Ugliness as a disability?

A bit of an oldie, but interesting nonetheless: Economist Daniel S. Hamermesh, author of Beauty Pays, makes the argument in an Op-Ed for the New York Times that ugliness should be considered as a form of disability, with compensation available to the very ugliest people of society.  He makes the case that being ugly results in significant social impairment; that is, the ugliest people tend to make less money and be less successful due, primarily, to their looks. As a result, people should either be compensated, or legislation should be put in place which, in effect, would represent affirmative action for the ugliest people of society.

Economic arguments for protecting the ugly are as strong as those for protecting some groups currently covered by legislation. So why not go ahead and expand protection to the looks-challenged? There’s one legitimate concern. With increasingly tight limits on government resources, expanding rights to yet another protected group would reduce protection for groups that have commanded our legislative and other attention for over 50 years.

Is ugliness really a disability? If it is, what does this mean about the concept “disability”? Is it primarily a social construction — a result of social stigma?

2 thoughts on “Ugliness as a disability?

  1. That’s interesting. However, how do we define ‘ugliness’? Beauty is a subjective concept not just among individuals but also amongst different cultural contexts. There is hardly any parameter to define beauty across the world. Who then would benefit from such a legislation? Who will get to decide such parameters?

  2. Good point Arpita.

    Hamermesh does try to address this criticism when he makes the argument that, in fact, there are generally held standards of beauty (not only culturally, but universally). He appeals to some studies that (apparently) demonstrate that most people will agree on who are the ugliest, and who are the most beautiful. Line up 5 people… and most of us will agree, give or take some minor differences, their general attractiveness.

    I think you could also argue that, in general, there are societal standards of beauty, and that while these might differ from culture to culture (which Hamermesh contests) what ultimately matters is that there is a stigma in looking what is generally deemed “ugly” by societal standards. And this stigma — not the ugliness itself, but the stigma of being ugly — is ultimately what constitutes the “disability” of ugliness. Many people argue that physical disability is, similarly, culturally relative. It’s a social construct. People don’t suffer with the “disability” itself, they suffer from having to live in a world that isn’t built with them in mind. In other words, society is responsible for functional impairment that the disabled experience. It’s the same with those that are ugly. On what grounds, then, does it make sense to implement laws that support the physically disabled, but not for those are generally considered the ugliest people in society?

    Just some food for thought.

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