Too pretty, too heavy: In any case, it's a form of sex discrimination

Working women

July 29, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- There's an old form of sex discrimination in the workplace that's getting new attention these days: It's one in which women's careers are imperiled because of their looks.

Ann Hopkins, formerly a consultant in the Washington, D.C., office of Price Waterhouse, a large accounting firm, was denied a partnership because she "needed to learn to dress more femininely."

And Teresa Fischette, a Continental Airlines ticket agent at Boston's Logan Airport, was fired when she refused to comply with the company's new appearance standards requiring female employees who deal with the public to wear foundation makeup and lipstick.

In contrast, Nancy Fadhl, a police officer in Oakland, Calif., was fired because she was too well-groomed and looked "too much like a lady."

Fischette, who was rehired after media attention focused on her firing, said her situation was not unique. "I'm sorry to say that there's still quite a lot of emphasis on looks, when the important thing is your competence," she said.

If some women are not beautiful enough to keep their jobs and others are too beautiful to keep them, how can you win?

"You can't," said Naomi Wolf of New York, author of "The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women" (Morrow, $21.95). "Standards of beauty hold women in place as a cheap, docile but literate labor pool upon which our service and information-processing economy depends."

Beauty standards, said Wolf, are applied not only in the "display" professions, such as Fischette's, in which women deal directly with the public, but in all jobs. Wolf suggests that a double standard for the appearance of employed women compared with men acts as a "control" on women, "keeping them from asking for more money or better jobs." Only in two professions -- modeling and prostitution -- do women earn more than men, Wolf said.

The author experienced how looks are used to dominate women: A 1986 Rhodes Scholar, Wolf was accused by a male scholar of winning the coveted award only because of her looks; he made the accusation after she argued persuasively against subscribing to pornographic magazines, and against him, in a class discussion. She came up with the term "Beauty Myth" to describe the mercurial appearance standards "that undermine women's confidence and impede their economic progress."

"Many women have three full-time jobs," said Wolf, who earned her undergraduate degree at Yale University and her doctorate in English literature from Oxford University. "They work in paid employment, do housework -- and also spend hours doing beauty maintenance."

But she urges women to fight back: "We have to stop blaming ourselves when faced with beauty discrimination," Wolf said. "If someone uses our appearance against us, call it what it is -- job discrimination -- and make it illegal."

That's exactly what American Airlines' female flight attendants did in a successful battle over the airlines' weight standards. The airline and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants announced the settlement last March of a 17-year-old lawsuit concerning permissible weight of female flight attendants.

Discrimination because of weight is one of the most prevalent and painful prejudices employed women face, according to a psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders.

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