I’m too unsexy for my shirt



Thinking only of your career prospects now, is it better to be sexy or unsexy? This person was said to be too sexy and lost her job. But at Abercrombie & Fitch the allegation is that you can’t get a job unless you’re good looking. The A&F image of glamour has helped the company make enormous profits: I once bought a T-Shirt for a godless child at an A&F store, to pay for which I had to sell my wardrobe.

A lot of nonsense is spoken about beauty and discrimination. Some people say that it is unfair to take beauty into account when employing people for a job – but if applied universally this seems ludicrous. There’s nothing wrong – is there? – with a clothes manufacturer choosing a beautiful person to model their swimwear.

Other people say that if we’re allowed to take beauty into account in recruitment then why not race: after all, in a racist society customers might prefer to buy from white rather than black sales-staff. But this comparison is flawed. One difference is that people do not identify themselves as part of a ‘beautiful’ (or ‘moderately good looking’ or ‘ugly’) group in the same way that they identify themselves – and are identified by others – as belonging to racial groups. And socio-economic power is much more closely correlated with race than it is with beauty.

So let’s allow that sexiness, or beauty, can sometimes be an acceptable criterion on which to judge between two or more possible workers (e.g. the swimwear model). How far can we take this? When is it acceptable to use looks as a criterion to discriminate between employees – and when is it not?

This ain’t easy. Suppose an orchestra has to choose between two First Violinists – one of whom is a marginally better violin player, but the other is far better looking. It is a deeply ingrained psychological trait that people prefer looking at beautiful than less beautiful people. Perhaps this human disposition can be overcome with training and education – though I doubt it. But putting that aside, imagine that the orchestra with the better looking First Violinist would sell more CDs and concert tickets. Would that make it acceptable for them to select the far more beautiful but slightly less able violinist?

One possible solution to these puzzles appeals to Aristotle and ‘teleology’. For example, attractive newsreaders/presenters might bring in more viewers than the less attractive (broadcasters understand this only too well). Yet many people are resistant to the notion that newsreaders/news presenters be selected even in part on the basis of their looks. They would be less resistant – I think – to attractiveness playing a part in who gets selected to front a quiz or cooking or talent show. Why? Because these latter shows are essentially entertainment, whilst the news is only in part entertainment – it plays other more vital functions in our democracy – holding power to account, keeping the citizenship informed.

This Aristotelian notion can be linked to the idea that if viewers judge a news presenter on the basis of their looks they are making some sort of error. But they are not making the same error, or making less of an error, if they use looks as one basis for evaluating a presenter The X Factor.

Selling clothes to the young and hip? Hmm, this seems closer to modelling swimwear than presenting the news – to me, at least. Though if A&F were barred from recruiting by looks then at least it would undermine their brand, and I’d be able to afford another shirt.