The Ugly Myth

Daniel S. Hamermesh, the author of a new book, Beauty Pays, wrote an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times, Ugly? You May Have a Case, in which he makes an argument for legal protections, including affirmative action, for ugly people. His presumptions are really quite troubling.

He argues that people who are considered unattractive generally earn less money, gain fewer perks and encounter a host of other social and legal hurdles that the aesthetically endowed do not have to deal with. Hamermesh offers some statistics:

one study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.

His data and many of our own observations indicate that discrimination on the basis of physical appearance is indisputable, but his logic about why this is so seems deeply flawed. While individuals will have their personal preferences, Hamermesh acknowledges, he goes on to say that “when it comes to differentiating classes of attractiveness, we all view beauty similarly: someone whom you consider good-looking will be viewed similarly by most others; someone you consider ugly will be viewed as ugly by most others. In one study, more than half of a group of people were assessed identically by each of two observers using a five-point scale; and very few assessments differed by more than one point.”

The problem with this line of argument is that Hamermesh never stops to inquire why it is that in contemporary Western society most people share the same preferences. He extrapolates from the fact that most people agree on what constitutes ugly, to conclude there must be some objectively ugly people. But if that were the case, then why have standards of beauty shifted so dramatically over the ages and across cultures?

Hasn’t this man ever traipsed through an art museum, gazed at the puffy-faced, mousy-haired Mona Lisa—da Vinci’s 16th century covergirl—and thought, no way she’s eating crackers in my bed.

From shifting notions of desirable body size and shape to drastically different prized facial structures and hues, human societies have adored and shunned a mind-boggling range of appearances. Beauty, in other words, is socially constructed.

To argue that the aesthetic preferences we hold are shaped by the wider organization of our society doesn’t mean that there might not be some biological drive at work as well. There is always a dialectical relationship between nature and nurture, though popularized notions of science tend to downplay or disregard this fact. Humans do tend throughout history to seek out mates who appear to be healthy, but one era’s “she’s gonna make it through winter just fine,” is another’s candidate for America’s Biggest Loser.

Given the range of economic, social and cultural factors that shape our preferences, it seems impossible to ignore the material influences on our aesthetic judgments. Race is probably the most obvious.

The recently retracted Psychology Today article, “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” is a perfect example of this. Its author, Satoshi Kanazawa, takes the fact that Black women are perceived as less attractive according to his studies to mean that they are in fact less attractive. The fact that white wealthy people have controlled the cultural norms for hundreds of years never seems to have entered this man’s calculations. (And for the record, plenty of us consider Black-skinned, kinky-haired gals to be rather appealing [hi hon!].)

Hamermesh’s attempt to wrap up this pseudo-science with a liberal nod to leveling the playing field through legal measures ignores the crux of the discrimination against people who don’t conform to contemporary notions of beauty. Classifying people by appearance in order to determine financial compensation for the “ugly” avoids the central problem.

We live under a hideously malformed system so vain about its own presumptions of value and human worth that it putrefies everything it touches. What an objectively ugly social order capitalism sets in motion.

10 responses to “The Ugly Myth

  1. While I agree that we need to attack and root out the oppressive ways that society dictates what person is ‘beauty’ and ‘ugly’, I feel that your argument against affirmative action like protections for ‘ugly’ people is the equivalent of saying ‘because race is socially constructed, we should seek to eliminate racial inequality by working to eliminate ethnic differences.’

    I agree that changing notions of beauty and ugly are in play, but why not afford extra protections for people who don’t fit into the description and appearance of our culture’s warped sense of anorexic / steroid addicted models?

    • Matt-
      Obviously I agree that nobody should be discriminated against due to appearance, but other than leaving it at that level of subjective abstraction, how could such a law be written and enforced? Unlike Blacks, women, LGBT people, etc. who are self-defined and identified, this is not generally the case with so-called ugly people. It seems that any society that would attempt to classify people by looks to provide them with affirmative action would do more damage to the people the legislation would purport to help than good. No?-Sherry

  2. I don’t see anything in your article to back up your contention that standards of beauty change, except citing those often repeated examples of paintings. I’ve actually looked for this myself in paintings and my belief is that the majority of paintings put forth a standard of beauty that hasn’t changed. You can call that my opinion, but unless you cite something more valid than what appears to me to be your sense of it, what Hamermesch says has to stand, and it would be better to attack the problem from that basis.

    If beauty is socially constructed, there should be something you can cite that says so. I think this argument took place in the art world. The Modernists or Post Modernists, I don’t which but one of them said standards of beauty were being determined by those who bought paintings and supported artists. I don’t know if “determined”, which sounds like Marx’s materialism, is the same as a social construct, but it sounds similar to me.

    Anyway, I say this in respectful disagreement and the hope that if there is any validity in what I say it will help you sharpen your skills. I’m actually a subscriber and a fan.

    Frank Conway

  3. I also don’t see any scientific rational that overall “standards of beauty” change completely from historical era to historical era. Your example of the Mona Lisa is inherently flawed given that many art historians believe that it is in fact a genderbending self-portrait of da Vinci.
    What we do know from both art and science is that while standards of bodily beauty do change from culture to culture ( the obese is beautiful Polynesian standard is but one example), standards of facial beauty hold fairly true no matter what society. Scientific research has revealed that symetry is the most important factor when individuals are asked to determine beauty. It seems that there’s an unconscious symetric standard that all humans use no matter what historical era or culture they are placed in. That’s why a beauty portrayed on an Indian sculpture from 100 CE or any other example from any other time or place is found by a majority even now to be “beautiful”.
    When we consider other objective factors such as healthy looking hair, teeth and skin, we also find that these standards change little from culture to culture (subjective body modifications aside).
    My contention is that there is a biological basis of beauty that holds true no matter how much a culture (or lack thereof) distorts less important subjective factors such as weight.

    • Alas, I have a day job that calls me away from important things like debating politics, so apologies for the delayed and truncated response here.

      First, I welcome these arguments and ideas, one of the joys blogging, IMO. Second, to be clear, my disagreement with Hamermesh is not that he is attempting to right a genuine injustice, what socialist would have a beef with that? It’s that he advances a set of ideas that do not take into account the myriad ways that everything from globalization to advances in medicine (and its lack of availability to the world’s poor) to the mass production of food and modern urbanization’s technological shifts (more sedentary lives) have radically altered our height, longevity, weight, physiques, health, ideological norms and with them aesthetic preferences.

      Take for example the argument above that no matter all of these historical and cultural shifts, one standard prevails: facial symmetry. OK, but there are at least hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people whose facial features are in proportion and yet their weight, height, health and age (all shaped by class as well as biology) affect both the appearance of one’s face and how others perceive the face. A 350-pound George Clooney, I suspect, would be considered far less dreamy to contemporary Americans because weight, like cracked or unwashed teeth, radically alters a person’s face as well.

      Even the rise of the women’s movement and the establishment of Title IX in the early 1970s has played a role in reshaping women’s appearances and broadened Western society’s concepts of female beauty. Women with androgynous faces and bodies were once considered quite homely; today gender-bending for both men and women is splashed across magazine covers as one aesthetic ideal. This isn’t just about muscles or buns of steel, women having less body fat and accentuating facial characteristics and body characteristics that have historically been considered masculine features are now considered (in some cultures) within the range of the beautiful.

      In sum, I believe that a historical materialist approach to questions of aesthetics must lead us to an understanding of beauty that is fluid and not universal.

  4. I feel that you have somewhat missed the point of the original argument and gone on a bit of an irrelevant tangent. While your assertions about the subjective nature of beauty are true (and surely the author wouldnt disagree) the conclusion which he was getting at was to take steps to discourage discrimination on the basis of looks, however “socially constructed” the basis for that kind of discrimination may be. You dont need to have a clear understanding of why some people are considered “ugly” and others “beautiful” to advocate equal treatment, after all surely the main concern here is that it is completely irrational to have a society where some people are paid more for supposedly looking better considering capitalist society supposedly advocates the advancement of the talented and the hard working (yes I know it doesnt actually happen that way). After all to follow your logic to its natural conclusion one would argue that we couldn’t really expect to have anti-discriminatory laws on the basis of race because race is also equally socially constructed and our idea of what is a racial inferior has changed through the ages. One doesnt really need to fully understand the history of race relations (although it would help) to oppose discrimination on the bases of race, they can just have a humanistic instinctive aversion to that kind of discrimination, the same can apply here.

  5. I just saw that this had already been addressed above, in answer to Sherry’s question of how such a law could be written and enforced I say, well it would be a good starting point to for example make companies need to “prove” that their hiring and firing people based on real performance, enforcement is a whole other can of worms, I dont know how you would go around enforcing anything like this, we all know that technically we arent allowed to discriminate based on race but how is that ever enforced? I am not a policy maker but I would imagine people with that sort of knowledge would have some ideas.

  6. As for such legislation doing more damage than good I disagree. Firstly I think there is nothing more damaging to the ego than not being given a job that you know you are capable of doing. And while studies would need to confirm this, my guess is that most people would know if they were being discriminated against because of their looks. However ofcourse I dont think any legislation would be worded as an “anti ugly discrimination” bill. That would be silly. You would simply have laws which would prohibit companies from hiring people based on anything that is not a demonstrable skill/knowledge. This includes race, gender, sexuality and looks.

  7. Excellent. Thank you!

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