Lis on Law: A Big Fat Double Standard

Lis Wiehl

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The burning question of the week: Can “America's Sweetheart,” Katie Couric, transition from cooking and colonoscopies to hard news reporting? After three months of extreme hype, Couric finally made her evening news debut. And her detractors are still deciding if this cheery blond is tough enough (read: man enough) to take the helm of a serious news program. Sharks have been snapping at everything from the color of her hair to the length of her skirt. (For those of you wondering, she wore a mid-length black dress and white fitted jacket on her first night). Critics have been kinder to Vieira, saying she's established and well-respected in the field — but keep in mind she's replacing another woman, not taking over for a leading man.

As a woman of a “certain age,” I applaud the promotions of Couric to evening news anchor and Vieira to the “Today Show.” In a society where men over 40 are considered worldly and distinguished, but women of the same age are considered passé, these changes are a step in the right direction.

It wasn't that long ago that Jane Pauley was ousted from her position as co-host on the “Today Show” for being too old. Following months of speculation, a younger Deborah Norville shunted Pauley to the sidelines. As an on-air personality, I recognize that looking professional is part of the job. But unlike my male counterparts, I am always conscious of my appearance and age. I am a woman in the television industry, and therefore have no choice. Men, on the other hand, seem to enjoy the luxury of developing a few wrinkles without being under a microscope — or the scalpel.

Can you imagine a man being told he'd lose his job if he packed on an extra few pounds or went bald? Is that legal?

It's the 21st century, and discrimination is alive and well. The scales of weight seem in tact, but what about the scales of justice? The law does offer certain protections — but the road to winning a lawsuit is an uphill battle. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, protects against gender and racial discrimination. And the Age Discrimination Employment Act protects people over forty.

But, there are some serious shortcomings. The Act does not cover appearance discrimination nor does it recognize “appearance-challenged” individuals as a protected group. It's hard to believe this is the law when research proves that women's appearance directly correlates with their economic and professional success. And as you probably guessed, men experience little or no negative financial effects based on their pant size.

Washington D.C has remedied this wrong — and the rest of the country should follow suit. The District of Columbia Human Rights Act specifically makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of personal appearance — that includes everything from hairstyle and dress to body shapes.

Critics — and I am assuming they are thin good-looking critics — say expanding Title VII to include the “appearance-challenged” would be too difficult to define, as they are a diverse group. They also argue that appearance is fundamentally different from other classes protected by the law, such as gender and race.

But, laws protecting appearance discrimination are necessary to become a society where certain groups— particularly those who are stigmatized — are treated on the basis of their skills and not their looks. In my own experience, when I write columns or discuss issues on radio, I am judged by the content of what I write and say. Television adds the visual dimension, but that should not diminish the value of the content.

Our current laws must go a step further and protect women from discrimination as most of us eventually gain a few pounds and add a few gray hairs — and all of us age. As for Katie, I think she'll do just fine — not because she got a new hairdo or “lost” twenty pounds, but because she's a newswoman with character and content. And ask yourself, would we even be having this discussion if Meredith were “Murray” and Katie were “Ken?”

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.