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The Practicality of “Ugly Affirmative Action”

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Yeah, it's not looking good for his earning potential

I’m a pretty big fan of words. I enjoy typing them, reading them, researching them, and, on many occasions, inventing them. (What, you thought “cunnilingusness” was a real word?)

In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to type a sentence, be “eh” about a certain word, go to a thesaurus at or Merriam-Webster to find a more appropriate word, and lose myself there; spending 20 minutes clicking on and learning new definitions, tenses, and antonyms. Along with my latent nerd tendencies, I think this obsession with finding the perfect word comes from a fear of being misunderstood; a neurosis that manifests as me making certain there’s no wiggle room when trying to convey some points.

Anyway, I’m bringing this up because, despite this need to be perfectly clear, there’s one word I try my damnedest not to use even if it seems like the optimum fit; a word so pejorative and condemning that I’d rather create a euphemistic phrase for it instead of just typing or speaking it: Ugly

What separates ugly from other common non-vulgar pejorative adjectives (dumb, stupid, fat, etc) — and why I’m reluctant to use it — is that it’s rarely accurate (“ugly” suggests a universal aesthetic belligerence — a quality very few people possess) and, more importantly, ugly sticks.

You can laugh off and forget being called stupid or dumb or even “unattractive” (the ultimate kind euphemism for “ugly”), but ugly tends to dig a tad deeper and tends to sound a tad meaner. We’re aware that being ugly might be the ultimate human albatross, and even jokingly giving a person that distinction is basically saying “your life is always going to suck, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

And, if you think I’m being too harsh about the burden of ugliness, check this out.

From “Ugly? You May Have a Case”

BEING good-looking is useful in so many ways.

In addition to whatever personal pleasure it gives you, being attractive also helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse (and one who looks better, too!) and get better deals on mortgages. Each of these facts has been demonstrated over the past 20 years by many economists and other researchers. The effects are not small: one study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.

Beauty is as much an issue for men as for women. While extensive research shows that women’s looks have bigger impacts in the market for mates, another large group of studies demonstrates that men’s looks have bigger impacts on the job.

This excerpt was written by University of Texas economics professor Daniel E. Hamermesh, whose new book “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful” explores a “duh!” premise and finds some intriguing results, including the “fact” that there actually is a universal standard of beauty and ugliness.

You might argue that people can’t be classified by their looks — that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That aphorism is correct in one sense: if asked who is the most beautiful person in a group of beautiful people, you and I might well have different answers. But when it comes to differentiating classes of attractiveness, we all view beauty similarly: someone whom you consider good-looking will be viewed similarly by most others; someone you consider ugly will be viewed as ugly by most others. In one study, more than half of a group of people were assessed identically by each of two observers using a five-point scale; and very few assessments differed by more than one point.

Basically, we’ll debate exactly where people on the top ten and people on the bottom ten percent of the looks scale should rank (“Yeah, she’s good looking, but she’s an 8.7 instead of a 9“), but we’ll all come to the same consensus that they definitely belong in their “good-looking” or “not good-looking” categories.

So, is there any way to rectify the fact that, on average, ugly people will make almost a quarter-million dollars less over their lifetimes than attractive people? Well, Hamermesh has a somewhat contrived (but somewhat practical) remedy for that problem.

A more radical solution may be needed: why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?

We actually already do offer such protections in a few places, including in some jurisdictions in California, and in the District of Columbia, where discriminatory treatment based on looks in hiring, promotions, housing and other areas is prohibited. Ugliness could be protected generally in the United States by small extensions of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Ugly people could be allowed to seek help from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other agencies in overcoming the effects of discrimination. We could even have affirmative-action programs for the ugly.

Now, I haven’t read his book yet (and this point might be addressed in it), but I question his methodology. While he suggests that employers discriminate against ugly people, it’s possible that people who’ve been called ugly their entire lives have developed a learned helplessness that affects their self-esteem and ultimately hinders their professional progress. The make less money because they’re worse workers and less ambitious, and they’re worse workers and less ambitious because they’re less confident.

Still, the idea of ugly affirmative action is an interesting one, and I’d be curious to see exactly how they’d construct the application process. (I imagine it would involve a ton of masks and funhouse mirrors.)

Anyway, people of, I’m curious: Do you think that ugly is too powerful of a word to be used lightly? Also, do you incorporate it in your lexicon, or do you try to use kinder euphemisms like “unattractive?”

Also, if it is true that ugly people get discriminated against, ugly affirmative action isn’t really that crazy of an idea, right?

—The Champ

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Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at Or don't. Whatever.

  • I ain’t choose to rhyme, rhymin’ chose me / So I hit the track runnin’, like a nosebleed!

  • miss t-lee

    As I was reading this, I started humming the chorus to “Ugly” by Bubba Sparxx. I’m sure he’s happy that he was referenced, in the year of our Lord 2011. I try not to use the word ugly when pertaining to someone’s looks. I’m partial to “facially-challenged”, and “interesting” to describe someone.

  • BisforBrittani

    I don’t use ‘ugly’ in my vocabulary I prefer to use ‘not aesthetically pleasing to the eye’

    On another note, how do you determine “ugly”…like who would be in charge of that? And if one is deemed to be more unfortunate looking than someone else do you get more benefits….I just forsee anyone using the ‘ugly’ as a reason to why they did not get hired…and that just seems like more money would be wasted on something pointless..

  • Amanda

    Interesting article. Ugly affirmative action wont work however. Fun to think about and joke about, but there is no possible way it could actually work in real life. First of all, most super ugly people do not think they are ugly. Then it all goes back to tastes, racial preference, and a whole slew of other contibuting factors. For example, I think George Clooney is extremely ugly. I know women (black and white) think he is one of the most attractive men, but I think his eyes are too close together, his nose is crooked, and his chin is large and protruding. So people’s view of who is ugly and who isnt is so varied, its the individual opinion that matters in hiring, not a majority consensus.

  • Not a nice word but certainly not the worst (I wouldn’t prefer to be called “hideous”, let’s say)

    The problem with protecting this “disability” is that the person has to argue in court “I’m ugly” and then prove they are ugly and even “unattractive” people wouldn’t wanna call themselves ugly.

    Side bar: though beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, I find it amusing when some of the “not so pretty looking” people on my fb newsfeed are the ones being all arrogant and announcing how good they look in the pictures they post. I know, I’m an a**hole for thinking “but u ain’t cute!” but I wonder if that attitude is them over compensating for having felt insecure in the past cause I swear some of them think they are models.

  • Kidsister

    It is indeed very harsh and as far as I’m concerned I think its all relative. I try my hardest not to describe people as being ugly but I will use it to describe behavior, someone’s attitude, the weather, or clothing with the quickness.

    I do think people who dont fit in line with what society says is beautiful are discriminated against all the time. However, I think it’s one of those things that will go on forever because there is no real way (outside of someone flat out admitting it) to prove that you were denied based solely on your looks.

  • SexyCool

    I prefer “interest looking” and in extreme cases, I use “facially challenged.”

  • Kidsister

    That pic though…#iJustCant

  • CoolShadow

    I don’t use ‘ugly’ in my vocabulary I prefer to use ‘not aesthetically pleasing to the eye’

    My preferred euphemisms are, “aesthetically challenged”, “visually repugnant or unappealing” or “diametrically opposed to beauty”. Heard someone also say, “anti-pulchritudinal”.

  • Dc1913

    I would have to say that unattractive people are discriminated against, I am guilty of doing it actually. It was something that I noticed that I was doing subconsciously. I hire people and I found myself being disappointed or taken aback when someone who’s resume I thought was stellar, had a good phone interview and came in and they were unattractive. I’m aware that this is completely shallow but I’m being honest, it’s not like it kept me from giving them the job but I did take notice. I don’t know why. I sat down and thought about it one day, I think that attractive people make us feel comfortable, especially in a profession where you are dealing with people all day. I ended up hiring the person because they were great. But I have to admit the majority of my staff is good looking… #shrugs

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