by Jaclyn Wong
Is it possible to capitalize on your good looks? The answer might depend on your gender, and whether you are “naturally” beautiful, or invest resources on your self-presentation.
Beauty is a valued trait in American society, and previous research suggests that physically attractive individuals are advantaged across many areas of social life. For example, attractive students are considered more intelligent by their teachers, and are more popular among their classmates. Attractive women are more likely to marry husbands with higher socioeconomic status. Even justice is not blind, as attractive criminal defendants receive less severe punishments than their unattractive counterparts.
Given these patterns, it is no surprise that attractive people also do better in the workplace. Attractive job candidates are favored over unattractive applicants. They are also more likely to receive better performance evaluations. As a result, attractive workers have higher earnings than average and unattractive workers.
But, is beauty an asset in the workplace for both men and women? Beauty is a uniquely important part of the feminine gender role, but attractiveness may be less important for the traditional male role. Thus, we might expect that attractive women are especially advantaged at work.
However, some researchers have found that beauty is beastly: being very attractive could hurt women, especially if they work in positions of power. If attractive women are seen as more feminine, and femininity conflicts with the masculinized ideal worker norm, attractive women may be disadvantaged in the workplace.
Finally, if beauty matters for workplace outcomes, how important is it to be born with good looks? Can people do “beauty work” to improve their appearance? One could get a haircut, wear makeup, and choose flattering outfits to look good. One could also go on a diet or even undergo cosmetic surgery to achieve an attractive appearance. Men and women can both groom themselves to maintain their appearance, but cultural double standards with very strict prescriptions for women may make beauty work more crucial for women.
Our study uses nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) to 1) confirm the relationship between attractiveness and income; 2) examine whether the attractiveness-earnings relationship is the same for women and men; and 3) explore the role of grooming in attractiveness-earnings relationship. The Add Health study collected data on respondents’ annual income, as well as information on their background characteristics and physical appearance. Add Health interviewers rated respondents’ physical attractiveness on a five-point scale ranging from “very unattractive,” to “about average,” to “very attractive.” Grooming is similarly rated from “very poorly groomed” to “about average” to “very well-groomed,”
We find that attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness. However, most of this boost in income is due to grooming. When we account for grooming, being seen as very attractive is associated with a 13 percent increase in earnings. That is, taking out the effect of wearing nice clothes, having a good haircut, or engaging in other beauty practices, being “naturally” physically attractive predicts 13 percent higher earnings compared to being average.
Being seen as very well-groomed rather than average is associated with a 20 percent increase in income after accounting for physical attractiveness. In other words, taking away the effect of biologically-based traits for attractiveness like facial symmetry, people who are very well-groomed earn 120% of what people with average grooming earn.
When we examine gender differences in the attractiveness-earnings relationship, we surprisingly find none. “Naturally” attractive men and women both earn higher incomes than their plainer counterparts.
Where we do find gender differences is in the role of grooming in the attractiveness-earnings relationship. For men, being well-groomed helps, but being born physically attractive matters a lot for earnings. For women on the other hand, attractiveness is all about beauty work. For example, less attractive but well-groomed women actually earn more than attractive or very attractive women.
In summary, being born with good looks helps at the workplace, but it is more important to be well-groomed to enjoy a boost in income. Being attractive is not enough; it is doing attractiveness appropriately that gets rewarded in the workplace. Perhaps this is because the amount of effort someone puts into maintaining his or her appearance corresponds with how much effort he or she will put into his or her job. At any rate, we show that physical attractiveness is an important source of inequality in the labor market.
We also show that beauty work is especially important for women, and for less attractive women in particular. This finding supports other feminist researchers’ claims that beauty practices are ultimately methods for controlling women’s behavior. Grooming – a social activity that requires effort, time, resources, and conforming to desired social identities – is imperative for women in a way that it is not for men.
Jaclyn Wong is a Sociology PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. This post is based on her and Andrew Penner’s (UC Irvine) article “Gender and the Returns to Attractiveness” in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.