The rise of 'lookism'

Can we ever really be unbiased?
Sarah Adam
Created on:
June 18, 2024

The rise of ‘lookism’


In 21st-century culture, many “isms” feature in the debate surrounding discrimination – including “racism”, “sexism” and “ageism”, to name but a few.  But now, in addition to these familiar contenders, the new “ism” on the block, and one that’s appearing more and more frequently in literature on discrimination is “lookism”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, lookism is “prejudiceor discrimination on the grounds of a person's appearance”.

Although previously there was no official word for it, discrimination against an individual based on their physical appearance or physical attractiveness is nothing new. During the Victorian era, it was widely believed that a person’s physical appearance was a reflection on their morality and social standing, and the ancient Greeks took this matter very seriously, believing that being beautiful was a gift from the gods.

In today’s world, the role of media and advertising in shaping our perceptions of what beauty is, and what it means to be beautiful, is well documented.  Images that fuel our continual sense of inadequacy and force us to recreate ourselves according tothose images, often through the consumption of products, are part of daily life.

But could lookism really be the ‘new’ inequality in employment?  The fact that a woman’s or a man’s appearance can play a key role in their careers is alarming.  Any perceived correlation between attractiveness and skill should be rejected outright.  The notion that if you’re attractive you get by with fewer skills is a dangerous one. Our preference for beautiful people makes us poor judges of far more valuable qualities that have nothing to do with physical appearance.

Proving that someone failed to secure a job, promotion or pay increase simply because he or she wasn’t sufficiently attractive may be difficult.  However, in the workplace we should always judge people based on their talent, personality, intelligence andother such characteristics … not purely or primarily on their looks.  Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said,“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognise the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find afitting place.” Companies would do well to heed her advice.

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