It’s been almost 30 years since Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth and argued that female beauty standards were society’s way of keeping women subordinate to men. Now, new research tested Wolf’s idea and indicates that the pressure for women to spend considerable money, time and effort on attaining beauty is indeed motivated by sexism and a desire to stall women’s progress in obtaining equality. And it translates into gender discrimination at work.
It’s no secret women spend a lot of time and money on beauty. A Today and AOL survey found that women spend about 55 minutes a day on beauty prep—that’s almost two full weeks a year. Financially, a survey from beauty e-tailer Skinstore estimated that women spend $300,000 in their lifetime just on their faces (although they surveyed their own customers who are probably more product-obsessed than the average woman). Still, they found average women’s daily face routine involves the application of a whopping 16 products. In general, women’s purchases account for 80-90% of an estimated $500 billion market for beauty products. But is this all a part of a plan to keep women out of the C-Suite?
New research suggests that these laborious and expensive beauty routines are about more than women’s desire for self-expression. The researchers, Leeat Ramati-Ziber, Nurit Shnabel and Peter Glick, published their six studies on the motivations behind the push for women to spend so much effort on beauty regimens in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Pressure for women to pursue beauty is greater when we think women have a shot at equality.
This is the crux of the research. The researchers found that when people thought women had a chance at attaining equal status with men, they were more likely to think that women should be spending more time on beauty.
Just how did they study this? Participants were divided into two groups. The first group read a passage about how differences between men and women, including their distinct roles in society, weren’t going to change any time soon. Those in the second group read a passage suggesting men’s and women’s roles were converging and any gender differences were likely to disappear in the near future. Those assigned to the second group, who read that women’s equality was imminent, were more likely to think women should spend time striving for beauty.
That’s right, telling people women have a real shot at equality actually made them more likely to think women should be investing considerable time pursuing beauty. The researchers also found that women in high-power occupations were more likely to be expected to invest time and effort pursuing beauty, and more so than men in these occupations. The authors suggest this is because these high-power women are perceived as the greatest threats to the gender hierarchy—we need to find reasons to keep these women busy and find excuses not to hire them.
It’s not necessarily conscious and it’s not just men, both men and women report that it’s important for women to invest effort into looking attractive. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pressure for women to pursue beauty was also found to be associated with sexism. Those who agreed with statements like “it is important for women to invest a lot of effort in looking attractive” were also more likely to hold sexist views of the world and believe in maintaining the social hierarchy.
The Beauty Double Bind
All this emphasis on beauty creates a Catch-22 situation for women. According to this research, if women want gender equality, then they shouldn’t buy into the norms that pressure women to spend considerable time pursuing beauty. But it creates a double bind, because if women ignore the beauty norms, they may be penalized at work or in their personal lives. The researchers write, “Although beauty norms reinforce gender inequality at the societal level, individual women who attain beauty reap real rewards–such as attracting mates with greater resources or creating a favorable impression in the workplace.” When it comes to beauty, it seems women can’t win.
Women’s beauty practices can certainly be both a source of fun and a mode of self-expression. However, the researchers write, “when intense social pressure turns pursuing beauty into a mandate rather than a freely chosen activity, beauty practices become socially coercive, an obligation women must fulfill.” If men are not held to these same standards, it results in appearance-based discrimination, creating barriers to gender equality in the workplace.
There’s ample evidence that appearance-based gender discrimination is a real thing. For example, one study found women were over 16 times more likely than men to say they suffered employment related discrimination because of their weight. And just last spring, Aer Lingus and Virgin Atlantic announced they would no longer require female flight attendants to wear makeup and would allow them to wear pants. Clearly, when it comes to appearance at work, women and men are treated differently.
And nobody ever talks about how the insane time that’s required to pursue many of these beauty standards may keep women from achieving more significant goals. The studies’ authors hope that an understanding of the motivation behind these beauty pressures will help bring about change in the future. I’m not that optimistic—I honestly can’t even imagine a world where women don’t feel any pressure to adhere to these expectations.
Source: Forbes – Leadership