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Beauty bias: The racism no one is talking about

Deccan Chronicle| Surekha S

Published on: July 18, 2020 | Updated on: July 18, 2020

From career and relationships to favours, the so-called "unattractive" suffer a silent, yet pervasive discrimination

Over the years, studies have shown how people not fitting in with the beauty standards of society are often at a disadvantage in different spheres of life. PTI Photo

Over the years, studies have shown how people not fitting in with the beauty standards of society are often at a disadvantage in different spheres of life. PTI Photo

If you watched the Deepika Padukone starrer Chhapaak, chances are you found yourself sympathising with acid attack victims, cringing at how society treats them.

But have you considered the larger problem — the inherent bias our society has against those thought not ‘good looking’? Think about the last time you were with a group and everyone ignored the one not considered good-looking.

Over the years, studies have shown how people not fitting in with the beauty standards of society are often at a disadvantage in different spheres of life — jobs, relationships and getting help — making life a little more difficult for many.

Ask Anna Franklin, who has been at the receiving of a colour bias almost all her life. "I faced discrimination since I was a kid because I’m dark. I was bullied in school and called a crow once. It really hurt. Comments like ‘turn on the light or you won’t be seen’ were common. Even my parents wanted my sister and me to use fairness creams to get lighter," she reminisces. "As I grew up, I heard comments like ‘you are dark yet you are beautiful.’ Why ‘yet’? I’m short, too, which invited more unkind remarks."

Attractive advantages

In his book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, Daniel S. Hamermesh, considered the father of pulchronomics (the study of the economics of physical attractiveness), wrote that attractive people are more likely to be employed, work more productively and profitably, receive more substantial pay, better promotions, obtain loan approvals, negotiate loans with better terms and have more attractive and highly educated spouses.

After years of study, Hamermesh concluded that attractive people have many advantages in their career compared to non-attractive people. "Taking studies done in 8 different countries, comparing the top 25% of male lookers to the bottom 10% of males, I estimate that the former have an advantage of about 15% more earnings adjusting for all other differences. For women, the advantage may be about 12%," says Hamermesh.

Closer home, Saandeep Kumar Das, Executive Vice President, Hyderabad region, Head Hunters India, believes that most client-facing roles favour looks while back-end jobs give more importance to knowledge.

"It’s so in hospitality, banking, finance industries etc., where people prefer those who’re not very dark or unattractive," he says, adding, however, that during an interview, one’s body language, how one conducts oneself and dressing appropriately for the role also help add to the impression created.

Kavitha Emmanuel, a motivational speaker and trainer who’s conducted many workshops against colourism and the beauty bias in India, believes the colour bias is deep-rooted here. She started ‘Women of Worth’, an organisation that strives for the empowerment of women about 12 years ago.

She then started ‘Dark is Beautiful’, an advocacy campaign against colourism, using workshops and events to help people regain their self-worth.

"Women with dark complexion find themselves often being rejected when it comes to dating and marriages," she says, which she adds affects teenagers and young adults’ self-worth. "Many teenagers go through depression. They avoid going out or attending events because they’ve constantly been told they’re ugly." Kavitha also conducts campaigns to help check one's own biases to understand how we’re all a part of this system.

Anna remembers how when in college, a boy once told her that he’d have dated her if she were not so dark. "I didn’t even like him, but he thought it was okay for him to walk up to me and say that," Anna recounts.

Incidentally, studies have also shown that those considered attractive are perceived to have more desirable qualities like loyalty and integrity.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology highlighted the ‘what is beautiful is good stereotype’ in society, finding that physically attractive persons are assumed to possess more socially desirable personalities than lesser attractive ones and are presumed to have happier and more successful lives.

Another 1973 study in the US by researchers Margaret Clifford and Elaine Walster demonstrated that the physical appearance of students affects the teachers’ judgment.

Understanding bias and making changes

Beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, but some beauty standards seem to be commonly accepted through the world — those with higher facial symmetry are considered more attractive. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, state a certain facial alignment for attractiveness — if the vertical distance between the midpoint of the eyes to the midpoint of the mouth is 36% of the total facial length (from hairline to chin), and if the horizontal distance between the two pupils is 46% of the total facial width (from inside edge of one ear to another), the proportions make for an attractive face.

But Hamermesh believes the bias towards attractive people is the remnants of primitive days when beauty signified health and was therefore ‘attractive’ for reproductive purposes. "Today, it’s just a leftover; but it’ll take a while for habits to die," he adds.

Many agree, media too play a role as we’re exposed to from a young age.  Anna articulates it perfectly when she points out how in most books and TV shows, princesses or the protagonists are fair, tall and pretty while the villain is often dark and ugly.

"Labourers and blue-collar workers are portrayed darkly compared to white-collar workers. Even in school plays or dances, good looking kids get important roles, while the darker or stouter kids get relegated to the background," points out Anna.

So how does one rid of so deeply ingrained a bias?

"Beauty bias isn’t often talked of as a problem that needs addressing, so sensitisation through workshops and campaigns can help people discuss this topic more openly and become aware of the biases they carry," offers Kavitha.

Alternative modelling agencies such as The Ugly Models Agency (TUMA) in London specialising in character modelling could also help.

TUMA supplies not-traditionally beautiful models for many high profile clients including Calvin Klein, Vogue, Elle and Cosmopolitan. More such campaigns may help people question the traditional ideas of beauty, too.

Kavitha believes another important step is to ensure our biases and prejudices don’t pass down to the next generation. "We need to tell our kids they’re more than a sum of their looks and that they need to care for their health and body," she says.

While Hamermesh thinks it’ll take a while for beauty bias campaigns against the beauty bias to trickle into our instincts, Anna sees the solution in teaching kids to look beyond looks and to fight discriminations. "The next few generations may change things for the better," she signs off.

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