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.