Reimagining Aesthetics: The Trouble With Lookism

Do you remember those colourful pieces of Lego we used to play with?

Imagine that each piece represents a different constraint on appearance – behaviour, looks, body image, expressions, skin tone and so on. In the early days of childhood, we are given these blocks of social constraints on gender and appearance only to accept and inculcate these restrictions without challenging them. These are beliefs that we grow up with, which represent the building blocks of our ideology. These ingrained social barriers soon become rigid and deep-rooted, making it all the harder for many to pursue an independent idea of the self.

Even after years of social movements and rebels, we as a society continue to sell the idea of being in tandem with “ideal beauty” for both men and women and systematically isolate, reject and taunt those who don’t fit within these expectations of unattainable beauty standards.

This kind of a beauty bias has existed for decades. Lookism, as defined by Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap in their 2005 study is “an equal opportunity prejudice” in which “attractiveness receives a premium and unattractiveness receives a penalty”.

These notions are reinforced in our everyday lives as aesthetic labour takes different forms. Recruiters of such work merge “flesh” and “feeling” as they see labour as mere commodities enabling a better brand image for many interactive sectors. Wanting to refine their desired corporate image, organisations make continuous efforts to mobilise and develop labour forms. Selling their brand sometimes translates to selling sexuality, appeal and the emotions of employees. Over the years, complexities beyond just looks have forced aesthetic labour to extend its dictionary meaning to sexualised labour and emotional labour.

Beauty bias

Weight discrimination also exists in workplaces. Promotions become harder to come by, and looks come above education (after confidence and experience) when it comes to hiring parameters.

The infamous Annette McConnell’s (who weighed 300 pounds) case was a shocking representation of how harsh the work environment can be even in the Western world. She recalled, “This manager told me that they were going to lay me off because people don’t like buying from fat people. He told me straight up in my face.”

Also read: Ageing in the Age of Filters

Another lawsuit was filed by Cassandra Smith (who weighed 145 pounds) suing the restaurant chain Hooters for their discriminatory weight practices. She claimed that their waitress uniform came in three sizes – extra-extra small, extra small, and small, due to which 30-day weight probation was given, asking her to join a gym to reduce weight and look better.

Sexuality also plays a role in determining how employees are perceived in service sectors, especially female counterparts. In 2010, managers at Citibank in New York fired a 33-year old single mother for being too attractive and thus “distracting her male co-workers”.

Glow or mere glam?

The entertainment industry is seen as an amalgamation of all artistic mediums through which we express, learn, adapt and relearn. Popular trends and notions that we see and get widely exposed to become our go-to ‘mantra’ that we want to live by.

As kids of Gen Z, we all have obsessed over the Instagram reels of actors, models, performers capturing their inimitable bikini bodies and have drooled over bold, charismatic posts of men flaunting that flawless jawline. We’ve been charmed to the extent where we look up to them, wanting to compare and label our differences as ‘flaws’. Even admired sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and Friends have legitimised society’s worst stereotypes. As a poster boy for all the white-lensed, racist interpretations of the Indian culture, Raj’s portrayal received immense support. Monica’s younger self and Rachel’s facial structure were objects of easy humour.

The entertainment industry silently teaches us that being thin, fair, and ageless are values essential to our being and that women after a certain age aren’t desired by society. We have been taken too far from accepting healthy body types, stretch marks, natural body hair, dark skin tone, mole marks, and all that we indeed are!

 Pyaar ek karobar?

Carrying all these blocks throughout our childhood, we grow up only to realise that love and companionship also get merged with beauty standards. A partnership of an intimate emotional connection has now transformed itself into a matchmaking business. The ‘aunty gaze’ of Sima Taparia (host in Netflix series Indian Matchmaking) made it easier to categorise people into checklists of lookism. A slim, trim, fair daughter-in-law and a tall, handsome, blue-eyed groom is the perfect platter from the marriage menu. They do not realise the detrimental impact on our psychology as the acceptance and rejection in matchmaking becomes a barometer of our fulfilment.

Also read: My Issue with Online Body Positivity: Dismantling ‘Body Awareness’

Alarming statistics of India’s Beauty Test (2020) Report revealed that 9 out of 10 women feel under scrutiny based on their looks and the whole marriage process hampers their idea of self. The marriage industry highlights the need to satisfy beauty demands by putting out detailed appearance-based questionnaires on matrimonial sites. They are left to feel underconfident, judged, and anxious. For some, it also leads to complex mental health problems and eating disorders.

Even matrimonial ads un‘fairly’ bring out feudal notions of colourism. A study highlighted that our obsession with fair skin was roughly a Rs 3,000 crore market estimation in the year 2019. The ‘brown skin number’ seems to be critical in deciding the fate of individuals and increases our desperate attempts to belong to the lower end of the ‘brown skin number’ scale.

A deeper look into lookism 

It’s never too late to dismantle those perfect blocks of lookism we all have been creating for so long. We can go back to when we assembled abstract shapes of unusual colour combinations. When it comes to tackling such discrimination, we need a systemic reform categorising lookism as a new form of discrimination for those suffering from it and those who take its undue advantage.

Trisha Aggarwal is a business management student with having a keen interest in human resources and its complexities beyond the textbook material. Exploring and understanding the meanings emerging from human interactions is something that excites me.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty