Grooming, Earning, and Why You Can Skip the Eyeshadow

Guess who earns the least?

If any study could put a nice crack in Catherine Hakim’s theory of “erotic capital,” it’s this one. Based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, researchers at Elon University have shown some interesting correlations between time spent on personal grooming and income. (Note that "grooming" here is everything from getting dressed to brushing your teeth to getting your legs waxed.) The three points of interest here are:

• White women who spent 90 minutes on personal grooming each day made 3.4% less than women who spent 45 minutes on the same tasks. The study didn’t give an exact percentage for minority women but said it’s “not dissimilar” to that of white women.

• Earning of minority men (50% Hispanic) increased along with time spent on grooming.

• White men’s earnings were unaffected by time spent on grooming.

This data is distinctly labor-oriented: It came from the American Time Use Survey, and this study is hardly the first to compare how time spent away from the job and other market activities affect earnings. Unsurprisingly, the more “non-market time” people seize, the greater the negative effect. But the grooming effect is greater than other non-job-related activities (like housework and time spent with family). It could be that the visibility of grooming contributes to the notion that someone isn’t dedicated to their work (I’d be interested to see if there was a “sunburn effect” on earnings—”Jed’s mind is always on waterskiing; did you see that burn?”), but I’m guessing that because it was women who were negatively affected, that it’s ideas about women and appearance, not just labor and leisure, that’s at play here.

The takeaway here seems pretty clear: Ladies, you’ve gotta look good, but you can’t spend too-too much time on it. I’m guessing that women who were spending more time on grooming suffer in the workplace from preconceived notions of women who pay great attention to such things. The grand prize of beauty is usually the person who supposedly rolled out of bed looking amazing. Spend too much time on your appearance and you seem vain, self-absorbed, insecure, artificial—and, more to the point of this study, not serious about your work. (I'd suspected there's a class component as well—that lower-income women might engage in a sort of personalized, feminized conspicuous consumption by telegraphing their femininity with more makeup and hairstyling. The study controlled for occupation and industry, however, so even if this is the case, it's not reflected in this study.)

The data on men is equally telling. The study authors theorized that minority men spent more time on grooming to positive effect in order to counteract negative stereotypes; put visible effort into your appearance, the thinking goes, and you show you're willing to not only play by the rules, you'll help make them too. (And if you look more like the management—statistically likely to be white men—your chances of promotion would probably increase.) Indeed, Latino men self-report an emphasis on the importance of grooming.

Then, of course, there’s white men, whose earnings were unaffected by their time spent on grooming. White men are still the image of The Man (and indeed are still the overwhelming majority of upper management in virtually every industry), so they’ve already sort of proved their right to the workplace just by being born. But let's not let them off the hook yet—after all, controlling for education, men are more affected than women by the long-documented “height premium,” with which tall people make more money. I haven’t been able to find information about whether the height premium for minority men is exaggerated from or similar to the height premium for white men—and that’s something I’m greatly curious to know.

Now, there are a good number of problems with the study itself, as even the authors note (“There is strong evidence that measurement error exists in the grooming variable”). But there's something I like about this study: It delineates grooming from beauty, treating the labor of beauty as separate from its outcome, and indeed as labor. Most studies on appearance tend to rate people's "beauty" as though it were a yes/no question instead of looking at the variety of factors that actually go into the appearance of beauty. I've always felt iffy about studies on attractiveness; when I saw this study about grooming, not beauty, I identified one reason—but there are more.

Tomorrow I'll be looking at the urge within the research community to pin down beauty in a quantifiable way. Today, however, I'm going to skip shaving my legs, because then maybe I'll get a raise!