Hot People Get All the Breaks

Do ugly people have a federal right to work?

Years ago, when I was struggling to earn a living in the restaurant industry, I somehow got it into my head that I deserved a job waiting tables in Chinatown and the only reason I couldn’t get one is because I am, well, ethnically challenged, for lack of a better term. For weeks I shared this revelation—and my mounting anger at this perceived injustice—with anyone who would listen. I’d been waiting tables for nearly a decade, knew a good deal about ethnic cuisine and ingredients, and I’m pretty sure I could fashion a darn fine dumpling if given the chance. If anything, I thought, I was overqualified for such a gig (never mind the fact that I didn’t speak a lick of Mandarin).

I got myself so worked up about it that I concocted a plan to go down to 10th Street, fill out applications at every single restaurant between Vine and Arch and then file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when none of them hired me (which I was convinced would be the outcome).

I’m proud to report I never went through with that plan (especially since I didn’t really want to work in Chinatown); but I can’t help but wonder how it might have played out if I had. My inability to communicate in Chinese notwithstanding, I have no doubt I could have done the job as well as anyone else; if I could have proven that my whiteness alone is what kept me from getting hired, I might just have had a case.

Under federal guidelines it is illegal to deny someone employment based on their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability (as long as they can adequately perform the duties required.) Most of us would agree that such protections are warranted. But how about when it comes to something a bit more subjective—like, say, good looks? Do ugly people deserve a right to the same protections as minorities or the disabled or white men looking for work in Chinese restaurants?

The Obama administration seems to think so, and it’s testing that argument in Boston, where the EEOC has launched an investigation into a regional coffee chain for its practice of allegedly hiring only beautiful women to work its counters.

The Commission initiated the probe against Marylou’s Coffee, which has 22 stores throughout Massachusetts, after investigators saw a commercial for the company featuring a group of bubbly, pink-clad female baristas and concluded on the basis of their collective hotness that there simply must be some unsightly people out there who didn’t make the cut. EEOC investigators are now reportedly seeking ugly plaintiffs who may have been denied a job based on their less-than-stellar looks. (I know what you’re thinking, but I assure you, it’s all true, and here’s the link to prove it.)

Store owner Marylou Sandry described the investigation as a “witch hunt” and insists that while all of her staff may be young, attractive and female, the only criterion for employment is perkiness (the personality kind, that is). In a letter to state lawmakers, defending her hiring practices, Sandry strongly denied picking her employees based on their good looks:

“Attractive is in the eye of the beholder. They’re just all fun, upbeat girls. It’s the personality. It’s the way you’re treated. That’s what we reach out for. It’s all shapes and sizes and colors.”

No matter what Sandry’s hiring practices, the feds will have a hard time making a case. That’s because with a few exceptions, there is no law that says an employer can’t favor hotness over homeliness. State discrimination codes vary, and some do include provisions designed to protect the height-, weight- and/or beauty-challenged. In Washington D.C., for instance, it is illegal to bar employment based on “personal appearance”; and in Santa Cruz, California, discrimination based on “physical characteristics” is prohibited.  But no such restriction exists in the federal code. To make a case, the EEOC will have to prove discrimination based on one of the criteria specified above—the most likely two being gender or disability.

They could have a case with gender if it’s shown that across 22 stores there is not a single pink-clad gentleman working the counter; but to seal the deal the EEOC would first have to find men who actually wanted the job and were turned down. Creating an atmosphere that is unappealing to male employment candidates—by, say, requiring they wear a pink uniform—is not in itself discrimination as long as you’re willing to let them do it. If the feds choose the gender route it wouldn’t be the first time a company was called to task for only hiring sexually appealing women. In 1997, Hooters was forced into a settlement with a group of men in two states who sued the restaurant chain after being denied employment. The settlement did not prohibit Hooters from favoring buxom women for its server positions, nor did it require the company to start putting men in half shirts and tight shorts; instead the company agreed to create more gender-neutral positions that would be filled without regard to sex.

If the EEOC fails to make a convincing gender bias case, it might try to litigate under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which begs the question: Is ugliness a disability? The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual.” The act covers disfigurement, and is being increasingly applied to the morbidly obese. But while it can be argued that being unattractive limits an individual’s sex life, and that sex is indeed a “major life activity,” so far no federal court has taken on mere homeliness as an ADA-covered disability. But that could change.

One look at the evidence and it’s pretty clear that being ugly—or even just average—comes with its drawbacks, and there is an abundance of research looking at how much better off good-looking people have it.  When it comes to employment, beautiful people get better jobs and make more money doing them. In his book Beauty Pays, Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas, cites statistics that show attractive people stand to earn 10 percent to 15 percent more per year than their less-alluring counterparts—a beauty bonus that amounts to more than $200,000 over the course of a lifetime.

And the beauty bonus is not limited to financial success. Social psychologists have conducted study upon study gauging the fringe benefits of beauty, and in almost every case they found what most of us all ready know: It’s good to be hot. Studies dating back to the 1970s looked at everything from adult responses to infants ranging in perceived cuteness to the affect of offender attractiveness on jury verdicts. Good-looking people have been shown to get better service and are more likely to get help from strangers on the street.

In an op-ed for the New York Times last year, Hamermesh contends that rewards based on nothing more than a roll of the genetic dice are inherently unfair and posits the idea of establishing affirmative action for the very least attractive Americans.

“Why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?” He asks. “Economic arguments for protecting the ugly are as strong as those for protecting some groups currently covered by legislation. So why not go ahead and expand protection to the looks-challenged?”

Well for one thing, even if we agree it is desirable to have such a law, enforcing it would be a nightmare: Who gets to decide who qualifies as ugly, and does anyone really want that distinction—even with the new perks? But beyond the logistics, legislating beauty will mean formally encoding subjective preferences and creating a new American under-class of ugly people. Establishing a new minority only to legislate its protection is counter intuitive and a poor use of government resources.

Does being ugly suck? No doubt. Is it an impediment to success? Maybe in some fields, yes; but there are plenty of homely folks who have done pretty good for themselves in this country. (Ever hear of Microsoft?) Giving the federal government the power to decide who’s hot and who’s not is little more than a knee-jerk attempt at leveling the playing field. But hey, don’t take my word for it. I’m just average.