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‘Naming and Shaming: Responding to Lookism’

On the evening of Friday 9 June, Prof. Heather Widdows presented the inaugural Michael Lockwood Memorial Lecture, as part of a weekend of events to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the fifth of the MSt. in Practical Ethics, based in the Centre. The title of Prof. Widdows’ fascinating and suggestive lecture was ‘Naming and Shaming: Responding to Lookism’.

Prof. Widdows began with a definition of lookism as ‘unjust discrimination on the basis of looks or appearance’. If an appointment committee, for example, knowingly or unknowingly offers a job to someone because of their appearance, when that appearance is itself irrelevant to the job in question, this is lookist, as analogous decisions based on race or sex would be, respectively, racist or sexist.

Prof. Widdows then provided evidence of lookism in employment and other domains, including the justice system and in the attitudes of young children. She suggested that lookism is less recognized than other forms of discrimination in part because its victims feel shame, and are hence unmotivated to call out that discrimination. Given that, she argued, we should seek to change that shame to anger or rage, as has happened in the case of sexism. This would increase the visibility of lookism, and make appearance at least a more plausible candidate for inclusion as a ’protected characteristic’ in equality legislation.

Philosophy can play, and is to some extent playing, its part, and here Prof. Widdows referred to the arguments in her Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton, 2018) to the conclusion that our culture is now over-valuing, and mistakenly valuing, beauty to the extent that many are harmed through seeing their identity as dependent on their appearance. Prof. Widdows provided moving examples from stories posted on the website of the #everydaylookism campaign that emerged from her book, noting again the salience of shame in many of them.

A lively discussion followed the lectures, covering among many other issues whether choosing a partner on the basis of looks must count as an injustice, and whether calmly and clearly calling out discrimination might sometimes be a more appropriate or effective response than anger.


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17 Comment on this post

  1. George Orwell in his famous novel „1984“ talked about „Junior Anti-Sex League“. This was organized group of young people that was against any sexual intercourse.
    In New Zealand there is recently a government campaigning called „Love Better“. This campaign wants to help adolescents to cope with the failures in their relationships.
    There are also court’s decisions that declares that the billboard with an attractive young girl (with no nudity and no provoking slogans and no provoking poses) is sexist.
    All this is about help, all is about freedom, all is about fight against violence. All is about alleged „better“ world.
    But what this all mean in real?
    Just one thing.
    That both the government and the political ideology more and more break into our privacy.
    But if we allow the society (i.e. government) to solve our private problems with relationships or with love we loose freedom. With private problems we should cope ourselves or with the help from our family members or friends. Not with help from the government.
    Sex, family, love affairs are part of privacy. They are not the political issues.
    So the same we can say about lookism. What does it mean?
    It means that the government breaks into our house with ambition to decide what is good and what is bad for us. It will be no more our decision. The government decides instead of us.
    Anyway t is logical that the political power wants to seize our privacy. Because the individual that lives nice life and who loves his/her family is incoveniant. The government needs the individual who is lonely, unsure and unhappy. Such desperate person is easy to manipulate. Such person more easily fall in love with Big Brother if we should return to Orwell.

    1. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Your words reflect the thoughts I held while reading this article. Thank you for stating what is obviously (to both myself and thankfully others) unfolding before us. I’m now certain just why “1984” was a chosen book as part of the curriculum while in HS in the mid 80s, ironically. I’m unsure if you’re aware of the use of black magick by those in the highest positions of power (those who direct our government). That is precisely what we all experience when we’re told in advance of something to later come to fruition. It’s much deeper than simply what I’ve shared so I highly recommend looking into it further. I’ve experienced the censorship foretold in this novel myself for speaking out about these kinds of things. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts as they should be the shared thoughts of all under this reign. Much love and many blessings to you and to all!

    2. The New Zealand government campaigning called „Love Better“ is aimed at reducing our disgustingly high domestic violence rates. The thought is that helping young people learn how to cope with relationships ending in ways that mean that they do not hurt themselves or others will reduce the number of people who harm themselves or others when they get older. This seems like an appropriate thing for a government to do. As an academic, even if this just means that students know better how to cope with their grief at the end of a relationship, I will be glad we have the program. Relying on the family to tech things like this might work for some people, but not for everyone. My parents never taught me how to cope with relationship failures, but I have no doubt that there are things we can learn.
      The best that can be said about the suggestion that „Love Better“ is a government plan to make people unhappy or reduce our privacy is that it is not backed up with evidence.

      1. Should we really suppose that the government knows BETTER what is good for us? That the government is wiser and more sensible? Is this really the way?
        The West societies are based on the individual who is responsible for himself/herself.
        The individual that is not directed by the state. Just for this reason and on this base the West countries has built their well-fare.
        If you want to seek for some evidence you can look back into history. It shows that government’s efforts to direct everything usually fail.
        The bolsheviks also wanted to HELP families. According to their plans all women should have worked and in this way they should have been equal to men. The practice was not so nice.
        On the contrary the national socialists in Germany wanted women to bring up children. The more children the better. The practice was not so nice.
        The problem is that all the government’s plans are always justified by very nice and pleasant words. Also in “Love Better” we can read about “safe, positive and equal” relationships.
        But who says what is positive? It can be different for each individual. What somebody feels positive for other people can be negative and harmful.
        Riding on motorbike is dangerous. Some people never dare to ride it. But other people feel happy about doing this.
        So the problem is that the government wants to say what is beautiful. But the reality is not so simple as government can think.
        Please let government care about PUBLIC things, i. e. taxes or pension rates, health care system, building roads, theaters or schools.
        But the government shouldn’t advise people what to say to their mates if they want to break their relationship.

  2. Just a few remarks here. Here, in the bastion of freedom, truth and justice, we have some laws that proscribe unlawful discrimination on the basis of things like race,color and national origin. ‘Lookism’, as far as I remember, does not appear in any of those statutes. Nor, is it anywhere characterized as unfair. In order to be legally actionable, bases for such actions must be specified, under the laws mentioned. There seems a plague of isms going ’round now and people who would proscribe anything objectionable, whether it is unlawful or not. Those who look differently at people who look different are violating no law. Not here, anyway. This appears to be of extension of ‘political correctness’. I can’t see that we need anymore of that, nor do I believe it was needed or useful in the first place. How other citizens in other countries handle such affairs is their business. But, again, I THINK the more targets for dissention are created, the greater dissention there will be.

  3. I’ve always found this an interesting topic, partly because it makes people so uncomfortable. On one hand, I can see where Prof Widdows is coming from. On the other, I think it’s easy to see how draconian and pointless any attempt to stamp out lookism would be in practice. But also the concept of what counts as good-looking has a big subjective component – five people interviewing ten people for a job are unlikely to agree on their rank-ordering on the basis of looks; a point of difference from other variables on which the five would agree such as sex, race, religion, etc. This disagreement presumably partially offsets whatever bias there is in the decision.

    But is it really any different from evaluating people on the basis of their personalities? Shrinks often talk about the “big five” personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Imagine for a moment this is reasonable, and imagine a person’s score locates them in a region in that space and that they remain fixed at that point, and that there are parts of that space that make people more likeable or nice. Then our five interviewers interview our ten candidates, and rank them, including consideration of how good a colleague they would make. (1) The interviewers will have some degree of disagreement among themselves, as with attractiveness. (2) How candidates are perceived on a scale of being nice or good-looking, is a matter that is part chosen, part unchosen, since people can work at their appearance and work at their personalities. And how nice or good-looking you are matters for some jobs but not others. (Assume that being nice or good-looking doesn’t matter for the job.) (3) Some candidates are likely to fare better than other candidates on these rankings. That makes personality kind of similar to the lookism issue.*

    Would we regard it as unjust if the interviewers hire the nice people instead of the jerks? A similar logic seems at work as with looks: a property is part free, part fixed; others show regularities but not universal agreement regarding judgments on that variable, and we can make arguments that people judging others on things that are irrelevant to the job, or which are beyond the candidates’ control. Then the justice arguments seem to apply similarly in both cases. (Personally, I don’t much care for regarding either as an issue of justice. I think we should keep that word for other uses.)

    *And probably closely entwined with it.

    1. Thanks, Dave. Yes, good point about personality. And your mentioning factors that are beyond a person’s control suggests that behind all of these discussions lies the issue of distributive justice in general. I.e. everything — including jobs — should be distributed in accordance with that general principle. Non-lookist principles may be important on e.g. appointment panels, but they will be ‘secondary’, practical principles.

      1. Thanks, Roger. I guess I have a fairly, though far from wholly, skeptical view of distributive justice in general. It’s a strong drug, probably poisonous, and best taken in small doses where its remedial benefits outweigh its harmful side-effects.
        I think it’s a valuable tool for social cohesion when applied over a nation’s cradle-to-grave dynamics: giving kids a sufficient start so that they have a reasonable shot at opportunities to flourish, a safety net as a form of social insurance, and ensuring that old people don’t starve in the street, even if they made bad financial decisions in their younger years all seem reasonable to me. (I guess you could say these are just luck egalitarianism – even the last, since any of us could make a good bet that suffers aleatory catastrophe.) Beyond that, I tend to think its harmful effects outweigh its benefits, especially when used to micromanage outcomes.

        1. Thanks, Dave. That sounds plausible, depending on what counts as a reasonable shot and how high the safety net is! Luck egalitarians need an appropriate explanation of free will, and I suspect that’s not possible.

  4. Costas Douzinas talks about the end of human rights. This statement means that originally the human rights concept was created to protect the individual against public power.
    To protect the individual’s negative status. According to this concept the state is forbidden to order in which church we should go or what words we should say or what place to live we can choose.
    But today this original and MODERATE concept is transferring into the activist “inner freedom”.
    Any wish is considered to be a human right. But this inflation of rights can mean also the end of human rights.
    Well … Let us say that looking attractive is my human right. But if my body height is 1.6 m is also my human right to play basketball?
    If so this human right claiming would mean just this:
    destroying me, destroying the audience, destroying basketball ….Game over.

  5. Hmmmm. Protecting the individual against public power. So, who is the public? Does that public include the governance elected to represent us in a democracy, or is the public everyone else, who, in good or bad faith, participates in ANY chosen system? There are already failures here, because of the inherent ‘mission creep’ of der grupens. Interests, preferences and motives override; eventually subsume intentions. I heard today of a planned coup d’etat, in a place where such insurrection could not have been contemplated before Gorbachev. But, well, I forget January 6. I questioned the genesis, and immediate subsidence of authoritarian populism. The silence around that question was deafening. In the past three days, well-educated people, whom I respect have shown their ambiguity towards honesty. The position, an old one, is ‘fake it, until you make it’. That was always a lie. But the lie seems far more acceptable now, doesn’t it? Or, was it acceptable, all along, depending on one’s interests, preferences and motives? Hmmmm…

  6. I don’t quite talk about the type of political regime. Of course there are plenty of them and we should be really careful what regime we mark as totalitarian, authoritarian or democratic. These categories are general and each type of regime has its own subtle characteristics (maybe the best classification of non-democracies in Juan J. Linz: Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes).
    But I rather talk about human rights’ concept. In the era of Locke, Montesquieu or Tocqueville the human rights had its constitutional dimension. The original human rights catalogues ensured for individual his/her private sphere. All in the vertical way i.e. the individual is free to choose the religion, the opinion, the work etc. and he is protected from breaking to privacy and from unjustifiable state’s (higher) interference.
    But today the human rights are claimed horizontally. The individual’s wish is considered to be his/her right. But such human rights concept has nothing in common with its original and constitutional raison d’etre. Well … let us consider that I must choose not so attractive partner or not so attractive employee in order not to harm anybody. I have to obey. Is this really free society?
    Recently The European Court of Human Rights for just formal reasons refused the complaint of man who wanted the catholic married couple to make a cake with notice supporting gay marriages.
    In this case in the name of human rights one individual forced another individual to make something. And just in this case we can see that such human rights claiming is activist and has no limits. And finally it tends to violence.

  7. I think we make a mistake, comparing or even contrasting the complexity of postmodernist society with the simplicity of that of Locke,Tocqueville or even William James. It just doesn’t wash. Very little of those first eras has very much to do with the later one, save perhaps the enduring discoveries of physics and science. Descartes, Newton and Leibniz contributed much to what we know about what we can know. So far. Before that, Copernicus mostly kept his mouth shut, while Galileo got in deep do do with the then-uibiquitous-Church. Ahem. Never feed the Hand that can bite you. Now is not then.
    An so, any sort of historical or traditional view fails …even when traditionalist thinking may be populistically popular. You can’t do that. Read Kaufman (Stuart), the Oracle from Calgary, if you are cjurious. I did not get beyond his first book. But, I knew where he was going. The Chalmers-Koch bet is off. For now. The issue will be present, after they are long gone. hummph,said the camel…

  8. On the contrary I think we should compare it and be aware of differences. I mean the differences between the SELF-RESTRAINED politics that has limited ambitions to make any corrections and the ACTIVIST politics that want to change everything.
    With Rousseau’s philosophy we left the self-restrained approach and we accepted the idea that through the politics we can SHAPE the world according to our plans and (often false) imaginations.
    This approach has result in “blame culture”. While with the self-restrained approach “looking attractive” or “looking less attractive” are natural matters that should not be correct, in our society we think that the natural issues we can change/remove/eliminate/making better.
    We could also watch this during pandemic. The death stopped to be considered as possible consequence of the illness and falsely started to be considered as complication that should be prevented (VENTO, S. – CAINELLI, F. – VALLONE, A. Defensive medicine: It is time to finally slow down an epidemic. World Journal of Clinical Cases. 2018).
    The bad results of this mistaken and destructively ambitious attitude we can now watch in the all over the world crisis. The crisis not only economic but also moral.

  9. Whether we agree or disagree on any or all of this, one salient fact stands clear in the argument: there is no statute that I know of which proscribes alleged unlawful ‘lookism’ as unlawful discrimination. I freely admit I know little about English law. I know barely more than that of Canadian law. So, unless there is a statute, in effect or pending—in the UK, we are left with the moral/ethical argument, which, as a practical matter, is simply that. If, or when, there will be actively pursued moral and ethical legislating, in the UK;USA or anywhere else, then we will have a lot more than naming and shaming to contend with. It will herald a dystopia, far more dangerous than any futurist fiction writer has ever contemplated. If I don’t have the whole story, then I plead ignorance of the basis for this topic. Another topic I have found puzzling recently is that of so-called linguistic discrimination. Here again, I know of no evidence or proscription around who publishes what in which language(s).Publishing in one language, but not another, is not unlawful discrimination. Not that I know of. Not yet. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

  10. It was not my wish to repeat once more a perceived importance in a broad and comprehending worldview reducing what is here termed lookism, language differences, accents, political correctness and such to mere change. Each of those is most frequently used to prejudice others especially when the initiator may not accept it is merely difference. But to more easily capture the essence of what comes next it became necessary.
    Beauty itself is widely acclaimed as being in the eye of the beholder, and each of those lookist issues may well emanate from a wish to experience the perceived beauty of life. Perhaps the enforced political correctness emanating from those who favour that type of approach is no more than a forceful or ignorant attempt at educating others about others by ignoring other perceptions. Many different PC approaches are documented and visibly attempted, but redefining beauty by mere experience and familiarity does not achieve a learning process in people who would then willingly maintain that learning process indefinitely, apparently because as soon as the strange becomes familiar many seek stability in what was/has been foreseen/foretold/achieved. Does not Lookism, like the alternation between fat and thin, vegetarian or meat eater often become prejudice in the mind of the beholder in many worldviews and both sides of that equation.

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