October 7, 2021

Discrimination is a hot topic — race, gender, age, sexual orientation. But there’s one sort widely unrecognized: what columnist David Brooks calls “lookism.” Discrimination against unattractive people.

He cites studies about how they’re treated worse than the good looking. Shocking! And whereas many varied classes of people are now legally protected against discrimination, there’s none such for the unattractive. That fact itself is discriminatory. And there’s no National Association for the Advancement of Ugly People.

A subcategory is heightism. I’m a 5’4″ male. I’ve never fixated on my shortness; but do recall a recommendation letter from a law school professor that began, “Frank is a little bit of a guy, but . . . . ” I saw that and thought, WTF?! I have no proof shortness stunted my professional and political careers, but as exemplified by that letter, it surely affected people’s perceptions. Maybe a subtle reason why I eventually wound up as a coin dealer, where height is irrelevant.

Brooks, perhaps strangely, doesn’t even mention one key realm where lookism is indisputably huge: love.The less attractive have a harder time getting partners (duh). My own experience is again relevant. Many women simply do not see a man in a sexual way below a certain height.

Anyhow, Brooks explores the psychology underlying lookism. It starts with attractive people being simply more pleasant to look at and have around (all else equal). But further, he says, we project onto them all sorts of putative characteristics: trustworthy, competent, friendly, likable, intelligent. An aura of athleticism looms large (also lacking in my own case). We view fit people as healthier and even morally superior, while supposing slugs are responsible for their looks (especially when overweight) and are probably lower class.

Yet not only shouldn’t we assume attractive people are better people, the opposite is actually more likely. Precisely because they do become accustomed to better treatment, “spoiling” them. It can be corrupting. People sucking up to you all the time, throwing themselves at you sexually, does not build strong character.

Brooks says studies show more people feel discriminated against because of looks than race, and the earnings gap between attractive and unattractive people exceeds the racial earnings gap. He argues we should actively combat lookism: “the only solution is to shift the norms and practices.” Is he serious?

I think folks can be helped to overcome prejudices based on ethnicity, religion, gender, etc., using rational arguments. But bias regarding looks is much more deeply hard-wired by evolution. Programming us to choose mates based on perceived fitness to produce the most fit offspring. What we find attractive embodies those aboriginal outward indicia of reproductive fitness. Just as an example, that’s why most men are attracted to bosomy women. There’s no way to purge such preferences from human brains.

Meantime, popular media has always glamorized the good-looking, making the merely average feel substandard. Recent news highlights how Facebook and Instagram do this to young females especially, causing much mental trouble, even suicides. Even if “lookism” can’t be suppressed entirely, it should be dialed down a notch (or two).

But most fundamentally, life is unfair. While we should try to make it as fair as possible, a quest for perfect fairness is a fool’s errand (indeed, always proven disastrous throughout history). I keep recalling Kurt Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron, in an ultimate egalitarian society, where a “Handicapper General” gives talented people handicaps to hold them back. Harrison’s is being literally chained to a mass of junk. But in any society there will always be people doing better than others because they were born with certain advantages. Like intelligence — or good looks. That’s just luck, it isn’t “fair,” but there’s no way around it. Some people will always be luckier than others.

I feel I’ve had terrific luck, and don’t go around bemoaning my shortness. If I had the choice to go back and add a few inches, I would not. I might have gotten more sex. But who knows how my life would have turned out? It could hardly be better, and could be a whole lot worse.