Aesthetic Capital and Career Prospects: Does Beauty Matter?

By Chiara Riezzo.

Do you ever feel like one of your colleagues seems to be treated differently because of the way he or she looks? Has it ever occurred to you that your boss might be particularly tolerant of mistakes made by your neighbouring co-workers because he or she finds them attractive? And what about that professor who seems to be more forgiving towards some students being late in comparison to others? Well, although we all grew up being told that real beauty is on the inside and appearance is never as important as the beauty of the soul, the reality seems to be much different than we thought.

Touching on consumer culture and the role of appearance in the current reality, this article looks at the role of aesthetic capital in the employment context. It will first define what “aesthetical capital” is. Furthermore, it will examine the extent of the effects it may have on one’s career prospects. It argues that while beauty is a matter of subjectivity, the fact that it does influence the workplace is objective.

Aesthetic properties, ranging from the clothing people wear to their physical appearances, have always had a certain degree of influence in social interactions. Today, more than ever, aesthetics is not just a matter of self-presentation but a way to compare oneself to ideal ‘body-types’. This is best exemplified by the fact that aesthetics is exploited by consumeristic culture, which heavily depends on selling ideal types of attractiveness through manipulation of the body. The latter occurs on the terms dictated by the beauty industry which praises certain categories of facial and physical traits stereotypically considered as visually appealing.

In modern society, the role of aesthetics goes beyond the concept of ‘cultural capital’ as outlined by Bourdieu during the late 20th century. The French sociologist argued that capital, in its various forms, underlies social division. ‘Cultural capital’ is a form of capital which includes factors such as behaviours, attitudes, aesthetics, body language, and clothing as determinants of individuals’ lifestyles based on their class of origin. However, aesthetics has evolved from being just a matter of ‘taste’. Today, it is not only a part of ‘cultural capital’ but a form of capital on its own whose value is shaped more by subjective perception rather than objective calculation. This concept is referred to as the ‘aesthetic capital’ (AC).

According to Kukkonen et al., for aesthetics to be treated as a form of capital, it needs to meet three criteria. First of all, (1) it must be a convertible social resource. This means that those in possession of AC must be able to convert it into a monetary form – for example, think of the models, actors, and social media influencers in the beauty industry who make money by selling their image. Second of all, (2) there must be markets where the capital and its related resources can be evaluated, used, and exchanged- for instance, the labour market and the marriage market. Beauty and status have long been associated with each other. Such association finds empirical support in studies showing the influence of factors such as beauty and economic status in choosing and selecting a romantic partner (See McClintock 2014). Finally, (3) it must be accruable. Consumer culture encourages individuals – regardless of age and gender – to pay close attention to their physical appearance and invest time, money, and resources into it. Accumulation of AC refers to the social behaviours by which actors are able to increase and collect AC along with the benefits deriving from it. An example typically representative of our generation is posting selfies on social media and creating a personal brand from one’s own appearance.

Photo source.

Today, individuals are overwhelmed by body-centric visual culture which makes them feel like they are constantly being judged on the basis of their looks. The evaluation of appearance also extends to the labour market where AC and one’s ability to promote it seem to have a certain degree of influence on individuals’ career prospects. Several researchers proved that people of the same sex may treat each other differently based on their appearance. Contrary to what you are thinking, empirical findings debunk the myth of attractive female workers being exclusively privileged because of their appearance. In the labour market, aesthetic capital can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. For example, women seeking business loans have been found to be less likely to receive one if they were thought to be conventionally attractive (See Kuwabara and Thébaud). On the other hand, other studies showed that traits of aesthetic value such as hair, body size, and facial features are assets that can be used to produce privilege and wealth. Some examples include higher rates of positive employment outcomes and more possibilities of social mobility for those with looks that fall under the label of ‘aesthetically appealing’. Furthermore, wealth associated with AC also seems to be related to intangible assets that are highly valued by employers such as credibility, professionalism, and desirability (See Anderson et al. 2010).

Notably, the line between well presentable and attractive is easy to cross. Although appearances should not matter in the office, consumer culture makes it harder to avoid appearance-based discrimination in the workplace. Moreover, career prospects might be affected by appearances even beyond the ‘first impression’. This article believes that the importance of appearance should only be justified when you first meet someone (first impression) as you know nothing about the person, and it can be an indicator of his/her professionalism. However beyond the first impression, appearances shouldn’t affect his/her career prospects.

List of References:

Anderson, T. L. – Grunert, C. – Katz, A. – Lovascio S. (2010) Aesthetic Capital: A Research Review on Beauty Perks and Penalties. Sociology Compass. Vol 4(8), pp.564-575. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1751-9020.2010.00312.x

McClintock, E. A. (2014) Beauty and Status: The Illusion of Exchange in Partner Selection? American Sociological Review. Vol 79(4), 575–604.

Kukkonen, I – Åberg, E. – Sarpila, O. – Pajunen, T. (2018) Exploitation of aesthetic capital – disapproved by whom?. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. Vol. 38(3/4), 312-328.

Kuwabara K. – Thébaud S. (2017) When Beauty Doesn’t Pay: Gender and Beauty Biases in a Peer-to-Peer Loan Market. Social Forces. Vol 95(4), 1371–1398.

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