Body Fascism: The Ugly Truth About Appearance in the Workplace

Can an employee be fired from a job for not adhering to dress codes, not meeting makeup requirements, sporting tattoos or piercings, or for other personal qualities or forms of self-expression? Apparently, yes.

In 2007, Brenna Lewis, a hotel front desk clerk working at the Heartland Inn Ankeny location, claimed that she was fired from her job because she failed to conform to sex stereotypes and called into question policy changes, according to a USA Today article.

Specifically, the company's director of operations, Barbara Cullinan, didn't feel that Lewis was a "good fit" for the position because Lewis projected "an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look" in contrast to the "Midwestern girl look." Cullinan had stated that women working the front desk should be "pretty."

Nowhere in the company's personnel manual did it say that appearance was a requirement for the position that Lewis held, only that guest service representatives must create a "warm, inviting atmosphere." Here, Lewis received positive reviews from her manager and customers.

Cullinan instructed Lewis's supervisor to return Lewis to the overnight shift, where Lewis had worked as a night auditor. Around the same time, Heartland required that all applicants for the front desk position undergo a second interview, even though Lewis had occupied that position for more than a month.

Lewis challenged whether the second interview was lawful on the grounds that other employees weren't required to submit to a second interview. She further believed that she was being singled out because of her appearance.

Lewis was fired three days later.

Lewis filed suit against Heartland, alleging that Heartland required female employees to conform to gender stereotypes to work the day shift. The court held that Lewis had established "a prima facie case of sex discrimination and retaliation and that Heartland's reasons for termination were pretext," according to an article entitled "Dress Codes and Appearance Policies: What Not to Wear at Work."

Increasingly, appearance-based discrimination claims are triggering a barrage of employment lawsuits and putting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the test for determining levels of employer liability.

Let's take a closer look at appearance-based discrimination, or lookism.

What Is Lookism?

Lookism, also referred to as "body fascism, is a fairly new form of -ism. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, lookism is a "construction of a standard for beauty and attractiveness, and judgments made about people on the basis of how well or poorly they meet the standard."

Prior to the 1970s, lookism was woven into the so-called "ugly laws." These laws banned people with diseases or disfigurements from appearing in public. Today, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the law forbids discrimination in any aspect of employment and safeguards equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment.

In the Mind of the Beholder

In an earlier blog post entitled "Sitting Pretty: Good-Looking People Make More, But It's Not All Roses," we looked at the economics of good looks, where employers reward those considered to be more attractive, while penalizing those considered less attractive. Scholars Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap quantified the penalty for plainness as follows: "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."

According to a Psychology Today article entitled "Lookism at Work," preventing lookism can be difficult. For instance, factors such as age and gender are "objectively verifiable," whereas attractiveness is mostly subjective. In appearance-based discrimination cases, then, the plaintiff often faces an uphill battle in establishing his or her discrimination claim on the basis of appearance. Proving that someone didn't get a promotion or a pay increase because he or she wasn't attractive enough may be difficult, as other factors may come into play in making such managerial decisions.

According to an article appearing on Labour Blawg, more obvious forms of prejudice, such as a very overweight person being denied employment, may be easier to prove, as well as other discrimination that falls under the ADA or a state's fair employment practices laws.

Lookism Is Unfair, But Not Illegal in Most Places

Some economists believe that lookism is as widespread as racism and sexism. So, it's surprising that there's no federal law that prohibits lookism. Only a few jurisdictions make appearance-based discrimination illegal, including the District of Columbia, Santa Cruz, California, Michigan, and San Francisco. Each statute or ordinance includes specific protected categories.

Stanford Law School professor and author Deborah L. Rhode vigorously argues that appearance discrimination should be banned. She asserts that such discrimination stifles a person's right to equal opportunity in employment, "reinforces the subordination of groups where unappealing characteristics, including obesity," and chokes freedom of expression, reported The Economist.

Reverse Lookism

Being too attractive can get a person fired from a job. A 33-year-old New York woman sued her employer, Citibank, claiming that the banking giant fired her for being "too hot," according to Newsweek.

In a similar case, a 33-year-old Iowa woman, a dental assistant who had worked with her employer for 10 years, got fired by her boss because he found her "irresistibly attractive--and a threat to his marriage," according to an ABC News report.

In a Newsweek survey, 200 corporate hiring managers were given a list of jobs and 110 photos of male and female candidates, and asked to rank the candidates according to suitability for each job. Overwhelmingly, men were selected for upper-echelon jobs, such director of finance and manager of research and development, whereas women were consigned to lower-paying female jobs like receptionist. The article concluded that "beauty can be a beast at times."

In the workplace, we should be judged according to our merits--talent, intelligence, personality, and other innate and acquired characteristics--and not purely or primarily on our looks. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place."