The meteoric rise of ‘lookism’ in marketing

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In 21st-century culture, many “isms” feature in the debate surrounding discrimination – including “racism”, “sexism” and “ageism”, to name but a few. Now, in addition to these familiar contenders, the new “ism” on the block is “lookism”, and it’s appearing more and more frequently in literature covering the subject of discrimination.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, lookism is “prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s appearance”.

Although previously there was no official word for it, discrimination against an individual based on their physical appearance or physical attractiveness is nothing new. During the Victorian era, it was widely thought that a person’s physical appearance was a reflection on their morality and social standing, and the ancient Greeks took this matter very seriously, believing that being beautiful was a gift from the gods.

In today’s world, the role of media and advertising in shaping our perceptions of what beauty is, and what it means to be beautiful, is well documented.  Images that fuel our continual sense of inadequacy and force us to recreate ourselves according to those images, often through the consumption of products, are a familiar part of daily life.

But could lookism also be the ‘new’ inequality in employment?  The fact that a woman’s or a man’s appearance can play a key role in their careers is alarming.  Any perceived correlation between attractiveness and skill should be rejected outright, and the notion that if you’re attractive you get by with fewer skills is a dangerous one. Our preference for ‘beautiful people’ makes us poor judges of far more valuable qualities that have nothing to do with physical appearance.

Proving that someone failed to secure a job, promotion or pay increase simply because he or she wasn’t sufficiently attractive may be difficult.  However, in the workplace we should always judge people based on their talent, personality, intelligence and other such characteristics … not purely or primarily on their looks. 

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognise the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” Companies would do well to heed her advice.