Our culture is riddled with 'isms'. Every day people are afforded fewer opportunities, miss out on jobs or promotions, or find themselves at the receiving end of abuse because of their race, class, gender or age. But lawyers in the USA are arguing there is another serious and widespread form of prejudice: along with racism, sexism, ageism and the others, they say, is 'lookism' – discrimination against ugly people.
The term was coined some time ago, but it has been a bit of a buzzword following the case of Shirley Ivey, a 61-year old who is suing her former employer after a boss allegedly told her he would like her more if she was prettier. It has sparked other cases across the US, and economist and researcher Daniel Hamermesh has suggested that those lacking in good looks should be afforded the same legal protection as anyone else being discriminated against.
He said: "My research shows being good looking helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse and even get better deals on mortgages... some people are born ugly and there's not much they can do about it. You're pretty much stuck with your looks.
"Logically there's no less reason to protect the ugly than the disabled, African Americans, other racial minorities or religious minorities, as we do. We could even have affirmative action for the ugly."
There is no doubt at all that people are judged every day on what they look like; society does indeed reward the gorgeous more than it rewards the not so gorgeous – in fact both men and women are likely to earn more and fare better in life if they're good looking.
But it seems to me that policing laws for unattractive people (or "mingers" as TV presenter Nick Ross sweetly referred to them when explaining his view that there will never be jobs for ugly people on TV) would be nigh on impossible in a society which places an ever increasing value on youth and beauty.
It is a deeply embedded part of our culture, embraced by almost everyone. Billions are spent each year on cosmetics (not to mention surgery); self grooming is regarded as self improvement and, as such, those who do not do it are not striving hard enough to succeed.
It's not right, of course – anyone with a politically correct bone in their body knows it is not right. But Hamermesh's solution is so very problematic. There's the issue of definition for a start. It is hard enough to prove discrimination on the grounds of, say, ethnicity or gender – but beauty, as everyone knows, is in the eye of the beholder. I know men who find Jennifer Aniston unattractive and think Cindy Crawford looks like a man in drag. So how ugly would one have to be to be afforded protection or "affirmative action"? Should we come up with a measure, an actual ugly stick?! Ridiculous.
Employers a plenty would argue that looks have an impact on their business. A couple of months ago, shop floor worker Melanie Stark made news when she claimed she was driven out of her job at Harrods because she refused to wear make-up, part of the uniform. There were mutterings about the Equality Act, but nothing has happened since and Harrods insists it's essential all their staff have 'an overall polished appearance'.
Why? Because good looking people are good for business. Science says a human being's reaction to the appearance of another is hard wired – base creatures that we are, we are drawn to attractive faces.
The reasons for this are debated, but one large study revealed those considered most beautiful actually had the most 'average' features. If you take 40 unattractive faces and electronically morph them into one, you end up with a countenance very easy on the eye... suggesting that a wide gene pool, which creates the healthiest humans, is also what leads to our definition of beauty. So it's not just culture, it's human nature.
Thankfully, according to an article in The Economist, despite physical appearance having a big impact on one's prospects and earnings, intelligence is still valued more highly. So that's something. Nevertheless, the ugly truth is that lookism is here to stay – and the way things are going, it's surely like to get worse, not better?