The best books on how pretty privilege has infiltrated American schools, prisons, and offices

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the way people respond to physical beauty since childhood—my teachers heaped praise on the pretty kids, reserving hard words for the less genetically blessed. This experience drove me to explore the pervasive ways in which unconscious beauty bias perpetuates injustice, and how it intersects with racism and privilege. Prison plastic surgery might sound like a punchline but for many, it was a lifeline. UK-born, I now live in San Francisco and have a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, New York. My work has been published by The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired, and Fast Company, among others.


I wrote...

Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery in Prisons

By Zara Stone,

Book cover of Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery in Prisons

What is my book about?

In 1965, Douglas Lipton, an idealistic 28-year-old psychologist offered free plastic surgery to people incarcerated in Rikers Island. He believed the socioeconomic boost of a nose job or facelift might curb recidivism. Three years later the data was in: a 36% drop in reoffending from prisoners who’d said yes to the scalpel. 

Lipton’s study was part of a broader picture: some 500,000 prisoners across the US, the UK, and Canada, received free surgeries between 1920 and 1995, the tab picked up by the government. Killer Looks provides a deep dive into the history of prison reform through the lens of beauty and explores how physical appearance can simultaneously empower and remove agency. The intersection of appearance bias, racism, and privilege continues to impact people today.

The books I picked & why

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A Face for Picasso: Coming of Age with Crouzon Syndrome

By Ariel Henley,

Book cover of A Face for Picasso: Coming of Age with Crouzon Syndrome

Why this book?

This first-person account of what it’s like to grow up visibly different is beautifully written, and manages to be both heartrending and uplifting at the same time. Henley does a stellar job of keeping the reader invested in her struggles, and her musings on how pervasive the idea of arbitrary physical traits and one’s value as an individual is, makes for an uncomfortable but necessary read. A must-read for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t fit in.


The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I

By Lindsey Fitzharris,

Book cover of The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I

Why this book?

What is a man without a face? Are they a person? A freak of nature? A spectacle? Fitzharris dives into the post-World War One plastic surgeries, and the pioneers that gave people back their faces, and lives, through their ingenuity. War heroes, celebrated for their bravery, but reviled for their injuries take center stage, and the challenges of adapting to a society that doesn't have a place for them speak of larger issues of belonging and representation. Vivid and stirring, this book packs an emotional punch — as do the accompanying pictures. A must-read.


Hellhole

By Sara Harris,

Book cover of Hellhole

Why this book?

This book spares no punches, diving straight into the chaos that was the Women’s House of Detention in NYC’s Greenwich Village, aka The Hellhole in the 60s and 70s. First-person narratives and choice juicy details make the lives of the women come alive, from their annual fashion show to their cellblock politics and pink-painted bars. All too often, dispatches like this lack color and clarity, but this unfiltered take is far more gripping, and avoids stereotypes. We meet a wide range of people, scarred sex workers who refuse plastic surgery as “it’s too late for them,” pregnant teens who dreamt of hair salon careers, and substance abusers who cycled in and out, multiple times.

Despite being forced to live in rat-infested slum-like conditions, with shoddy medical care, many of the women remained spirited, even upbeat. But their continued struggle to maintain their sense of identity and femininity, despite minimal resources, is all too easy to relate to. Throwaway comments about how, even imprisoned, they’re expected to maintain a certain level of grooming and makeup show how pervasive sexists and cultural norms about appearance can be, even when locked within the justice system.


Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do

By Jennifer L. Eberhardt,

Book cover of Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do

Why this book?

For months, Asian women in Oakland, CA, reported a nonstop stream of harassment and muggings by local youth. The problem: their harassers were Black. In a lineup, the women couldn't identify their attackers, and they walked free. To counter this, women in the community received cross-racial training...which failed. The robberies stopped when cameras were installed and the police didn't need a victim to ID anymore. Eberhardt’s book is full of gems like this, smart snippets of life, and the innate biases that run it. This smart examination of cognitive biases goes further than pointing out how racial biases influence criminal justice — it also offers some solutions, especially for unconscious prejudices. These take the form of unconscious bias training, and forcing people to deal with uncomfortable subjects.


The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law

By Deborah L. Rhode,

Book cover of The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law

Why this book?

This book is an eye-opening, mind-boggling, data-driven analysis of just how skewed society is against those who don’t conform to the standard of pretty. The author, a Stanford law professor, takes a deep dive into how legally ingrained physical discrimination has become, drawing on pertinent examples to illustrate what could, in other hands, be dry reading.

The examples will fire you up – a Reno bartender fired for not wearing makeup, a New Jersey cocktail waitress fired for gaining a dress size, a straight-A student expelled due to a high BMI…none of whom had any legal recourse, as it stands today. The lack of legal protection for appearance bias has clear social and psychological costs, and this book is a great call to arms for change.


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