"I know what wages beauty gives," said the poet William Butler Yeats about a century ago. Modern econometricians know more precisely. In their published research, Professors Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle estimate that if you're perceived as beautiful, you probably earn about 5 percent more than your ordinary-looking counterparts.
As beauty is rewarded, so ugliness is penalized. Ugly women earn about 5 percent less than other women, and ugly men earn about 10 percent less than other men. That's right; the market punishes men more than women for being unattractive. Moreover, men's looks haunt them at every stage of their careers: Better-looking men get more job offers, higher starting salaries, and better raises. For women, good looks will get you better raises but usually not better job offers or starting salaries. (A note on Hamermesh and Biddle's methodology: Beauty was assessed by panels of people who judged photographs of the study's subjects.)
But while men suffer more for being ugly, women—and specifically white women—suffer more for being fat. In a paper from last year, Professor John Cawley found that an extra 65 pounds typically cost a white woman 7 percent of her wages. To put this another way, if you're a seriously overweight white woman, losing 65 pounds is likely to be as lucrative as an extra year of college or three extra years of work experience. For men and for black women, weight has no effect on wages. (The people in Cawley's study self-reported their weights.)
Since beauty and slenderness are associated with good pay, we can ask which way the causality runs. Do some people look better because they earn more, or do they earn more because they look better?
Surely to some extent money buys beauty. The more you earn, the more you can spend on cosmetics, health care, and plastic surgery. And higher earnings can lead to higher self-esteem, which in turn leads to better eating habits. But Hamermesh, Biddle, and Cawley believe these effects are small, for several reasons. First, there's a limit to how much you can accomplish with cosmetics. Second, the correlation between wages and beauty is strongest among the young, who are the least likely to have benefited from health care and plastic surgery. And finally, Cawley has devised some subtle statistical tests that tend to rule out the "high wages cause self-esteem which causes better eating" theory.
If high wages don't cause beauty, then presumably beauty causes high wages. But why? One guess is that certain high-paying occupations (like "fashion model" or "romantic lead") are closed to all but the most beautiful. But that can't explain why beautiful auto mechanics earn more than plain-looking auto mechanics, beautiful teachers earn more than plain-looking teachers, and so on through a long list of occupations.
Well, then, why do employers pay more for beautiful workers? Is it just because beautiful workers are more fun to look at, or does their beauty make them more productive—say by breeding self-confidence or by attracting customers? (My boon companion Marian Heller points out that self-confidence can pay off in another way—by fostering the courage to seek better jobs and demand better raises.)
Here's some evidence that employers like beauty not for its own sake, but because it's productive: Beautiful people are more likely to be found in occupations where you'd expect beauty to matter—retail sales, waitressing, etc. If the beauty premium were generated strictly by employers' desire to look at pretty people, it would presumably draw beautiful people equally into all occupations.
Now back to the gender gap. Why do ugly men suffer more than ugly women in the labor market? Partly it's because many of the ugliest women opt out of the labor market altogether, so they aren't counted in the statistics. In fact, the ugliest married women (the ones who are rated in the lowest 6 percent lookswise) are 8 percent less likely to look for a job than married women in general. That's a pretty big effect, but Hamermesh and Biddle conclude that it doesn't come close to explaining the gender gap, which remains a bit of a mystery.
They do point out, though, that low wages are not the only penalty for bad looks, and some of the other penalties hit women a lot harder than they hit men. Ugly women tend to attract the lowest quality husbands (as measured by educational achievement or earnings potential). The effect is not symmetric, though: Beautiful women do no better on the marriage market than average women. For men, looks don't seem to affect marriage prospects at all.
Why does beauty rule the wage market? Why does the market punish fat, except when it doesn't? There's a lot we don't understand. If you've got a theory that I haven't explored here, send me e-mail, and I'll discuss the best ideas in an upcoming column.