voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


Written by Jinnie Liu.

Discrimination based on beauty is real. Many hold the view that beauty is inconsequential or unworthy of academic attention[1], but the ugly truth of the beauty bias has been understated for too long. Beauty discrimination is insidiously subtle, goes unnoticed, and is unregulated. Law should respond to this unspoken, ongoing discrimination.

So you think it’s all about inner beauty?

Despite popular belief, beauty is not really “in the eye of the beholder”, nor is it a product of acculturation.[2] Studies have shown that newborns naturally stare longer at faces which are more physically attractive, regardless of where they were born and irrespective of their own mothers’ attractiveness.[3] Furthermore, a study in which people from different cultures were asked to rate face portraits based on attractiveness produced very similar results.[4] Therefore, it can be claimed that beauty recognition is something universal and innate. We literally cannot help but judge attractiveness.[5]

Why do we discriminate?

Evolutionary biologists have posited several theories on the habit of judging appearance. For instance, symmetry and colour harmony typically characterize the things we find beautiful. At the dawn of humanity, humans used these criterion to differentiate edible plants from non-edible ones. Edible plants were typically symmetric and pleasantly coloured, proving that there is a clear association between attractiveness and survival.[6] Likewise, when selecting mates, primitive men were more drawn to beautiful females. Using the same logic present in plants edibility, men unconsciously associated beauty to “health” and “high fertility”.[7]

And now?

We no longer live in a hostile environment that justifies judgment based solely on attractiveness, yet these behavioural relics are still anchored in our lives. We still – perhaps erroneously – associate certain qualities to beautiful people and certain flaws to conventionally less beautiful people.[8] This perpetuating judgment is corrosive to the health of society (a society which, by the way, proudly claims adherence to principles of equality and justice), and it is especially corrosive to the female condition.[9]

Beauty Bias = Discrimination

We must recognise that beauty bias is a form of discrimination – just like racism, and sexism.[10] Counteracting beauty discrimination is very difficult because unlike sexism or racism, this form of injustice is hardly protected by laws.[11]

Every one of us is guilty of allowing subtle yet daily instances of discrimination to slip by our conscience. Attractive people are more likely to be hired[12], slighting the principle of equality of chances. Teachers put more effort into teaching attractive children because they expect these students to succeed more[13], slighting the principle of equal treatment. Perhaps most shocking is that nurses spend more time caring for attractive newborns than the less attractive ones.[14] Unfortunately, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Down the iceberg – the female condition

Discrimination based on beauty bias is obviously worse for women.[15] It may seem strange to address this “mundane” beauty bias given the more serious problem of sexual harassment. But while feminists have made remarkable progress in other areas such as education and politics, little improvement has been made on beauty discrimination.[16] Indisputably, the accumulation of the effects produced by beauty bias can significantly limit a woman’s life.[17] Lastly, women must comply with double standards, contrary to men.[18]

Double Standards for Women

High grooming standards

In certain industries high grooming standards and physical discrimination constitute the industry policy because the prosperity of these industries depends on the inhumane exploitation of the female image. For example, in the widely publicized case of Reno’s Harrah’s Casino, Darlene Jespersen challenged her employment contract, which required female waitresses to wear makeup, nail polish, and to have their hair “teased, curled or styled”.[19] Jespersen showed up at work without makeup and was consequently fired. Jespersen contested the policy on the grounds that such physical appearance standards were “degrading”,[20] and contrary to her right of self-image.[21]

Similarly, two waitresses from Borgata Hotel and Casino initiated a lawsuit denouncing the sexist terms of their employment contracts.[22] This contract required that they keep “an hourglass figure, and be [of] a height and weight appropriate”.[23] Furthermore, it prohibited weight gain of over seven percent. When one waitress asked to wear a size 6 uniform because of a thyroid condition that triggers weight fluctuation, her request was denied.[24]

These examples demonstrate how the legalisation of physical discrimination policies have corrosive effects on the female condition. Not only do higher grooming standards cost time and money (as a dissident judge pointed out in Jespersen v. Harrah, makeup does not “grow on trees”),[25] they also have costs related to self-esteem and justice. Requiring waitresses to wear revealing clothes sexualises the work place, and increases these women’s vulnerability to sexual harassment.[26] To top it all off, these types of employment contracts standardize an unrealistic image of the female body.[27]

The modelling industry is another industry notorious for high physical standards that promote unrealistic images of the female body. Consequently, female workers subject to the standards, as well as the women who are exposed to the former’s images, are encouraged to engage in activities which are risky for their health. Cosmetic surgery and poor eating habits are the most common examples. Roughly nine out of ten cosmetic surgery patients are women, making women the most susceptible to the risks accompanying the surgical procedures.[28]

The opposite standard – being beautiful actually hurts

The other side of the double standard is that, in certain job markets, beautiful women are generally viewed as undeserving. Being too attractive can also form a basis of discriminationthat limits a woman’s access to top positions such as manager or CEO.[29] Jokes about “dumb blondes” illustrate these prejudices. In these areas of employment, high physical attractiveness is typically – and erroneously – associated to a lack of intelligence and competence. By overemphasizing physical appearance, even when lack of attractiveness IS the desired norm, this bias clearly offends and affects the principle of fair assessment.

So what can we do?

Socially, we must be aware of our natural tendency to superficially evaluate people based on their appearance. Acknowledging our own bias is the first step to controlling it.[30] Legally, we must recognise that discrimination based on attractiveness is unjust, and that legal redress must be available. Litigation could subject industries with discriminating policies to negative media exposure, forcing them to alter their employment terms.[31] In fact, after the Borgota Casino case, many casinos of Atlantic City did change their policies, offering uniforms with pants and flat shoes to women for the first time.[32] When it comes to the beauty bias, there is clearly solid ground for action.



[1] Nancy Ectoff, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, (Michigan: Anchor Publishing Group, 1999).

[2] Ectoff, supra note 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Charles Feng, “Looking Good: the Psychology and Biology of Beauty” (2002) 6:6 JYI.

[5] Ectoff, supra note 1.



[8] Ectoff, supra note 1.

[9] Deborah L. Rhode, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).


[11] Ibid.

[12] Ectoff, supra note 1.



[15] Rhode, supra note 9.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.


[19] Ibid.


[21] Joe Decker, Jespersen v Harrah’s Operating Co., (28 November 2013), online: Wikipedia <;.


[23] Ibid.


[25] Ibid.


[27] Ibid.



[30] Ectoff, supra note 1.

[31] Rhode, supra note 9.


Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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