Attractive people profit from their beauty
There is no doubt that John F. Kennedy had it all over Richard M. Nixon in the looks department, says University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh, who studies attractiveness. It's less certain how much of a difference it made in his narrow defeat of Nixon in the 1960 presidential race, Dr. Hamermesh said, because the general rule is the more you know the candidates, the less looks matter. On the other hand, he says, a host of studies has shown that good-looking candidates in state and local elections have an advantage.
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Two hundred-fifty thousand dollars.
That's how much extra a good-looking American male will earn during his lifetime than his less attractive colleagues, University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh says.
It's not an overwhelming advantage, given how long most careers are, he says, but it does have weight, and is equivalent to about 1 1/2 additional years of schooling.
The studies done by Dr. Hamermesh, who has written a new book, "Beauty Pays," that will be published next summer by Princeton University Press, not only contend that beauty has benefits, but that unattractiveness carries a penalty.
After adjusting for all the other factors that can affect earnings, he writes, women in the bottom third of looks are paid about 4 percent less than average-looking employees, and men in that group are paid 13 percent less.
If we accept that these findings are accurate, the questions then become -- does it matter, and should we do anything about it?
On that, the experts disagree.
One who thinks that people should not be penalized for their appearance is Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University, who this year wrote a book on the issue, "The Beauty Bias."
She believes there need to be more state or local laws banning discrimination based on appearance, as well as a concerted campaign to battle false or misleading claims by the beauty industry.
Dr. Hamermesh agrees that there is bias at work when unattractive people are paid less, but he's not sure it's worth the energy and time fighting it.
"I think race is the central issue in American history, and that being the case, I'd like to make sure we take care of [racial bias] before we take care of any other issue. The problem is, if you protect one more group, the energy for that protection takes away from the protection for another group."
A third scholar, Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow in sociology at the London School of Economics, not only opposes anti-discrimination laws based on looks, but believes the advantages people get from being attractive should be celebrated and counted as an economic asset.
She laid out her ideas this year in an article entitled "Erotic Capital" in the European Sociological Review, and is writing a book of the same name that will be published in September.
"It's simply not true that appearance is genetic and unalterable," she said during an October interview in London, "so it's not the same thing as race discrimination or sex discrimination.
"You don't choose your sex or choose to be born black or white, and I can see an argument that you shouldn't be penalized for that, but attractiveness has absolutely nothing to do with that."
Stanford's Dr. Rhode acknowledges that appearance is not the biggest women's rights issue, but she still thinks it is important to address, partly because it is underrecognized.
In analyzing the few anti-bias laws on appearance that exist in America, she noted that few complaints are ever adjudicated. The greatest value of such laws, though, may not be in achieving individual remedies, but in shining a spotlight on unfair practices based on looks, she said.
One case she cited was that of Jennifer Portnick, a 240-pound exercise instructor who was denied a franchise by Jazzercise, a fitness chain. She sued under San Francisco's anti-bias law, and the publicity caused the company to change its policy, partly because "the groundswell of public support made it quite clear that for a lot of women, having an instructor who looked just like them was a good thing," she said.
She also would like to see better regulation of fashion, cosmetic, diet and other beauty products, and possible boycotts of companies that make unsupportable claims.
While some may believe that everyone takes these companies' ads with a grain of salt, "in fact surveys have shown the vast majority of people think these companies couldn't make these claims unless there was a basis in fact," even though that is not the case.
Dr. Rhode knows good-looking people have an edge, but said "I'm more concerned about the disadvantages than the advantages. People are going to get a beauty bump because we're kind of hard-wired to like more attractive people, or to prefer taller men, for instance, but I think what you can do is attack some of the more punitive measures based on standards that have no relation to job performance."
Dr. Hamermesh is not convinced.
Besides worrying that appearance claims could detract from a focus on racial bias, he said it is also devilishly hard sometimes to determine whether "lookism" is based on prejudice or real economic benefits good-looking people generate.
"People like to deal with good-looking people," he said. "They like to have good-looking colleagues or bosses, and a good-looking boss is likely to inspire workers better, and customers like to buy from good-looking salespeople. Is this discrimination or is this not discrimination?
"It's an incredibly difficult issue."
Dr. Rhode said the existing appearance laws have not reduced the number of other kinds of bias complaints filed.
She also noted that the same arguments about what kinds of people others would like to work with or buy from were used decades ago to try to deny equal workplace rights for minorities. "The same reasons we used to reject customer preference in those cases we should use in these cases, too," she said.
Dr. Hakim believes there is little parallel between race bias and appearance bias, though, because "erotic capital," as she defines it, involves several factors that people can change for themselves.
While beauty or handsomeness is a central element, she said, there is also sexual attractiveness, "which can be quite separate from classic beauty," as well as social grace, liveliness, personal style and sexual energy.
Women particularly can enhance their erotic capital in many ways, even if they weren't born with the best looks, she said.
"A lot of women say 'There's nothing I can do,' and I look at them and say, 'There's a lot I could do with you.'
"The French have this concept of the belle laide, which is a beautiful ugly person, and it's someone where their natural endowment made them unattractive, but what you do is you do your hair in a way that suits you and you wear makeup that suits and you wear clothes that really suit you. It doesn't make you beautiful, but you can become attractive, which is a very different thing. The French always have had this idea that artifice wins over nature every time," Dr. Hakim said.
Her ideas get some support from studies done by Philip Robins and his colleagues at the University of Miami.
Dr. Robins, an economist, worked with a large database of young people who had been rated on attractiveness, grooming and personality, and then tracked what happened to them later in life.
The studies showed that the most important economic advantage for men was grooming, and that grooming and personality trumped appearance in women.
The studies also concluded that employer bias is involved in paying people more for these attributes, because the appearance premium showed up not just in professions where attractiveness was part of the job description (TV newscaster, model), but also in professions where it shouldn't be (computer programmer, accountant).
Dr. Hakim said women naturally possess more erotic capital than men do, partly because men remain more interested in sex for longer than most women do.
That gives women bargaining power in the workplace and in relationships, she said -- something that many men don't want to acknowledge and many traditional feminists ignore.
She said "radical feminists" continue to push the idea that if women beautify themselves, "this is humiliating, this is objectifying yourself, this is commodifying sex."
But many younger women don't go along with that idea, she said. "The younger generation of women take equal opportunity and equal access to education and equal pay for granted, but they can't see any reason for the life of them why they shouldn't use makeup. The world they're living in is not the world their mothers were living in."
The debate over what beauty standards women ought to meet often leaves them torn about what to do.
In an article in the latest issue of Psychology Today, advice columnist Amy Alkon makes that point in a particularly sardonic way.
"Because Americans are so conflicted and dishonest about the power of beauty, we approach it like novices," she wrote. "At one end of the spectrum are the "Love me as I am!" types, like the woman who asked me why she was having such a terrible time meeting men, while dressed in a way that advertised not 'I want a boyfriend!' but 'I'm just the girl to clean out your sewer line!'
"At the other extreme," Ms. Alkon said, "are women who go around resembling porn-ready painted dolls."
Dr. Hakim said that if women present themselves well, it should be valued in the workplace just as a high IQ is.
"You could argue that there's an economic return to intelligence, but there's not for attractiveness, but that's wrong," she said. "Attractive people sell more. Attractive people are more persuasive in an argument."
But Stanford's Dr. Rhode still feels that "appearance is not a solid basis for meritocratic employment."
"I'm not against beauty and the pleasure that people take in their own appearance and the appearance of others," she said, "but I am against injustice, and I'm in favor of trying to cure our preoccupation with appearance in ways that are damaging to people's self esteem or economic well-being."
First Published December 6, 2010 12:00 am