The Intersection of Class and Ugliness

The last frontier for civil rights is a forgotten dead end beyond the currently fashionable “intersections of identity.” It’s something that we’ve neglected for years, something that we’re uncomfortable talking about. It’s something that causes discrimination in almost every area of a person’s life. And it’s not a choice. I’m talking, of course, about being ugly.

Although we’ve seen countless pieces of legislation addressing hiring discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, and sexual orientation, we’ve yet to address the hiring bias associated with ugliness. It’s real, and studies on it span the last four decades at least. While we’re all quibbling over changing our bathroom signs in the name of toilet equality, there are people who experience unequal treatment at all hours of the day just by virtue of being unfortunate-looking. Where’s the attention to that?

Even if you don’t believe in other biological differences, you at least realize that people are born looking different than others and that we all have a pretty cohesive idea of what’s attractive and what’s not. It’s probable that we have an innate sense of what makes a person beautiful and that these things tend to be associated with good health: good skin, fit body, etc.

But maybe you’re the kind of person who thinks beauty standards are taught, and that we can all learn to be more accepting of everyone’s physical appearance. I would invite you to lead the charge by going out and having sex with the ugliest person you can find this weekend. Most of us have been very discriminatory in this regard (others not so much…), and there are probably a lot of people who want to see change.

Here’s where the equality charade breaks down. It’s very hard to be consistent in your views when your ultimate aim is to seem cool. Ugliness isn’t cool, but it without a doubt has a home in the equality movement. Equality is cool right now. You can attach it to practically any cause you want and then go around telling people that history is on your side, and they’ll actually believe you.

Somewhere along the line, the equality movement became less about equal treatment before the law and more about trying to remove all disparities in discomfort, even if it means inconveniencing everyone else. Few people involved in the equality movement had any idea of where their arguments would lead—the business of hip activism tends to be shortsighted—and the results have been, to use their word, discriminatory. While we’re making substantial progress in removing any and all discomfort associated with public bathrooms (though my editor still prefers urinating in empty Powerade bottles), we’ve neglected those who suffer from discrimination against ugliness.

We can’t do a whole lot to make ugly people not ugly (though the high cost of plastic surgery presents us with the exciting new intersection of class and ugliness), but we can start by attacking the attractiveness privilege of others. Even if you think you don’t discriminate against ugly people, if you’re benefitting from attractiveness privilege, you’re still part of the problem.

The Kurt Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron” takes place in a dystopian world where citizens are assigned “handicaps” according to their abilities, or what we would call “privileges” today. A smarter-than-average person has to wear headphones that blast distracting noises into his or her ears. A stronger-than-average person has to wear weights. An attractive person, in the case of Harrison Bergeron, had to “wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.”

So the question on equality is: Are you in, or are you out?

If you’re on board, here’s what needs to happen. First, we need to pass a bill outlawing hiring discrimination based on physical attractiveness. In order for this to be enforceable, the government needs to be able to prosecute companies that disproportionately hire attractive people. I imagine it will involve some kind of rating system for the entire labor force—the classic 1-10 scale should work fine. Second, we need to start treating the word “ugly” like we treat racial or homophobic slurs. Please report any insensitivity to the college’s Bias Incident Report Team. Third, you need to expand the tokenism that you already practice with “your black friend” and “your gay friend” to include “your ugly friend” (I’m accepting applications). It will show how hip and down with the movement you are.

If none of this sounds particularly attractive to you, you might want to put a little thought into what you mean by “equality.”