Ugly discrimination in the face of beauty

 
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By Khaled Diab

The curious case of Arab men reportedly deported for being “too handsome” demonstrates that the beautiful can also be the victims of discrimination.

Friday 10 May 2013

Imagine a land where beautiful people are so stigmatised that they are banished simply for their looks. Does it sound like a sci-fi fantasy dystopia?

Well, this is exactly what reportedly happened to three Emirati men on a business trip in Saudi Arabia who were apparently deported for being “too handsome”.

The men were detected and ejected by Saudi’s notorious “morality police”, the mutaween, also known by their formal Orwellian-sounding title, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, who “feared female visitors would fall for them”.

When I first read about this, I wondered how the mutaween had decided these men were too hot to handle. Did they do it scientifically, say with some high-tech gadget that monitors seismic activity caused by collective gasps of approval or a sort of Geiger counter that measures the fallout from radioactive beauty, counted in Cutie units? Or did they have a panel of judges, like some sort of warped beauty contest, who held up scorecards, with the winner receiving a one-way ticket home?

Since the hunks’ return to the neighbouring Emirates, no reports have emerged of any fallout from the radioactive presence of these killer men – though I should be careful using that description of Arabs in these suspicious times.

Nevertheless, if the mutaween had hoped to keep a lid on the affair and spare women the undoubted agony and suffering prolonged exposure would almost certainly cause, they failed desperately. Not only has the story gone super-viral around the world, a crowd-sourced manhunt has already uncovered the probable identity of one of the Arabian thoroughbreds.

In a world where Arab men are seen mainly in the negative – not so much as fun but rather as fundamentalist, never fans but always fanatics – I, who never read gossip or glossies, was mildly pleased that the much-maligned male from my part of the world was getting, so to speak, a media facelift.

Of course, some of the attention in the West was somewhat condescending, of the “look-what-those-weird-Arabs-are-doing-now” variety, rather like the mirthful reactions to news reports of camel beauty pageants.

But is it really so hard to believe that some people’s beauty can cause them trouble or even that attractive people can be discriminated against? These men may have been sent home, but boy did the experience raise their street cred and made of them minor celebrities, even if the identities of two of them are still shrouded in mystery.

Others have not been so fortunate. Take Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant who lost her livelihood for no other reason than her boss found her too attractive.

Naturally, this goes against the overwhelming stereotype of beauty, and how it serves its owner. And as endless studies have regularly shown, good looks can help people get ahead in life, from getting laid to getting a job or promotion – and even, rather dubiously, make them happier than their more mortal peers.

In fact, for some careers, such as the glamorous mainstream of acting and the media, good looks are more often than not an essential, if unofficial, qualification. There is even, I have learned, a term to describe this sort of positive discrimination in favour of the beautiful people: “lookism”.

In contrast, bad looks are a well-known source of discrimination, a social handicap for their bearers. Not only are people endowed with fewer physical assets often disadvantaged in life and love, the very semantics of language subliminally slaps them in the face – and the title of this article is no exception. When we disapprove of something or wish to say it was really horrendous or terrible, we regularly employ this alienated and lonely adjective: an ugly situation, the ugly face of warfare, the ugly underbelly of poverty, etc.

Although I won’t for a moment suggest that there is equivalence, beautiful people don’t always have it their way and can be the victims of discrimination. This can be seen in the age-old bias that beauty and brains can rarely be united in the same body. This leads to stereotypes that attractive people, particularly women, are likely to be shallow – consider all those dumb blonde jokes or the idea that hunky men who take care of their appearance are hollow airheads.

This can be a real problem for good-looking people. For instance, though looks serve them in “feminine jobs”, attractive women trying to get ahead in professions that require intelligence or authority or toughness do face discrimination.

For example, I have met young female professionals, including scientists, who complain that male colleagues, especially older ones, don’t always take them seriously. One attractive but tough-as-nails woman I know who works in the construction industry says, perhaps counter-intuitively, that she has no trouble with her subordinates, but her peers exhibit hostility and disrespect towards her.

In addition, there is the issue of harassment. Though unwanted amorous or sexual attention is not the exclusive domain of attractive people, it is more likely to occur if the target happens to be beautiful – and, again, a woman. In public, what is taken as aloofness, can sometimes simply be a defensive mechanism against unsolicited interest. Even flattering gestures such as holding doors open for attractive women or providing them with more favourable treatment or greater attention can cause distress to those of them who wish to be treated as equals and ordinary.

Moreover, extreme beauty can be alienating. Incredibly attractive – gorgeous, I believe, is the technical term – people may well draw many advantages from their physical assets, but their looks can also act like a chasm separating them from their peers, making natural, casual interactions difficult, with many members of their own gender viewing them with suspicion and those of the opposite sex typically acting flustered or nervous in their company.

This hostile reaction to beauty can be seen in the traditional view that being too beautiful was somehow immoral. It can also be discerned in music and song, in which the gorgeous are often attributed with negative characteristics like cruelty and vanity. Take Alice Cooper telling us that his lover’s blood is “like ice” and her lips are like “venomous poison”.

Though we may try to curb it, we will never end discrimination based on looks. And it would seem that nature and evolution have disposed us with a natural bias towards beauty, however subjective and frivolous that concept can be. Nevertheless, while the beautiful set may seem to have the world at their feet, we must remember that not all that glitters is gold and beauty has its unattractive underbelly too.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 2 May 2013.

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