The Tantalizing Teachings Of Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches”

If you haven’t seen the Dove Real Beauty Sketches video, above, watch it — it’s fascinating.

The video — which has sparked some controversy — suggests that women are unfairly self-critical about their appearance.  They tend to describe themselves in a way that is much less flattering than others would describe them.  Why?  Could it be that women view themselves as being compared to some ludicrous standard of female perfection, and never quite measuring up . . . and therefore they downplay their own, true attractiveness?

Men don’t seem to have this problem.  Most men don’t seem to think that they should look like the models seen in Abercrombie & Fitch ads.  Why not?

A Tough Assignment

The recent post about discrimination against unattractive people reminded me of one of my toughest journalism assignments.  It happened in the summer of 1978, when I was an intern for the Cleveland bureau of the Wall Street Journal.  The bureau chief was intrigued by an article he had read about a worker who claimed discrimination due to weight.  He thought it would make a good story, and I agreed.  At that time, at least, a good reporter looked for people to interview and quote.  But where to find people who may have been discriminated against because of their size?

I can’t remember if it was my idea or his, but one fine day I found myself at the unemployment office in Cleveland looking for interviewees.  The idea was to find overweight people who were applying for benefits, identify myself as a reporter, and then ask whether they thought their size contributed to their unemployment.  It sounded feasible in the abstract, but as I stood in the unemployment office looking at the poor folks applying for benefits, I suddenly thought it was a pretty stupid idea.  Wouldn’t they be insulted if some punk kid suggesting that they were fat?  Still, I knew reporters sometimes must ask questions in tough circumstances, so I steeled myself and walked up to a likely candidate.  To my surprise, the person was friendly, apparently not offended that I had concluded they were overweight, and quite willing to discuss whether their weight had affected their employment.  It became progressively easier with each new person I approached.  I don’t remember anyone who rebuffed my questions, and I ended up writing a story that was published in the back pages of the Journal.

I don’t think that every incident makes an anecdote or teaches some deep life lesson.  Still, that experience made me realize that speculation about what people may do or how they may react often is wrong and that it is worth at least trying something before concluding it won’t work.

An Ugly Form Of Discrimination?

The Washington Post has a column today about the “last bastion” of discrimination — namely, discrimination against people who are overweight or unattractive.  The author, a Stanford law professor, argues that discrimination based on “irrelevant physical characteristics reinforces invidious stereotypes and undermines equal opportunity principles based on merit and performance.”  She advocates for a law that bans discrimination based on appearance, contending that such a law could “reflect our principles of equal opportunity” and “play a modest role in advancing healthier and more inclusive ideals of attractiveness.”

According to the article, Michigan and some local jurisdictions have laws banning discrimination on the basis of appearance, and no flood of “loony litigation” has occurred.  Indeed, she argues that people would be unlikely to invoke the law because to do so would be to confess to unattractiveness.  I’m not so sure about that conclusion.  In my experience, people who have been fired are perfectly happy to cite every possible argument that it was discrimination, and not their poor performance, that caused their dismissal.  I can certainly imagine lawsuits where multiple paragraphs of the Complaint are devoted to describing comments about appearance that the former employee received over the years.

It seems to me, though, that simply countering the “floodgates” argument also ignores another important point.  Many of the qualities that employers value most highly — like reliability, commitment, and integrity, among others — are intangible qualities that can’t be measured on an application form.  Physical appearance, however, can provide clues that employers may use to make judgments about whether the person would be a suitable employee, and I think employers should be permitted to factor it into the hiring equation.  If the person that you are interviewing is a slob, would you want to hire them for a job that required great precision and attention to detail?