Here’s the funny thing about appearance discrimination in the American workplace: in many instances, it’s explicit, and in a majority of those cases, entirely legal.(1) Businesses that deal directly with customers, from a Hooters restaurant to fashion boutique, stock their employee ranks with beautiful people and defend it as an integral part of their brand.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 decrees that no one shall be denied a job opportunity or promotion based on such appearance related factors as race and age, the occurrences of appearance discrimination are built into our society and part of the accepted fabric.(2) For example, a 1985 study found that better looking job interview candidates who came to the appointment in a better style of clothing experienced a more favorable outcome from the interview process.(3)
Appearance discrimination lawsuits are some of the most contentious in the overall discrimination realm, because the lines are often much more blurred than those of an alleged instance of religious discrimination. A number of New York City cocktail waitresses banded together and took their employer to the Supreme Court, alleging that they were fired because they were deemed too short or not skinny enough.(4) They went on to insist that male workers at the same establishment were not held to the same physical appearance standard.
The Beauty Bias
In 2010, Stanford professor Deborah Rhodes examined this whole question in her book The Beauty Bias. Specifically, the culture wherein a Hooters waitress can be fired in Michigan for tipping the scales at 132 pounds.(5)
Rhodes shares overwhelming evidence of discrimination in the workplace against overweight, unattractive, and older employees. Although she pines for a United States where this kind of thing no longer happens, she acknowledges that our natural predispositions and the difficulty of legislating against beauty discrimination make it a fact of professional life.
(1) National Review Online – “Appearance Discrimination: The New Racism?”, June 29, 2010, Retrieved April 19, 2011 from http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/243355/appearance-discrimination-br-new-racism-robert-verbruggen
(2) U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, Retrieved April 19, 2011 from http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm
(3) Endicott College – The Eye of the Beholder: Appearance Discrimination in the Workplace, Retrieved April 19, 2011 from http://www.nczonline.net/downloads/AppearanceDiscriminationInTheWorkplace.pdf
(4) Epstein Becker Green – “Appearance Discrimination: What’s the Tall and Short of It”, Retrieved April 19, 2011 from http://www.ebglaw.com/showarticle.aspx?Show=14164
(5) Slate – “Should It Be Legal to Fire the Unattractive?”, June 7, 2010, Retrieved April 19, 2011 from http://www.slate.com/id/2255922/