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If it’s springtime in Paris, it has to be if not sex then at least summer in the city – New York City. Luckily the American Sociological Association held its annual conference in Manhattan this August. The theme was ‘Interrogating Inquality’. Playing to this theme Ashley Mears of Boston University had organised a panel session on the sociology of appearance.

Along with my colleague Dennis Nickson, I’d been asked to present on the ‘dark side’ of aesthetic labour – ‘lookism’. Lookism is discrimination on the grounds of appearance. Or as Ayto bluntly states, ‘uglies are done down and beautiful people get all the breaks’. According to Tietje and Cresap, the term was first used in print by the Washington Post in the late 1970s. For us the issue is inequalities in access to employment based on prescribed and proscribed looks. I finished reading through my presentation notes as my plane touched down in Newark. As it taxied to the apron, I found myself wondering, Carry Bradshaw style, if the uglies are being put down, who or what decides who is good looking or at least has the right look?

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With battles won over sex and race discrimination in the past, and more recently over disability and sexual preference, it may be that lookism becomes the next frontier in the battle against employment discrimination. Studies on both sides of the Atlantic have revealed both a beauty premium and a beauty penalty. Workers perceived to be better looking are more likely to be hired, to turn in better workplace performances, receive better pay and have better career prospects. Conversely those workers perceived to be average or worse looking receive less pay, are regarded as poorer performers, have more stunted careers and are more likely to lose their jobs.

Over the past few months, British media types have been convulsed in a debate about lookism. It started when a columnist in the Daily Mail newspaper, Quentin Letts, commented derogatively on the looks of a 60 year old female government minister. She was, Letts admitted, good looking for her age but because of the glop that she slapped onto her face at night.

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