The Ugly Truth Behind the Beauty Premium

Grace Bello
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On Ugly Betty, we see the title character (America Ferrara) at her most radiant when emerging from a Queens beauty parlor. Rocking her glasses as well as sky-high hair and press-on nails, her newly primped appearance is an embodiment of her identity. She’s Mexican-American, middle class, and from Queens: no hair straightening, plastic surgery, or fancy diets here.

She has neither the motive nor the financial means to fundamentally alter her body. Instead, her makeover calls attention to markers of her otherness—her imperfect eyesight, her textured hair, and the overworked hands that manage her boss’s affairs so that he barely has to lift a finger. However, her preternaturally tall and slim female coworkers meet her new look with jeers. And it’s Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), the staff’s queen bee, who mocks her the most viciously.

Then there’s Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), an outsider where Megan, her boss Don Draper’s wife, is an insider. Both Peggy and Megan started as Don’s secretary; both were quickly  promoted to the role of copywriter. However, Peggy worked for her promotion by contributing to the Belle Jolie lipstick campaign and others, whereas Don boosts Megan’s career—as well as her marital status—largely due to her beauty. After learning of Megan’s engagement to Don, office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) says to Peggy, “He’ll probably make her a copywriter. He’s not going to want to be married to his secretary.”

On both Ugly Betty and Mad Men, we see young female professionals who don’t meet the inner circle’s standards of beauty get punished for it both personally and professionally. So if we, like Betty and Peggy, possess talent and ambition but not fashion- model looks, is there hope for us in image-conscious workplaces?

According to the 2006 report Why Beauty Matters, “Workers of above average beauty earn about 10 to 15 percent more than workers of below average beauty. The size of this beauty premium is economically significant and comparable to the race and gender gaps in the U.S. labor market.” And The Economist notes that the beauty premium, surprisingly, applies even more to men than to women.

Discrimination against larger women is rampant too. The 2005 book Weight Bias: Nature, Consequences, and Remedies, points out that, in an analysis that controls for typical income-disparity indicators (such as educational attainment and geographic region), larger women “(those in excess of 20% of standard weight for height)…earned an average of 12% less than nonfat women, whereas this finding did not extend to fat men.” So though the beauty premium impacts men more than it does women, not conforming to body norms punishes women more than it does men.

Why does this happen? Those in power might assume that whomever they think is attractive is also more confident and thus more competent—or, if they’re in an appearance-driven industry like fashion or advertising, that such a person’s looks will be better for business. The latter is true for both Betty’s fashion-magazine workplace and Peggy’s employer, advertising agency Sterling Cooper. A post-makeover Betty, having been chided in front of the staff by Wilhelmina, forfeits attending her boss, Daniel’s, upcoming business meeting and suggests that he take her traditionally beautiful coworker. “She’d fit right in,” Betty says.


So what is to be done about the existing beauty premium? One solution is for women in leadership positions in the workforce to question the privilege afforded by their looks and our bodies. Wilhelmina, for instance, could have sided with Betty as a fellow woman of color, but instead chooses to identify with the style elite. In season one of Mad Men, Joan could have allied herself with the floundering Peggy, but instead tells her that, in order to be taken seriously by the men of the office, she should stop dressing like a little girl and play up her sexuality, as Joan herself does.

Ultimately, Betty and Peggy both have the last laugh. Betty becomes a Mode editor and, in the final season, ascends to a new job in London. And Peggy, long underappreciated for her creative work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, leaves for a lucrative role as copy chief at a rival agency. 

As these two young, deserving, and brilliant strivers leave their old worlds behind, we wish they could take us with them.


Read more of this guest blog Women’s Work, which explores TV portrayals of young women in the workforce.

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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Only In Hollywood

Only in Hollywood would Elizabeth Moss be considered ugly.

Not only Elizabeth. Kate Moss

Not only Elizabeth. Kate Moss may be considered ugly too.<a href="" rel="follow">.</a>.

Woman's Work: The Ugly Truth Behind the Beauty Premium

I appreciate that you wrote this article but I think, at the risk of being that much more depressing, a parallel argument highlighting the price of beauty should have been included. I'm a latina who's tall with generous curves. I was a tough girl in high school because of where I grew up and all my first jobs were male-dominated: gas station attendant, night club bouncer, line cook, etc. With short hair, limited make-up, and a uniform, I was "just one of the guys". Despite not being as objectified, my gender didn't go unnoticed and I would endure the teasing and ridule on a regular basis for it. I was also given to bulk of the most annoying tasks on the job as if to tell me repeatedly that I was in a world where I was not welcome. Over the years, after leaving the rough neighborhood of my childhood for a slightly less rough one, I relaxed a little and got more in touch with my own femininity. I grew out my hair and started wearing bras (lol).

By the time I was twenty-two, I took a job hostessing in a fine dining restaurant. I was told to look "fashionable" for my role as "the face of the restaurant". In more feminine garb I became completely objectified at that job. The cooks constantly pelted me with inappropriate comments, and male gaze. Almost like a joke at my expense. I would walk to the kitchen to get something for a server, and the cooks would fall silent, erupting into laughter as I walked away, as if I was too dense to know I'd interrupted a conversation about my ass. My FEMALE boss practically tried to pimp me out to her more high-end male customers, perpetually bringing me over to "meet" them or encouraging me to "keep them company" at the bar. One customer would force a $5 tip on me (if I refused it he would hide it in my jacket) to bring him his coffee. When I asked him why he did it, he said it was so he could "feel like [he] OWNED me, just a little bit". Meanwhile female bartenders that had embraced this aspect of the job (I spotted one jiggling her cleavage for a tip once), treated me as competition, and were nothing but cold to me.

So I got out of that job to work as a server at a deli cafe. This wasn't much better though. The manager tried several times to impress me with his charms but I resisted. Two other servers took up the offer however. They would flirt and get into tickle matches with him around the restaurant while he would not quietly enough whisper dirty things at them. They were both rumored to be sleeping with him. He promoted them as the main waitresses (despite being terrible at their jobs and frequently the subject of customer complaints) while treating me coldly, seemingly for my rejection. He whittled down my hours or scheduled me on days I needed off as much as he could. In my desperation after work one day I sat crying in my car. I was discovered by my co-worker who then attempted to confront him. As a result I was fired for having told her in secret that I felt like I should quit.

I could tell so many other stories like these. I hope I didn't miss the point of your article.... Personally I'm someone who has only two polar extremes: Either I was a tomboyish girl with "Ugly Betty"ish looks getting constantly mistreated at jobs for being not pretty enough and/or simply for being female in a male-dominated business.... OR I was too attractive, had hyper sexual responses to my looks, was objectified, and had people try to "punish" me for (in THEIR minds) not earning the job they way they felt I should have (either they thought I should've slept my way to the top or they assumed that I DID).

I only got a little liberation when I joined a woman-only company. Other issues of race and class have come up at that job, but its a little better. All this to say, that as a girl that I suppose now is considered "attractive", that "extra" pay the so-called attractive girls get isn't always without a big price. For me, I want liberty for all at the workplace, or to start my own business. lol -mariah

Thank you for this comment.

Thank you for this comment. I'm really sorry you had to go through all this. And I think your initial statement - about the need to include the downside of beauty - is dead on. I didn't see that as a lack when I read the article, but now that I've read your thoughtful comment, I do.

Re: Mariah

Both the attractive girls who are objectified and made to feel that their looks dominate their worth, and the unattractive girls who feel worthless in the face of countless media bombarded images every day suffer equally, I think. And it's both men and women who are the cause, it's everybody's mixed messages about 'inner beauty' being the only thing that matters contrasting sharply with the reality that every one of us sees on a daily basis, that are the cause.

1. Betty did not come from a

1. Betty did not come from a middle class family. She came from a working class family. Class, in addition to race, sex, gender and personal presentation is an important part of the beauty standard, and it added to the stream Betty was swimming against,

2. I find the use of the term "nonfat women" sort of funny and conjures images of women in the dairy case, labeled "skim". :D

You are definitely right

You are definitely right about this situation being true for men too. I am a law student, and spent last summer in a federal prosecutor's office, an office of about 40 attorneys of which about 5 were women. The other interns and I noticed that of the men that worked there, there were many who were unusually attractive. We soon heard from another student student working in town that according to her boss, the office purposely hired attractive men because they went over better with juries. Now the office is starting efforts to make itself for diverse (a little late to the party) but I can't help but think it will go the same way with women. In litigation and especially criminal prosecution, how the jury perceives you is important, and I guess supervising attorneys equate likability with looks.

I don't disagree with the

I don't disagree with the opinions in this article, though I will say that Queens is a place with a lot of hair straightening. I have never seen a woman with high, voluminous hair in Queens. I think Betty's hairdo has more to do with the fact that, as an individual, she has a very cheesy aesthetic.

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