Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Beauty Bias Is More Than Skin-Deep

In an article that condemns racist biases in the modelling industry, the following quote appears:

[...] says it would be great to reach the point where designers and advertisers do not think about ethnicity when they cast a model; where they would cast a Chinese girl simply because she’s beautiful – not because it’s to sell a collection of cheongsam dresses.

Did anyone else think there was something wrong with that sentiment?

I'd say, why stop with ending racist bias? What about the beauty bias? Should only beautiful people be able to find work in modelling? We've had this huge debate in recent times about plus-size models and "real women", as opposed to the waif-like models that the industry has traditionally preferred. That battle is not yet over, but it has at least caused people to examine some of the harsh and unhealthy standards that the modelling industry has imposed around the notion of beauty. But what about the role of beauty itself? Isn't this another distortion in the way we measure the worth of other human beings?

There seems to be something wrong with the values of society itself, because the modelling industry is only catering to the biases of society. The Cleo article only acknowledges part of the problem. Even if the race bias is ended, the beauty bias will remain. So it falls to us to look inwards. Isn't it hypocritical of us to only buy clothes modelled by people better-looking than ourselves? It's a bit like Groucho Marx's comment that he would never join any club that would have him as a member.

The topic of air hostesses is related. Many passengers (mostly male) prefer to fly airlines that have young and pretty stewardesses over airlines with older ones. One aspect of such sexism has been quietly dismantled, since most airline cabin crews now feature both men and women. But there still seems to be an age bias for cabin crews. It is difficult to see a mature-age stewardess on Singapore Airlines, for example. In contrast, Qantas has a number of mature-age cabin crew, both male and female. It demonstrates, louder than mere words, that Qantas considers cabin crew members to be more than just pretty faces. They seem to be valued as employees. And perhaps that says something nice about Qantas passengers as well, since passengers vote with their wallets. If I had to choose one of these airlines as my employer (even in an unrelated area like IT), I would choose Qantas over Singapore Airlines, simply because I can see that they treat their employees as human beings.

Human beings' bias towards beauty is understandable, but it is nevertheless unjustified. From an evolutionary perspective, beauty is a surrogate indicator for health, and individuals in any species have always looked for healthy partners to mate with. Such behaviour leads to optimal results for the species as a whole. However, human society is more than just a group of animals impelled by evolutionary forces. We do not believe in the survival of the fittest. We believe in giving everyone a fair go, with social safety nets for the weakest. We do not let our weakest offspring die. We give them special attention and help. The value of beauty as an evolutionarily favourable trait should be correspondingly lower in a society of human beings.

Am I being a socialist? Should everyone be treated the same regardless of merit? For the record, I favour meritocracies. I just don't believe good looks form part of a person's "merit". As a society, our preference for good looks is nothing other than a bias, and paradoxically, the majority of us are guilty of discriminating against people who look like ourselves.

Among the words of wisdom I have often heard is the advice to treat ourselves and other people the same way - with compassion and understanding. Both selfishness and martyrdom are equally undesirable. Following this advice leads to both a fair society and inner happiness. Today, the world is rife with discrimination of various sorts, and they all have labels - racism, sexism, ageism, casteism, religious bigotry, national chauvinism, etc. In theory at least, we have recognised these as evils to be eradicated. But our bias towards beauty remains unacknowledged. I think it is only when we overcome the beauty bias that we may have crossed the last barrier to reaching an ideal society and an ideal state of being.


David Urquhart said...

I suppose the most successful models are both representative of a perceived ideal, and relatable enough to make imitation plausible.
This perceived ideal, beyond health and genetic advantage, might be linked to scarcity. Ie Models will always be those with attributes four or more standard deviations from the mean. So no matter how skinny the world's teenagers make themselves, there will be models who are skinnier.
It's in that world that Cleo exists, and where your quote originates. Quotes being read in that publication are already speaking to an audience interested in fashion. So there's a different kind of bias at work there. Do you call that contextual bias?
Having a selfie-taking 19yo daughter I am only too aware of the siren song that lures the immature mind. But self-comparison is a tendency we all have and part of life is growing past it. My mother may have told me there would always be someone taller, but it took a decade or more years to really accept that.
There will always be people with more money, more friends, a better car, a bigger office, a fancier job title, a better body, a prettier face, better genetics, a better immune system, a nicer garden, smarter kids... but we will all die one day and in that moment we are all exactly the same.
This is just one part of what was so absurdly immature about Charlie Sheen's "winning" catchphrase. There is no winning. But kindness can cut through all this ridiculous comparison. Those poor models, walking around displaying clothes like malnourished human clothes hangers.

Ganesh Prasad said...

Good observations, David.

The unenlightened mind is distracted by all of the things you mentioned, and there's no avoiding that. I'm hoping that we can enshrine a better philosophy in society's ideals at least.