Are ugly people oppressed?

In a thought-provoking article for Aeon, Jonny Thakkar begins by defining his terms:

“The faces and forms of oppression are many, but nearly all of them flow from injustice, the treatment of people otherwise than they deserve. It’s hard to say what exactly any one person deserves, of course, but in the modern world we tend to think that desert is somehow related to what people can control. The colour of your skin is not up to you, for example, so treating you badly on its basis is oppressive.”

On this basis, one can reasonably conclude that the ugly are often treated unjustly:

“We don’t choose the configuration of our facial features any more than we choose our skin colour, yet people discriminate based on looks all the time. As the psychologist Comila Shahani-Denning put it, summarising research on the topic in Hofstra Horizons in 2003: ‘Attractiveness biases have been demonstrated in such different areas as teacher judgments of students, voter preferences for political candidates and jury judgments in simulated trials … attractiveness also influences interviewers’ judgments of job applicants.’ From the toddler gazing up at the adult to the adult gazing down at the toddler, we ruthlessly privilege the beautiful. The ugly get screwed.”

Thakkar doesn’t pretend that discrimination on the basis of beauty (or the lack of it) is as bad as racial discrimination – “after all, it’s not as if there are bylaws sending the ugly to the back of the bus.”

However, as he points out, there is something specially insidious about the oppression of the un-beautiful. For a start, “ugliness has never even been taken seriously as a category for injustice.” Then there’s the awkwardness of identifying oneself as the victim of such discrimination. Above all, there’s the general assumption that judging people on their looks, though widely condemned as a sign of shallowness, is nevertheless a private matter:

“…the oppression of the ugly largely bypasses the realm of law and conscious decision. It operates instead at the level of mundane interactions, not laws or conscious decisions.” 

Perhaps it was ever thus. Thakkar notes that the ancient Greeks considered physical beauty to be more than skin deep:

“The Greek word for ‘beautiful’, kalos, also means ‘noble’, while the word for ‘ugly’, aischros, means ‘shameful’… in ancient Greece, ‘the link between beauty and spiritual nobility was a matter of the firmest belief’.”

We like to think of ourselves as free from such prejudice – and in some ways we are. For instance, we’re much more careful about the language we use to describe people with injuries and disabilities – especially those that affect physical appearance.

On the other hand, the unprecedented freedom that we have in choosing who we associate with means that those who don’t ‘fit in’ – for whatever reason – are more likely to be left out. We don’t abuse people, we just isolate and ignore them.

In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, the economist JK Galbraith condemned the contrast between what he called “private affluence and public squalor.” One only has to walk through any large modern city to see evidence that it still applies. In terms of social interactions, though, one could argue that the contrast goes the other way. Ours is the ‘tolerant society’ – characterised by inclusion in the public sphere, but exclusion in the private sphere.

Where the writ of the law runs, huge strides have been made against racism and sexism. But where the law can (and should) go no further, we’re not nearly so nice as we think we are:

“What ugly people deserve is only the same respect as everyone else: to have their words listened to, their gestures noticed, their eyes looked into. What they receive, through no fault of their own, is not that.”

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