June 8th, 2011

Hot or not, it shouldn’t matter to the law

Linking a divorcée’s appearance to her alimony sets a dangerous precedent.

It may sound like an episode of Ally McBeal, but fact has once again proved stranger than fiction.

On June 3, the Straits Times reported on the High Court’s ruling that it was relevant for a judge to take into account the “attractiveness” of a wife in determining her chances of remarriage, when exercising its discretion on whether to grant lump sum or monthly maintenance.

The judgment stemmed from the divorce settlement of a 37-year-old Vietnamese Singaporean woman, in which a judge had asked if the woman in question was attractive.

Not surprisingly, the report inspired prompt rumblings of discontent from feminists. AWARE, for example, received calls and emails from many of our members, who were disturbed by the clear danger for arbitrary judgment that may result from this ruling.

Business Times columnist Joyce Hooi seems to have caught wind of similar rumblings. Her June 4 piece on this ruling discusses and then dismisses feminist arguments against the judgment – namely, that attractiveness is subjective, and that a woman’s attractiveness does not automatically make her more likely to get remarried.

First of all, Ms Hooi asserts, beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder – attractiveness is more or less objective. “While there might be room for quibbling about how someone is more of a 7 than an 8, the gulf between a 2 and an 8 is wide enough for most people to see…Railing against the objective definition of beauty is like saying that America’s Next Top Model is bunk; it is futile and makes everyone suspect that the person doing the complaining is ugly.”

Furthermore, to say that attractiveness does not impact one’s chances of financial security is “naïve”. Citing studies that show good-looking people tend to earn more than their plainer counterparts, she argues that “even if a beautiful women never marries, she is likely to be better taken care of by the workplace and quicker to find a companion” than a plainer woman. By taking such probabilities into account, she believes that “the court’s approach can be seen to be incidentally progressive”.

Stay with us while your mind reels. We do not dispute that most cultures have normative standards of beauty. However, it is presumptuous to assume that a woman’s desired prospective partner will subscribe to these same standards, and that beauty by whatever standard will be a crucial factor for him when deciding whether or not remarriage is on the cards.

By making a woman’s looks a factor when ruling on maintenance payments, this judgment may well be used as a precedent to support such a line of inquiry in future cases, which could penalize women who simply happen to fit a judge’s subjective notion of beauty.

Furthermore, as feminist website Barnyard Chorus points out: “What happens when changes (physical and otherwise) occur after the ruling?” If, for example, a woman gets a nose job after her divorce settlement and becomes more normatively attractive, does this entitle her ex-husband to a court review of her maintenance payments? Surely a ruling that is so vulnerable to individual caprice is inherently flawed.

Finally, why should the court assume that remarriage is the ultimate goal for a divorced woman, as the ruling clearly implies? There is, again, no reasonable basis for this assumption.

Even if you take into account Ms Hooi’s logic, which may lead one to the conclusion that a normatively attractive woman who chooses to stay single is likely to earn more than her plainer counterpart, this slippery slope hardly seems worth the trouble of navigating.

Studies also show that tall people earn more than short people, and extroverts earn more than introverts. The law does not and should not penalize the tall and the extroverted for their perceived and generalised social advantages. Otherwise, we would truly pity the leggy, outgoing and beautiful divorcée who runs into a judge inordinately optimistic about her future happiness, as he defines it.

To read the letter AWARE sent to the Straits Times Forum Page regarding this judgment, click here. For more about this issue, click here, here, and here.

4 Comments ...

  1. Hot or not, it shouldn’t matter to the law | The Online Citizen

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  2. Carla

    “What happens when changes (physical and otherwise) occur after the ruling?”

    My question is, should the court consider the health status of the wife when deciding the amount of alimony? If your answer is yes, then you’ll need to answer your own question of what happens when changes occur after the ruling? If your answer is no, then your question is moot.

    Yes, I do agree that beauty can be subjective, and may not be a very stable factor to judge upon, just as health status is. But it can be [just because it’s problematic to measure, doesn’t mean it’s impossible to measure], and it’s not without merits. Denying its value is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. In fact, I’d argue for infinitely more factors [including the height, as you’ve mentioned] to be used in judging whether or not, and how much to award. But alas, the judge can only rely on that few factors of consideration that are the most significant, in statistical sense. So instead of arguing that it’s subjective [which measurement is not to a certain extent?], a more convincing argument will have to touch on whether or not it is a significant enough factor to be accorded such priority in the law. My intuition says no, but i’ll need data before I argue so.

    So my point is, hot or not, it should matter to the law, but whether or not it should matter that much is up to further research.

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