Before 8 a.m., I have often already applied seven products to my face — face wash, tinted moisturizer, eyeliner, mascara and more.
And I don’t think I’m terribly fussy, or alone. In an effort to appear polished and professional, many American women — not all, of course, but many — spend a huge amount of time and money on makeup and skincare products. Hugely popular cosmetics companies such as Sephora and Bluemercury feature a slew of products that I don’t even understand — from Amazonian clay-infused eyebrow mousse to ambient lighting powder.
This is not to mention the time and effort many women spend on their hair, clothing, nails and other beauty routines. In a highly unscientific poll, 27 of my female colleagues at The Washington Post reported putting an average of five products on their face that morning, and keeping two additional pairs of shoes at their desk. The two male colleagues I asked averaged half a product and one extra shoe each.
You might dismiss all this female primping and preening as vanity or silliness. Yet a fascinating new paper from two sociologists suggests that women do have good reason to spend so much time and money on their appearance: If they don’t, they risk losing a substantial amount of money.
The research, from Jacyln Wong of the University of Chicago and Andrew Penner of the University of California at Irvine, used data from a long-running national study of more than 14,000 people to look at the association between attractiveness and income. In the surveys, the interviewers asked people a variety of questions about their income, job, education, personality and other attributes. Interviewers also rated their interviewees on how attractive and how well-groomed they appeared.
Like past studies, the research showed that attractive people tended to earn higher salaries. But that wasn’t all. Their research suggested that grooming — practices such as applying makeup and styling hair and clothing — was actually what accounted for nearly all of the salary differences for women of varying attractiveness. For men, grooming didn’t make as much of a difference.
Numerous studies in the past have shown that people who are considered physically attractive have many advantages in life. In school, attractive people tend to be more popular and receive higher grades. In courtrooms, they receive shorter prison sentences. Research shows attractive people are more likely to be hired and promoted in the workplace, and end up with higher earnings.
Researchers have various explanations for this. Some say it’s discrimination against people who are seen as unattractive. Some think there is a subconscious bias, a "halo effect," in which we assume that, because people are beautiful, they have other positive personality traits, too. Studies indicate that attractive people are often perceived as more intelligent, more trustworthy and more cooperative.
Wong and Penner’s research supports some of these ideas. They find that, controlling for other differences such as age, race, class and education, individuals who were rated as more attractive by an interviewer earned about 20 percent more than people who were rated as having just average attractiveness.
The researchers then broke down the results by gender, to investigate whether being attractive was associated with a bigger salary increase for women than for men. Conventional wisdom is often that appearances matter more for women, because beauty plays a big part in the traditional gender roles of a woman as a wife, sex object and bearer of children. Although women today have moved into other social roles, those traditional beauty ideals may have followed them there.
Yet past research actually shows mixed results on whether being attractive helps women get ahead in the workplace. Some studies show that men discriminate in favor of attractive women at work, but others have shown that attractiveness may actually work against women in positions of power. Seminal research in the late 1970s showed that attractiveness was consistently an advantage for men in the workplace, but was an advantage for women only when they sought a non-managerial position.
Yet Wong and Penner don’t find any significant gender differences in the financial returns people receive for being considered attractive. They find that women earn less than men, and that unattractive people earn less than attractive people, but that attractiveness is not more or less important for women than for men.
However, the researchers did find a big difference between men’s and women’s salaries when it came to grooming. Controlling for factors such as age, race, education and personality traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness, they compared how interviewers rated people on attractiveness, how they rated the same person on grooming, and that person’s salary.
Wong says they wanted to look more closely at what being "attractive" really meant - is it something you are born with, or something you can acquire? After all, beauty can be an innate quality, or it could be the result of styling your hair well, wearing clothes that look nice on you, or perhaps experimenting with brow clay from Sephora.
They found that a substantial amount of attractiveness was the result of grooming, and here’s where they found gender differences, Wong says. "For women, most of the attractiveness advantage comes from being well groomed. For men, only about half of the effect of attractiveness is due to grooming."
In other words, the study suggests that grooming is important for both men and women in the workplace, but particularly for women. Changes in grooming have a substantial effect on whether women are perceived as attractive, and their salaries. In fact, as the charts below show, less attractive but more well-groomed women earned significantly more, on average, than attractive or very attractive women who weren’t considered well-groomed. (The research doesn’t say how much of these extra earnings were then blown at Bluemercury or Sephora.)
So what does this all mean? According to the researchers, the results suggest that beauty, especially for women, is more of a behavior — "something you do," rather than "something you are." Most research and most people tend to see attractiveness as a fixed, innate trait, but the researchers say it’s more accurate to think of it as a combination of biological traits, personality characteristics and beauty practices.
Some economists might interpret all this primping and preening as something they call a "signaling device." For professionals, spending all this time and money on your appearance might signal to your colleagues that you’re aware of social cues and that you care about how other people perceive you — not terrible skills for the workplace. Another theory is that grooming in socially accepted ways signals adherence to the dominant ideas about masculinity and femininity in our culture, a practice that American workplaces may reward.
But the question still remains why these practices are typically more important for women than men. Wong and Penner agree that there are a few possibilities.
One is that women just have a wider range of beauty practices available to them — they can go to work in suits or maxi dresses, stilettos or brogues. They can wear their hair long or short, and wear makeup, or not. Men, in contrast, have a much more limited set of socially acceptable options for presenting themselves as professionals — relatively short hair, shirts and ties, perhaps a Marco Rubio boot if they’re feeling adventurous. From this perspective, women’s beauty practices might be seen primarily as a form of creative self-expression — a view that many women do endorse.
But there are more sinister theories as well. One is that these gender differences are the result of a cultural tendency to monitor women’s behavior more than men’s, in ways that keep women distracted from really achieving power. Wong quotes Naomi Wolf, a third-wave feminist who argues that unrealistic standards of beauty that women are encouraged to pursue — an ideal she calls "the beauty myth" — is ultimately a way to control and constrain women’s behavior.
Wong says that both explanations probably have some truth. "I think that we more readily judge women, and so this presentation becomes so important to them," she says.