The Beauty Premium: how society rewards pretty, and why it's a lose/lose game for women

The Beauty Premium shows that conventionally attractive people have been shown to be socially and economically rewarded — but why then do we still judge women for spending time and money trying to meet beauty standards?


A belief in gender equality, a deep aversion to the idea of owing men anything, and a personality trait that can be lovingly described as “stubborn as a mule with a stubborn streak” mean that I’ve spent most of my dating life splitting the bill with men. There have been exceptions, of course, times that I’ve graciously accepted a drink or a dinner.

And there have been times that should have been exceptions and were not, like when I only discovered my date had been ordering some top-shelf whiskey while I’d been sipping Sprite, leaving me with a three-figure bill share, a minor panic attack, and two weeks of eating ramen for dinner. (Should I have pointed this out when the bill arrived? Yes. Did I? Please refer back to “stubborn as a mule.”)

One of the best arguments I’ve heard to explain why straight men should pay the bill more often than the women they’re dating was an evaluation of how more time and money the average woman puts in to preparing for a date: the nice outfit, the carefully applied make-up, the hair and skin care products that all add up to more much expense and effort than the jeans and t-shirt he inevitably throws on.

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‘Rich Girl Face’

It’s expensive to be a woman who tries to live up to any form of conventional beauty standards – yet arguably even more costly not to try. The same media that shames women for ageing, gaining weight or stepping outside without make-up on also relishes mocking and humiliating women for the time and effort they spend on their appearances.

The latest trend is the discourse around ‘Rich Girl Face’, a term coined by Dr.Kirk Kremer, that describes women in their 20s and early 30s who undergo popular cosmetic procedures such as lip and cheek filler and Botox – and want the results to be dramatic. These aren’t the subtle tweaks beloved by older stars who want to give the illusion that they simply never age. These women have spent money, and want people to notice.

In an interview with Glamour, Dr. Kremer stated that "The puffed and plumped ‘rich face’ aesthetic is practically the new Louis Vuitton handbag in certain circles – an instant, recognisable marker of wealth and status.

"Unlike generations before them,” Kremer claimed, “this new class of cosmetic injectee doesn’t hide its enhancements in shame. Rather, its plumped-up lips and puffer-fish cheeks are often a source of pride."

After that interview, the media has latched on to the idea of the ‘Rich Girl Face’ and has rushed to break down the amount of money young women are spending to fit current ideals of what is considered beautiful — whipping up some exaggerated outrage at the hundreds and even thousands of euro being spent to have fuller lips, plumper cheeks, a line-free forehead.

The tone of these articles — and the term ‘Rich Girl Face’ itself — is judgemental on several levels; patronising women for putting any time or effort into their appearance, judging them for spending money on such “vain” pursuits, and perpetuating the classism that values effortless, invisible wealth over obvious displays of consumerism.

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Like judging working-class people for having designer labels on their clothes, like the racist and classist attitudes that judge Black singers and rappers for wearing statement jewellery or flashing cash, the judgemental ‘Rich Girl Face’ moniker enforces the societal belief that wealth and beauty should come naturally and effortlessly – otherwise you’ll be labelled tacky or vulgar.

Judging women for spending time or money on their appearance is not a new phenomenon; it’s one of society’s favourite past-time. The increase in demand for cosmetic procedures and the relative affordability of fillers and Botox compared to older methods of plastic surgery just means that we now have more women to judge.

The Beauty Premium

But what these sneering, hand-wringing and usually misogynistic pieces that judge women who spend money on their appearance frequently overlook is that women are systemically and economically penalised if they fail to conform to conventional beauty standards. The ‘Beauty Premium’ is social and economic phenomenon that shows that people who are considered more conventionally attractive earn more money and professional advancements than people who aren’t deemed to be attractive – and as with most things in life, this issue disproportionately impacts and penalises women.

Several studies have shown that conventionally good-looking people get offered a starting salary of between 10.5-15% higher than people who are deemed to be less attractive — and as most salaried positions give raises based on a percentage of your existing salary, it’s almost impossible for less attractive people to ever catch up. Attractive real-estate brokers bring in more money than their less attractive peers, and according to a just-published paper on the 2018 congressional midterms, more attractive candidates are more likely to get elected.

The latter figure, in particular, is evidence of the “halo effect”, where we tend to take someone’s appearance to be telling of their overall character. Experiments have shown that we automatically assume that attractive people are more sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, intelligent, and socially skilled than unattractive people. We essentially equate attractiveness with being a better person – and for women facing increasingly impossible beauty standards, this correlation between being considered attractive and having other desirable qualities is literally costing us.

A 2011 Harvard study showed that women who didn’t wear any make-up to work were deemed to be not only less attractive than their make-up wearing peers, but also less competent, less likeable and less trustworthy. In other words, women’s natural faces are used against them to fuel assumptions that they’re worse at their jobs, and worse people – and yet when women are deemed to be putting “too much” effort into their appearance, they are declared vain and frivolous.

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This inequality gets worse when we consider how women’s bodies are judged against conventional beauty standards.

A survey of 4,000 adults in full or part-time employment showed that on average, UK workers of any gender who are classed as obese according to their BMI (a deeply problematic way of viewing bodies) earn £1,940 less per year compared to those with a "healthy" BMI. But the gender gap also prevails here, as women who are classed as overweight or obese are more likely to receive a much lower salary than men of the same weight, with a gender gap of £8,919.

There are other glaring factors that often lead women to be deemed less attractive than their peers. Beauty standards have always been associated with whiteness, youth, having euro-centric features, being able-bodied and being wealthy, immediately making it harder for women who don’t fulfil these requirements to be deemed conventionally attractive.

Changing the lose/lose game

This problem is only going to increase with the popularity of Botox and filler, as women’s natural faces and the ageing process will now be compared to women who have had cosmetic procedures. Women now have another beauty standard to compete with, and the struggle to be considered attractive now has had another hurdle added to its obstacle course. But are we going to continue to judge women who choose to get work done as well as the women who don’t? Or are we finally going to start dismantling the absurd and damaging attitudes that systemically devalue all women?

We have structured a society that socially and economically penalizes women who aren’t deemed attractive, but also mocks and judges women if they actively try to adhere to conventional beauty standards.

Maybe the problem isn’t that women are getting fillers. Maybe the problem is a society that has set up beauty standards as a lose/lose game for women, who are punished no matter how they choose to play. And if we don’t choose to actively combat these layered forms of sexism and put an end to the constant judging and devaluing of women, we’re choosing to live in a very ugly society indeed.

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