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Lookism is discriminatory treatment toward people who are considered physically unattractive, mainly in the workplace but it is also practiced in dating and other social settings.[1] While not classified in the same way as racial, cultural, sexual discrimination, "lookism" is widespread and affects how people are perceived as well as affecting their opportunities in terms of romantic relationships, job opportunities, etc.[2]

Physical attractiveness is associated with good things; in contrast, physical unattractiveness is associated with negative things. Many people make 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 judgment 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.[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] There is some overlap between the terms fatphobia, teratophobia, cacophobia and lookism.[8][9]


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. Due to this, new problems arise that are tied to other social issues like racism and ageism (young over old). The idea of beauty is also linked directly to social class because people who have more free time and money have the ability to work on their appearance. Weight is also linked to social class because people who are overweight do not have the exercise equipment or the healthy food choices that wealthier people do. Judging people on the basis of attractiveness decreases a person's self-esteem leading to a negative self-image.[10]

Some writers have examined this phenomenon among gay men. According to the block quote on page 117 of a 2004 work by Todd Morrison,[11] author Michelangelo Signorile (in a 1997 overview of contemporary trends in the gay male community) described "body fascism" 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 the extreme – sometimes dubbed "looksism" – also deems an individual completely worthless as a person, based solely on his exterior. In this sense it is not unlike racism or sexism or homophobia itself. ... (p. 28)[12]

Empirical support[edit]

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".[13] 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."[14] When discrimination on the grounds of a person's appearance turns into fear or conveyed aversion, it is referred to as cacophobia.[8] Sometimes cacophobia may be internalized and thus directed inwards rather than towards others.[15]

Studies on newborns have found that human infants as young as 14 hours from birth prefer to look at attractive faces rather than unattractive faces.[16][17] The preference also extends to non-human animals such as cats.[18] These findings indicate that lookism is an innate product of how the human visual system functions.[19]

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.[20] Some research has suggested that the "beauty premium" for a job largely depends on whether or not attractiveness could potentially enhance productivity, such as those jobs which require substantial interpersonal interaction, while jobs that do not demand this see minimal or no beauty premium.[21]

Research indicates that more attractive individuals are at greater risk of being a victim of crime due to being involved in more social interaction, increasing their risk of exposure. However, greater physical attractiveness can also lead individuals to be at greater risk of sexual abuse, regardless of gender.[22]


In the article "Is Lookism Unjust", Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap discuss when discrimination based on looks can legitimately be described as unjust.[23] 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 and that judgments of aesthetics appear to be a biological adaptation (rather than culturally conditioned) to aid reproduction, survival and social interaction, allowing people to determine viable mates (level of attractiveness being indicative of health) and the status of others as "friend or enemy, threat or opportunity". The authors also argue that if physical attractiveness can improve a company's success, then awarding people for it is justifiable, as the trait is thus relevant to the job and discrimination only occurs when irrelevant traits are used. In addition, the authors question the practicality of both redressing any injustices based on lookism and of determining whether such injustices have in fact occurred. Thus the authors conclude that there can be no clear model of injustice in such discrimination, nor would legislation to address it be practicable – "We do not see how any policy interventions to redress beauty discrimination can be justified."[23]

Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest, argues that human preference for attractiveness is rooted in evolutionary instinct and that trying to prevent it from influencing people would be "telling them to stop enjoying food or sex or novelty or love" and thus argues that "being beautiful and being prized for it is not a social evil."[24]

Political lookism[edit]

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.[25] 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,[26] but some researchers have challenged this widespread idea and argued that Kennedy's appearance had little or no influence.[27]

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".[28] 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".[29] 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"[30] 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.[31]

Drawing examples from Madeleine 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.[32] 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 knee-high black-heeled boots during a visit to Wiesbaden Military Base in Germany.[33] Although the article was meant to give credit to Rice for "challeng[ing] expectations and assumptions",[34] some[who?] 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.[citation needed] 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,[35] with Palin suggesting that the focus on her appearance ignored her professional and policy accomplishments.[36]


United States[edit]

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.[37][38] 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.[39] Otherwise, there is no federal law protecting against discrimination based on physical appearance.


In the Antidiscriminatiewet (Anti Discrimination Law) of May 10th, 2007, there is a provision that says it is not allowed to act discriminatory towards people, based on their physical or genetical characteristics.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lookism, The Free Dictionary, retrieved September 30, 2015
  2. ^ Hosoda, M.; Stone-Romero, E. F.; Coats, G. (2003). "The effects of physical attractiveness on job-related outcomes: A meta-analysis of experimental studies". Personnel Psychology. 56: 431–462.
  3. ^ Eagly, Alice; Ashmore, Richard; Makhijani, Mona G.; Longo, Laura C. (1991). "What is beautiful is good, but". Psychological Bulletin. 110: 109–128. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.110.1.109.
  4. ^ Rhodes, Gillian; Simmons, Leigh; Peters, Marianne (2005). "Attractiveness and Sexual Behavior: Does Attractiveness Enhance Mating Success?". Evolution and Human Behavior. 26 (2): 186–201. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.014.
  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. ^ Bartleby.com — "Lookism Archived 2008-12-05 at the Wayback Machine". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
  8. ^ a b Scherer, Bee. "Buddhism and disability: toward a socially engaged Buddhist ‘theology’of bodily inclusiveness." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (JIABU) 9.1 (2017): 26–35.
  9. ^ Narozny, W. A. L. D. E. M. A. R., J. E. R. Z. Y. Kuczkowski, and B. O. G. U. S. L. A. W. Mikaszewski. "Measuring severity of tinnitus with a visual analog scale." Am Fam Physician 71.5 (2005): 855–856.
  10. ^ Grollman, Dr. Eric Anthony. "Prejudice And Attraction: Is Beauty Really In The Beholder's Eye?". Kinsey Confidential. Archived from the original on 15 September 2018. Retrieved 26 October 2015.
  11. ^ Morrison, Todd (2004). Eclectic Views on Gay Male Pornography: Pornucopia. p. 117. ISBN 9781317972297. Retrieved April 30, 2017.
  12. ^ Morrison, Todd Eclectic Views on Gay Male Pornography: Pornucopia, Volume 47, Psychology Press, ISBN 9781560232919
  13. ^ William Safire. "The Way We Live Now: 8-27-00: On Language; Lookism", New York Times Magazine, August 27, 2000.
  14. ^ Angela Stalcup. The Plainness Penalty: Lookism in Western Culture.
  15. ^ "Woman sues clinic after it refuses her cosmetic surgery – Taipei Times". www.taipeitimes.com.
  16. ^ New Scientist, Babies prefer to gaze upon beautiful faces
  17. ^ Slater, Alan; von Der Schulenburg, Charlotte; Brown, Elizabeth; Badenoch, Marion; Butterworth, George; Parsons, Sonia; Samuels, Curtis (1998). "Newborn infants prefer attractive faces". Infant Behavior and Development. 21 (2): 345–354. doi:10.1016/S0163-6383(98)90011-X.
  18. ^ Quinn et al., Preference for attractive faces in human infants extends beyond conspecifics
  19. ^ American Psychological Association, Pretty faces: Easy on the brain?
  20. ^ "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
  21. ^ Stinebrickner, Ralph, Todd Stinebrickner, and Paul Sullivan. "Beauty, job tasks, and wages: A new conclusion about employer taste-based discrimination." Review of Economics and Statistics 101, no. 4 (2019): 602-615.
  22. ^ Savolainen, Jukka; Brauer, Jonathan R.; Ellonen, Noora (2020-01-01). "Beauty is in the eye of the offender: Physical attractiveness and adolescent victimization". Journal of Criminal Justice. 66: 101652. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2019.101652. ISSN 0047-2352.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Etcoff, Nancy. Survival of the prettiest: The science of beauty. Anchor, 2011.
  25. ^ Jones, Johnathan (2012). "Can you be too ugly for politics?", The Guardian 10 January 2012; accessed 19 October 2013
  26. ^ "THE KENNEDY-NIXON PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES, 1960 – The Museum of Broadcast Communications". The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC). Retrieved 2010-10-08.
  27. ^ Vancil, David L.; Pendell, Sue D. (1987). "The myth of viewer‐listener disagreement in the first Kennedy‐Nixon debate". Central States Speech Journal. 38: 16–27. doi:10.1080/10510978709368226.
  28. ^ 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. doi:10.1017/s0260210599004751.
  29. ^ 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. doi:10.1017/s0260210599004751.
  30. ^ Shepherd, Laura J. (2010). "1". Sex or Gender? Bodies in World Politics and Why Gender Matters. New York: Routledge.
  31. ^ Enloe, Cynthia. "'Gender' is not enough: the need for a feminist consciousness". International Affairs: 97.
  32. ^ Albright, Madeleine. "On Being a Woman and a Diplomat". TED Talk. TEDwomen.
  33. ^ Givhan, Robin (February 25, 2005). "Condoleezza Rice's Commanding Clothes". The Washington Post.
  34. ^ Gavhin, Robin (February 25, 2005). "Condoleezza Rice's Commanding Clothes". The Washington Post.
  35. ^ 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
  36. ^ Orr, Jimmy (2009). In the 2016 presidential race, considerable mention was made of Donald Trump's choice of hairstyle, skintone, and dress sense. Sarah Palin Newsweek cover sexist? Palin says yes, accessed 19 October 2013
  37. ^ Brown, Patricia Leigh. "Viewing Ahab and Barbie Through the Lens of Disability." New York Times (August 20, 2000) as quoted by http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-29736932_ITM
  38. ^ "AML - support.gale". www.accessmylibrary.com.
  39. ^ Gomez, Evangeline (31 January 2012). "Should Businesses Worry About Appearance-Based Discrimination in the Workplace?". Retrieved 27 February 2013.
  40. ^ Https://www.ejustice.just.fgov.be/cgi_loi/change_lg.pl?language=nl&la=N&cn=2007051035&table_name=wet%7Caccesssdate=25 January 2020

Further reading[edit]

  • 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: Routledge, 2010.

External links[edit]