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Rhode: We can legislate against beauty bias

“I can’t walk in these shoes, which is a problem, because I can’t sit down in this skirt,” said the woman in the cartoon Deborah Rhode projected on the wall. Trapped within society’s expectations at the cost of her own potential, this cartoon character helped illustrate Rhode’s overarching message on Monday afternoon when she spoke about her new book, “The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law.”

Rhode, director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, former president of the Association of American Law Schools and author of 20 books, drew on her professional and personal experience to discuss what she views as the area of least improvement in contemporary women’s lives.

“‘It hurts to be beautiful’ is how my mother always explained girdles and high heels and a host of other burdens that have grown over time, but I’ve also learned how much it hurts not to be beautiful,” said Rhode, alluding to the organizing theme of her book.

“The impact is much more insidious than a lot of us suppose,” she added.

Rhode said just as outcries against race and weight discrimination have increased public consciousness about these issues, greater attention ought to be directed toward beauty biases. She said more states need to pioneer legislation to prosecute appearance discrimination in the workplace.

The crowd in the Robert Crown Law Library, mostly women, chomped on cookies and bag lunches as they listened to Rhode elaborate on the many ways that appearance shapes a life. Scientific studies have shown that attractive teachers receive better course evaluations, better-looking lawyers are more likely to be hired, promoted and paid higher salaries and less attractive defendants receive harsher sentences from juries in court cases, Rhode said.

“Beauty is only skin deep, but that’s plenty deep enough to confer a really quite unsettling array of advantages,” she said.

Any drugstore magazine rack can broadcast the high standards men and women face to reach the elite ranks of the conventionally beautiful, she said. But these struggles are not to be written off as the sighs of the five-pounds overweight or the straggly-haired. People in greatest need of jobs are often the ones who can’t afford makeup or manicures and do not have access to healthy food or gym equipment.

“Low-income individuals are likely to live in nutritional and recreational deserts,” Rhode said.

“There ought to be a lot of ways to be attractive in this culture, and [it] shouldn’t depend on being white and young and underweight,” she added.

Some listeners remained skeptical that the playing field could ever be leveled. Appearance discrimination can be subtle and hard to accuse, and Americans hold mixed opinions on the benefits of fighting it by law. One student attendee on Monday brought up the problem that humans have evolved to value certain physical traits above others for fitness reasons, and questioned whether or not the law could overcome potential evolutionary biases.

“I’m a realist,” Rhode responded. “You can only do so much with legal strategies, and only so much with consumer boycotts and spending strategies. [The] law is a very limited tool.”

Rather than trying to completely eliminate physical bias, Rhode hopes that anti-bias laws will help raise public awareness about the problem — even if only the very worst cases have enough evidence to be taken to court.

Those who believe legislation would be ineffective, she said, should look to the successful methods through which some types of discrimination have been fought.

“The claim always was that these were natural deep-seated instincts — that whites and blacks were just not going to be able to coexist with each other, [that] sexual harassment was viewed as natural expression of attraction in the workplace,” she said.

Legal solutions, however, have arisen to combat these forms of discrimination.

“We know that we made progress on those issues with a fairly blunt instrument, so there’s no reason to think we couldn’t push the envelope slightly,” Rhode said.

The talk was co-hosted by Robert Crown Law Library and Women of Stanford Law.