HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
July 2, 2007, Herald Journal

Life is like a llama show


I recently spent a weekend tending stock for some friends who were out of town at a llama show.

Apparently, some people are very enthusiastic about this sort of thing.

Before they left, my friends spent some time explaining to me what goes on at these events, and how the animals are judged.

Factors such as conformation, fleece color and quality, the straightness of the back, and the shape of the ears are all important when one is showing or judging a llama.

Presumably, people who show other animals are concerned about similar factors related to whatever creatures they happen to own.

This might seem obvious to the average 4H member, or anyone who is familiar with animals, but I must confess that, at first, it seemed a bit foreign to me.

Growing up in a city, I never thought much about animals. A horse was a horse, a cow was a cow, and the attributes that distinguish a champion animal from an ordinary specimen were not something I gave any thought to.

The dogs and cats I encountered were of the common, run-of-the-mill variety, and there was not a pedigree in sight.

So, as I listened to my friends extoll the relative virtues of camelids, the concept seemed a bit strange to me.

After further reflection, though, it occurred to me that this judging is not so strange at all.

We do it all the time with other people.

We may not talk about it in the same terms, but it goes on every day.

Perhaps the closest we get to talking about it honestly is in the plethora of beauty pageants that have emerged over the years.

These contests are not new. P.T. Barnum staged the first beauty contest in this country in 1854.

The first “bathing beauty pageant” took place in 1880 as part of a summer festival to promote business in Rehoth Beach, Del.

The “modern” beauty pageant event began with the Miss America Pageant, which debuted in Atlantic City in 1921.

These are the most obvious manifestations of the way we judge people, like so many llamas in the ring, but there are other, much more subtle examples.

Think about the talking heads that read the nightly news. Are the most talented journalists the ones who rise to the top, or is it the ones whose appearance fits a certain type?

Consider the music industry. Can anyone achieve success in the business if they don’t have “the look?”

In order to reach the top levels in the business, a performer must have a look that the corporate geniuses can package and sell. Musical ability is a secondary consideration.

Politicians are also subject to being judged based on appearance. We have elected some homely devils in the past, but in the age of television and the Internet, where photos and video images of candidates are everywhere, this doesn’t happen much anymore.

It is not just celebrities and politicians that are judged by appearance.

We are all subject to this kind of scrutiny, and it affects every aspect of our lives, from relationships, to academics, to career advancement and compensation.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reviewed several studies and found a clear link between looks and wages.

It concluded that workers with below-average looks earn significantly less – an average of 9 percent less – than above-average-looking employees. Those with above-average looks tend to earn 5 percent more than average-looking employees.

Appearance can also affect the type of job one can get.

A trendy retail chain recently agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed the company hired white, attractive men for sales jobs, and relegated minority workers to stockroom positions.

Height is also a factor in career advancement.

A poll of Fortune 500 companies showed that most male CEOs were just under six feet tall – about three inches taller than the average man.

This height advantage might be helpful if these people were being hired to pick apples or reach books on a top shelf, but it is difficult to see how this makes them better qualified to run a company.

Weight is also a determining factor in compensation, and even in being considered for employment.

There have been a number of lawsuits surrounding this issue.

Some companies even have formal policies that limit the weight of employees, such as a hotel chain that prohibits bartenders and cocktail waitresses from gaining more than 7 percent of their body weight after they begin weighing in. This means a woman who weighs 125 pounds could not gain more than 8.75 pounds, and if she did, she would be subject to a 90-day unpaid suspension, and, after that, termination.

Discrimination based on appearance, height, and weight is all around us.

Whether it is based on formal policies or informal preference, it affects us all.

The majority of the blue ribbons, good jobs, and top salaries will continue to go to the pretty people, just as they always have done, and the cosmetically-challenged among us will continue to have to work twice as hard to compete.

It should not be too difficult for us to empathize with the poor llamas and other creatures who are subjected to the indignity of being judged strictly based on appearance and other genetic factors that are beyond their control.

The fact is, we are all in the same boat.