. The pictures the babies gazed at the longest were consistently the ones rated as most attractive by panels of adults.
The Halo Effect
In the early 20th century, psychologist Edward Thorndike noticed that psychologists’ evaluations of very different traits in the same individual seemed suspiciously consistent. He suspected that a bias was to blame.
To test his finding, he asked military officers to rate their subordinates on characteristics such as neatness, physique, leadership skills, intellect, and loyalty. He again found that the results were too consistent. When officers rated a soldier especially high for one quality, they tended to rate him high for other unrelated traits where he did not necessarily excel. Soldiers rated especially poor in one area also received poor marks across the board. The officers opinion of their soldiers for one characteristic dominated their overall impression of them.
Thorndike called this the “halo effect.” Researchers have found it at work in many different ways, including physical attractiveness. Psychologist Robert Cialdini writes that “We automatically assign to good-looking individuals such favorable traits as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence.”
Attractive people benefit from the halo effect in two major ways in business, which are described by Cialdini in his bestselling book Influence.
The first is that people tend to “comply with those we like.” This is why magazine offers from neighborhood children are so irresistible and “Tupperware parties” (where mothers host parties to sell Tupperware to their friends) so successful. It’s also why Joe Girard, one of the most successful car salesmen of all time, sent all of his former customers holiday cards with the phrase “I like you” every year. Likeable people have an easier time selling products, and attractive people are eminently likeable due to the halo effect.
The second is that people tend to associate people with the products they sell and companies they represent. Cialdini points out that weathermen are blamed (by otherwise rational people) for storms and that messengers during the Persian Empire were either killed or treated as heroes depending on the nature of the news they brought. (“Don’t kill the messenger.”)
Ad agencies take advantage of this association principle all the time. Celebrity endorsements and imagery from popular events like the Olympics are used in commercials to link products or companies with their positive traits. The same is true of using attractive people in ads and showrooms, and it works even when people are perfectly aware of companies’ intent. Cialdini writes:
“In one study, men who saw a new-car ad that included a seductive young woman model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better designed than did men who viewed the same ad without the model. Yet when asked later, the men refused to believe that the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgments.”
In combination, these two principles and the halo effect give attractive people a huge advantage in any job that involves interaction with customers, business partners, or the general public. Good looking public relations representatives are more likely to be trusted by the public and imbue their companies a positive image. Handsome salesmen will be more able to close deals. Sources will be more likely to trust beautiful journalists and tell them sensitive stories.
People generally recognize and tolerate the practice of hiring attractive people as actors and models. But the same principles that allow Angelina Jolie to do a better job selling makeup than the average girl next door are also at work in a huge number of professions.
A Quick Asterisk
While the halo effect has been robustly demonstrated to help attractive people in many personal and professional settings, there are important exceptions.
A 2010 study, for example, looked at how attractiveness benefitted men and women in different jobs. Attractive men had an advantage over their plain peers across the board. But for jobs considered “masculine,” such as mechanical engineer, construction supervisor, and even director of finance, women actually paid a penalty for being attractive. One of the researchers notes:
"In these professions being attractive was highly detrimental to women. In every other kind of job, attractive women were preferred. This wasn’t the case with men which shows that there is still a double standard when it comes to gender."
This suggest that women may not benefit from attractiveness as much as men, or may even suffer reverse discrimination for it depending on the type of job.
The Best Looking Sales Staff in the Land
Although it is a clothing store, Abercrombie & Fitch is not strictly famous for its clothes. The company is also well known for its brand being tied to attractive people and pop culture. In their stores, pop music blares, perfume hangs in the air, and attractive sales staff use catchphrases like “Hey! What’s up?” Pictures on the wall feature their models’ six packs and bare backs more than the brand’s actual clothing.
Abercrombie & Fitch unapologetically hires only the most attractive people to work in their stores. Recruiters seek out attractive people in their stores, on the street, and at fraternities and sororities. The importance of their codified “Look Policy” is so important to hiring that managers reportedly throw applications from unattractive job seekers into the trash as soon as they leave the store.
Their focus on hiring attractive staff has worked. For its customers, A&F seems to have successfully associated the positive characteristics of its attractive employees with the brand and its clothing. Bought for $47 million in 1988 as an ailing sports focused clothing and goods company, its rebranding as a preppy and apparel store for teenagers resulted in strong growth. Abercrombie boasted $1.47 billion in revenue in 2012.
In 2004, 14 individuals launched a class action lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch. They charged that the company’s Look Policy of favoring a “natural, classic American style” was discriminatory. Their lawyers argued that a certain look was not central to the essence of A&F’s business. It helped market and sell clothing, but was unnecessary to the actual job of answering questions about polo shirts. A&F, rebuked, settled for $50 million and agreed to change their Look Policy.
But A&F did not get in trouble for hiring only hotties - they were charged with racism. Their accusers noted that A&F’s all-american look translated to “virtually all white.” The prosecution described how A&F sought out a sales staff that was mostly white and preppy, and relegated minority employees to positions in the back room.
Abercrombie & Fitch did not change their Look Policy to stop excluding unattractive people, it changed it to include good looking black, Asian, Indian, and Hispanic employees. The company still throws away resumes from people of average looks, and is proud of its good-looking sales staff.
No Law At All
There is no federal law against appearance-based discrimination or “lookism.” Companies in the US can freely use attractiveness as a basis for employment decisions in all but several cities that have passed local legislation against it. This is true regardless of whether attractiveness is central to the occupation (a stripper or actor), a branding or sales strategy (Abercrombie & Fitch’s sales staff), or completely irrelevant (personal assistant or software engineer).
Legal cases challenging companies’ use of physical appearance in hiring, promotion, or placement decisions have, as in the Abercrombie & Fitch example, linked the use of physical appearance to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, or disability.
Three laws exist that could be used to challenge lookism in company policy: the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
1) The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects older Americans from assumptions about their inability to perform their job. It has not been used in a case over attractiveness, but commentators in the legal field note that in cases such as the reassignment of an anchorwoman due to her appearance, the prosecution could have a claim under this act if they proved that she was moved to a less visible role due to her old appearance.
2) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” The A&F case rested on this law’s prevention of racial discrimination. In the seventies, Southwest Airlines attempted to differentiate itself as the “love” airline. It hired only attractive female stewardesses and ticket clerks who dressed in hot pants and halter tops and called their check-in counters “quickie machines.” But in 1981, a man denied a job with Southwest successfully sued the company for sexual discrimination. Southwest began hiring male employees.
3) Although the Americans With Disabilities Act wasn’t originally intended to protect people without perfect, tanned bodies, its definition of a disability leaves room for interpretation:
“An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.”
This act has been applied to physical characteristics, mostly (but rarely) in cases dealing with obesity (and, in one case, a toothless individual whose dentures were painful). In one obesity case, the judge invoked the logic of the halo effect, noting the disabling nature of obesity in employment in “a society that all too often confuses ‘slim’ with ‘beautiful’ or ‘good.’”
These acts do prevent one major appearance-based employment practice: hiring only attractive women for certain jobs. Since this would exclude men and place obligations (in terms of dressing seductively) on female but not male employees, it is banned by Title VII.
And the law is quite strict. Companies must prove that their employment practices constitute a “bona fide occupational qualification” that is necessary for the essence of the business. A strip club can claim that seductive women are the essence of the business. Southwest Airlines can not: the judge ruled that the company’s purpose was not “forthrightly to titillate and entice male customers.” Even Hooters, the restaurant chain whose entire premise is for hot, scantily clad women to serve men buffalo wings, fell victim to this law. It has kept the “Hooter Girls,” mainly by settling lawsuits out of court, but has been compelled to open more staff positions to men and women that do not require good looks.
Appearance-based hiring policies are open to legal challenge if they can be linked to one of the above three laws. But as long as a company is open to hiring attractive people of every gender, race, creed, and age, it is free to hire and promote staff the same way fraternity boys play hot or not. Further, since “lookism” is not explicitly banned, legal concerns and norms are much less likely to impact employers actions in practice.
In Defense of Abercrombie & Fitch
Many people rebel at the idea of Abercrombie & Fitch choosing to hire only good looking young people. Others, however, find “discrimination” on the basis of looks not only natural but good. Harvard economist Robert Barro, for example, finds good looks a legitimate aspect of productive economic activity:
“I believe the only meaningful measure of productivity is the amount a worker adds to customer satisfaction and to the happiness of co-workers. A worker’s physical appearance, to the extent that it is valued by customers and co-workers, is as legitimate a job qualification as intelligence, dexterity, job experience, and personality.”
Barro compares looks to intelligence. Both are valued to varying degrees in different positions and professions. Both are also doled out unequally. So just as we should not prevent intelligence from being considered a legitimate hiring criteria, neither should the law prevent beauty from being considered.
No one objects to actors and actresses being hired on the basis of their looks; they rebel at it being applied to jobs in sales or the press. But Barro notes that the market can better determine where beauty is a permissible criteria than the law can:
“The difference between glamour fields and others in terms of the role of physical appearance is merely a matter of degree. If the government stays out, the market will generate a premium for beauty based on the values that customers and co-workers place on physical appearance in various fields. Probably the market will allocate more beauty to movies, television, and modeling than to assembly-line production and economic research. I have no idea how much beauty the unfettered market would allocate to flight-attendant jobs or CEO positions. But whatever the outcomes, are the judgments of government preferable to those of the marketplace?”
According to this line of thinking, economic incentives will make sure that beauty is not considered in professions where it is irrelevant. After all, companies generally want to hire the best possible candidate. And in situations where looks are relevant to the job, companies should be free to consider it, and we can expect them to prioritize attractiveness depending on its importance to the job. This is analogous to how employers consider how much to prioritize intelligence over other traits such as honesty and teamwork depending on the role.
The Case For Lookism as Discrimination
Other legal thinkers believe that lookism is a form of discrimination. Just as protections over race or gender seek a society that is merit-based where people are not limited due to physical appearance, they believe that new laws should be put in place or the Disabilities Act extended to cover appearance-based discrimination.
Holders of this view engage in healthy debate with their fellows over whether such a law could be feasibly implemented. Common doubts include that the subjective nature of beauty would result in inconsistent application and the difficulty of identifying the unattractive population in need of protection. They also fear that it would “open the floodgates” to spurious lawsuits or doubt that unattractive people have been discriminated against historically the way that minorities and women have - a justification for legal intervention.
Barro and his ilk believe that lawyers should stay out of the beauty game. They think that the government should not legislate away the productive aspects of attractiveness that inform business strategies. However, some proponents of legal protection for appearance-based legislation make another claim. Just as Title VII and the Age and Disability Acts protect people from irrational biases about their worth as employees based on their race, gender, and age, they believe that unattractive people face the same irrational biases.
What’s Behind a Million Dollar Smile
So far, this article has considered how attractiveness gives people an advantage in certain jobs. And it is to this perspective that Barro gives a compelling response. However, beautiful people also benefit from their looks, professionally and personally, in ways that have nothing to do with better work performance. It could be considered as irrational, discriminatory, and in need of legal protection as the case of a woman being passed up for promotion because her employer doesn’t believe that a woman can be a leader.
Regardless of whether you believe that it is discrimination, your looks have an incredible impact on your life. It goes far beyond people being more likely to hold the door for a pretty girl, and, unlike the case of an actress’s stunning looks propelling her to stardom, it often operates subconsciously.
Good looking people can expect to make more money during their life. Due to the halo effect, people assume from their good looks that they are also intelligent and competent, which bolsters their careers. One often cited study found a 10% to 15% “beauty premium” in people’s wages.
The effects of lookism can be seen viscerally in politics. In the first-ever televised presidential debate, viewers who watched on television believed that the good-looking John F. Kennedy won while those who listened on the radio believed that plain looking (and at the time, sick) Richard Nixon won the debate. Similarly, a study of Canadian federal politics found that attractive candidates received 2.5 times as many votes as unattractive candidates, but voters did not realize that candidates’ handsomeness impacted their decision.
This is true as well in the supposedly egalitarian world of the courtroom. Researchers have tracked the development of court cases to find that attractive (and guilty) defendants receive lighter sentences. Another study found that in an experiment where participants judged how much money to award the victim of a negligence case, they awarded more or less money depending on the attractiveness of the two parties. When the victim of the negligence was the more attractive of the two, the jurors awarded him $10,051. When the defendant was more attractive, the victim only received $5,623.
In a test performed by ABC News, elementary school kids matched pictures of men of differing heights to a series of words. They consistently matched the tallest man to words like strong, handsome, and smart, and the shortest to words like sad, scared, and weak or even “yucky” and “has no friends.” Maybe the kids just learned that unattractive people are bad from the fact that Disney villains are ugly while the heroes are beautiful, but even babies stare far longer at pictures of attractive people than an average looking individual.
Attractive people begin accruing benefits from their looks and climbing the success ladder at an early age. Studies of schoolchildren find that teachers view misbehavior by a good-looking child as less naughty and that they assume attractive children to be more intelligent than their less-attractive peers. One study notes that this can “become a self-fulfilling prophecy: teachers expect better looking kids to outperform in school and devote more attention to children who are perceived to have greater potential.”
Most importantly, the wage gap and other benefits that attractive people enjoy in the labor market seem to be only partially explained by their increased productivity in industries like film and sales. A study done by a Harvard and Wesleyan professor, for example, had participants perform a task in which beauty was of no help. They then had other participants act as bosses and set their wages. Some bosses did so based off a resume and prior performance at the task, while others also had varying levels of knowledge of the participants’ attractiveness via a photo or interview.
The professors did find a wage gap between the attractive and unattractive participants of roughly 12% to 17%, mirroring the real wage gap in the labor market. However, they also found that the increased confidence of attractive workers only explained 15% to 20% of the beauty premium. The lions share of the wage gap was explained by how “employers (wrongly) expect good-looking workers to perform better than their less attractive counterparts.”
In short, economists like Barro can point to the ways in which hiring attractive employees makes good business sense, but that may just be a story we tell ourselves to feel okay about the disadvantages unattractive people face. As these examples show, the stereotypes that cause us to view more attractive people as better overall begin at an early age, benefit attractive people outside of fields where attractiveness offers a productivity advantage, and operates subconsciously.
A Skin Deep World
Attractive people enjoy enormous advantages in life. People are positively biased towards them. Due to a halo effect people assume that they are as good in every way as their fine features and toned abs. This gives them an advantage in any business or career where public-interaction plays a role, whether in advertising and sales, or as press secretaries and CEOs.
For this reason, companies like Abercrombie & Fitch hire only attractive applicants to staff their stores. And they do so without breaking any law. Legal challenges can only be mounted when appearance-based employment practices can be linked to discrimination on the basis of a protected category like race or gender.
Beauty offers an edge in many occupations. There is no reason why thousands of companies should not adopt a policy of prioritizing attractive hires. Most probably already do so to some extent, just without the forthrightness or conscious intent of Abercrombie & Fitch.
The favorable bias toward attractive people also endows them with benefits in situations that seem entirely inappropriate. They receive lighter sentences from juries and better wages in positions where their attractiveness has little to no impact on their productivity. Even as schoolchildren they are doted upon more by teachers, which impacts their career trajectories. And all this bias frequently operates without people being aware of it.
We’re told not to judge a book by its cover. But we do. All the time. And everyone’s life is affected by it.