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Lookism, Workplace Bias, and the Plastic Surgery Explosion: by Jacqueline A. Gilbert
SOUTHPORT, CT –/ -- DiversityBusiness.com /- Plastic surgery, once considered an indulgence for individuals who spent their excess cash in altering their appearance, has today become more commonplace. In 2005 alone the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (A.A.F.P.R.S) reported sixty and thirty percent increases (in men and women respectively) that underwent elective cosmetic modification (Plastic & Cosmetic, 2007, ¶4). Eyelid surgery is one of the most commonly performed procedures among men, requested to provide a more youthful, less tired appearance. The sharp increase in men who desire to turn back the clock derives in part from the following reasons: (1) the mainstream greater acceptance of cosmetic procedures; and (2) the desire to obtain a potential career boost, or at the very least, a mechanism to maintain one’s position and authority at work in what has across the globe become an obsessively youth dominated culture. In 2004 for example the A.A.F.P.R.S reported that 22 percent of men and 15 percent of women who went underwent cosmetic procedures cited job related reasons for their choices (Brown, 2006). Professionals seeking to ameliorate their looks come from a wide range of occupations, such as consultants, real estate agents, attorneys, airlines pilots, and business executives, to name a few (Brown, 2006). The Telegraph (2006, ¶8) quotes Wendy Lewis, also known as “The Knife Coach” (who acts as a liaison between patients seeking cosmetic surgery and potential doctors) regarding the virtual necessity of plastic surgery to obtain job related perks: “It’s not an isolated phenomenon. You get something done, you get the promotion.”

From 1997-2005, the number of non-surgical cosmetic treatments has risen 764 percent (Esfahani, 2006, ¶4). Some of the more popular procedures include injections (e.g., botox, restylane), skin resurfacing techniques (e.g., micro-dermabrasion, laser, and skin sculpting), and newer, cutting edge, even less invasive methods to plump up the skin and eliminate wrinkles, such as ultra sound and light emitting diodes (Esfahani, 2006). The quest for beauty is not however confined to the United States. Currently, Iran is known as the nose job capital of the world (Iran: Nose Job, 2005). In a similar vein, career related surgeries have become a transnational phenomenon (see Time Asia magazine cover story “Under the Knife,” in the August 5th, 2002 volume) which details the explosion of plastic surgery in Asia. Cost does not seem to be an object, with the average face lift in the United States pricing between seven and nine thousand dollars (Cost of Plastic).

The profound emphasis that society places on physical beauty many times results in lookism, or the discrimination that occurs based on weight, height, and/or facial appearance. The impact of lookism can be dramatic, spilling over to personality inferences, likability, and even into suitability for job placement. In a recent study, The University of Helsinki reported that “overweight women earned up to 30 percent less than their slender colleagues” (Overweight and underpaid, ¶6). Researchers have also found that “beautiful people,” or those who possess “aesthetic capital” or “aesthetic charisma” (Titje & Cresap, 2005) earn approximately five percent more than their average looking counterparts. Research has also found that individuals who are considered attractive are able to exact a “beauty premium,” while those with more homely looks are penalized with a pay decrement of nine percent less an hour (Surprise! Pretty people, 2005, ¶7). For women, the negative financial impact occurs in terms of weight, with obese women earning seventeen percent less than those with a body mass index within the recommended range (Surprise! Pretty people, 2005), whereas economists have found a “height premium” for men, with a “1.8 percent increase in wages for every additional inch of height over the national median” (Surprise! Pretty people, 2005). In her book Survival of the Prettiest, Etcoff (1999, p. 83) argues that “Good looking men are more likely to get hired, at a higher salary, and to be promoted faster than unattractive ones.” Tietje and Cresap (2005) also note that “Economists have begin to study ‘efforts to ameliorate deficiencies in pulchritude and how these effects might affect labor market outcomes’” (Hamermesh, Meng, and Zhang, 2002, p. 361, in Titje & Cresap, 2005).

Dr. Thomas Cash, a researcher and professor at Old Dominion University, explains that the preference for beauty may be one that is actually ingrained, in that infants as young as three months already have a tendency to look longer at prettier faces (The ugly truth, 1995). Beauty has been defined in several countries as big eyes, high cheekbones, and a narrow jaw (The ugly truth, 1995). The concept of secondary gains explains why first impressions carry such an extraordinary weight in the hiring process. According to Cash, attractive people are assumed to have a “halo effect,” one in which “everything must be good in this good looking package” (The ugly truth, 1995). Attractive individuals further benefit through the Pygmalion effect, where people grow to act in the manner they are treated, ensuring that the “lookers” are imbued with an abundance of self-confidence, assuredness, and self-efficacy. Patzer (2006) notes the following benefits of being good looking at work:
(1) The ability to exert influence over other people (e.g., subordinates, bosses, and clients)
(2) The tendency to receive more help, and to have one’s opinion solicited more frequently

Cullars further argues “Research has now proven what many of us have always suspected; looks matter, and to many with the power to bestow promotions and perks, looks carry a premium” (Lookism, ¶2).

Some organizations in which looks are clearly not a legitimate business interest have run afoul of the law in denying employment opportunities based solely on applicant or employee appearance. Cases of this nature include EEOC vs. APH Management Inc., d/b/a/McDonald’s, in which an employee with a port wine stain was in effect constructively discharged when she was denied an opportunity for promotion from cook, to a position that required greater visibility and customer interaction. In EEOC vs. W.H. Braum and in EEOC vs. Hardee’s Food Systems, the courts determined that both employers were remiss in not hiring qualified applicants who possessed facial disfigurements (Fox, 2006). In actuality, the only legitimate way in which an employer can discriminate is if “…the essence of the business operation would be undermined if the business eliminated its discriminatory policy” (Bona fide). An example might be a modeling agency hiring individuals with a particular “look” which appeals to an advertiser, and potentially to consumers.

Status characteristics theory (Berger, Fisek, Norman, & Zelditch, 1977) explains that observable characteristics are associated with perception, framing, and with subsequent inequitable treatment. Umberson and Hughes (1987) provide some corroboration for this viewpoint, citing research findings showing that attractiveness was positively associated with both achievement and psychological well being. They also cite previous research studies, which found that attractive persons were perceived (among other things) as being more socially desirable, more competent spouses, and more likely to find an acceptable partner. The authors explain that most individuals are unaware of the discrimination they perpetuate based on snap judgments which are made primarily on first impressions. As a consequence, the education of societal gatekeepers (e.g., teachers, managers, junior employees, and students) is therefore necessary to increase awareness of the lookism phenomenon, and to design strategies that will prevent its occurrence (Umberson & Hughes, 1987). Because the deleterious impact of beauty bias can follow individuals over a lifetime, educational attempts at bias reduction should begin early, and should continue as a regular part of organizational training.

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Launched in 1999, DiversityBusiness, with over 50,000 members, is the largest organization of diversity owned businesses throughout the United States that provide goods and services to Fortune 1000 companies, government agencies, and colleges and universities. DiversityBusiness provides research and data collection services for diversity including the "Top 50 Organizations for Multicultural Business Opportunities", "Top 500 Diversity Owned Companies in America", and others. Its research has been recognized and published by Forbes Magazine, Business Week and thousands of other print and internet publications. The site has gained national recognition and has won numerous awards for its content and design. DiversityBusiness reaches more diverse suppliers and communicates more information to them on a more frequent basis then all other organizations combined. We also communicate with mainstream businesses, government agencies and educational institutions with information related to diversity. Our magazine reaches over 300,000 readers, a monthly e-newsletter that reaches 2.4 million, and website visitors of 1.2 million a month. It is a leading provider of Supplier Diversity management tools and has the most widely distributed Diversity magazine in the United States. DiversityBusiness.com is produced by Computer Consulting Associates International Inc. (CCAii.com) of Southport, CT. Founded in 1980.

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