The Ugly Side of Lookism and What We Can Do About It

A girl with long hair looking into a mirror.
A girl with long hair looking into a mirror.

Just weeks into the New Year, and one thing is abundantly clear--we are obsessed with appearance! While many of us crave a healthier lifestyle come January, our resolutions are often driven by a desire to look different or, more specifically, better than last year.

Losing weight tops the list of resolutions Americans make each year, even as research consistently reveals that so-called ideal weights are not necessarily the healthiest. The New Year, New You push inspires us to use sunscreen, join the gym, drink cold-pressed juice, eat "clean." And while some of these choices might be good for us, it's often our desire to look better that inspires us to act.

This longing to be beautiful is driven by a belief that our lives would be better if we were more attractive. The idea that the quality of our lives depends on what we look like pervades glossy women's magazines, self-help discourse, and advertisements for medi-spa services. It is everywhere.

It's not surprising that we are fixated on looks. Our appearance can positively and negatively affect us. Beautiful individuals make more money, earn higher grades, and are convicted at lower rates. Of course, the flipside are the costs that come with being perceived as ugly.

The patterns of advantage and disadvantage associated with appearance amount to lookism. Lookism describes the interpersonal bias and structural disadvantages that accrue to those who are often labeled unattractive, ugly, different, or "disfigured." It amounts to yet another kind of inequality that permeates our society.

In a decade of researching and writing about faces and lookism, I have learned that lookism (like sexism, racism, transphobia, and ableism), and our role in perpetuating it, is largely taken for granted. We accept it, sometimes benefit from it, but rarely name it or seek to eradicate it.

Whether we're thinking about our desire to lose weight or our commitment to exercising more, it's worth asking how we subscribe to the idea that the quality of our lives depends on our appearance. Because the solution to lookism isn't working harder to better fit cultural ideals of attractiveness. Instead, we have to examine how we make appearance mean so much.

Over the last ten years I've volunteered at a camp for children with burn injuries, interviewed face transplant surgeons, studied makeover television, and navigated beauty culture myself, too. And I've thought about the small ways we make appearance matter and how we could change that. Here are some ideas:

1. People denigrate others' appearance constantly. At weddings, guests remark on the bride's weight. At work, colleagues remark on a new hire's attractiveness. We can challenge lookism in the same ways we confront racism, homophobia, sexism, or classism. Call out microaggressions or the subtle ways appearance is used to denigrate others. Refuse to collude in jokes and jabs about appearance.

2. The entire beauty industry sells products and services under the guise that improving our appearance is a sure fire solution for transforming our lives.
Notice when you are conflating changes in appearance with improvements in other spheres of your life. Remember that appearance is one small component that makes us who we are. We can undermine the power of beauty industries by buying fewer products and services.

3. We can also serve as consumer watchdogs by responding to advertisements and marketing that suggest that our human worth can be reduced to what we look like. Support companies that market products in ways that celebrate wide-ranging appearances.

4. Appearance varies and some of those differences make us uncomfortable. Own that discomfort. Then, do the work of unpacking stereotypes and unconscious bias. Owning discomfort is the essential first step to pushing through that discomfort. One upside of challenging lookism is a kinder and gentler world.

5. In popular culture, facial differences are often used as characterization devices to mark a villain or an outsider. Changing Faces' Facial Equality campaign poignantly depicts how stereotypic representations are used to elicit dislike, fear, and pity. Talk back to culture. Engage in conversations about the ways this plot device feeds stigma.

6. Support the efforts of organizations like Angel Faces, Changing Faces, Let's Face It, Facing Forward Inc., and About Face Canada. Consider making a financial donation to support education efforts aimed at challenging appearance-based stigma, or use their materials to create a discussion group with friends or some programming about appearance-based discrimination in your office, on your campus, or in your local community.

7. Think critically about how much of your identity and self-worth is bound up with what you look like. Stop complimenting others' appearance. Stop discussing the strategies you use to manage your appearance. If we want to challenge lookism, then we must stop affirming the overarching importance of appearance in our everyday conversations with others and with ourselves.

Why should we do these things?

For those whose appearance falls sharply from our expectations, the costs of lookism are staggering. But as the emphasis on New Year, New You reveals, we all lose when appearance matters so much. As our annual resolutions reveal, managing our appearance is a never-ending undertaking. We all fall short.

If what we're looking for when we declare our New Year's intentions is a better life, then one sure fire route to success is to re-think the little things we do that hurt us all.