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Beauty, Status, and the Trophy Wife Myth

Stereotypes about the gendered importance of beauty and status may be misleading

Researchers have long observed that physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status are positively related—the same people who are high in physical attractiveness also tend to be high in income, education, and other measures of social position. But why would beautiful people be more successful? And how might the individual-level association of good looks and socioeconomic status generate the illusion that women commonly trade beauty for men’s socioeconomic status?

The connection between beauty and socioeconomic position:

Insofar as physical attractiveness, intelligence, and social position are heritable, marriage between beautiful people and high-status people would generate a correlation between attractiveness and socioeconomic status (SES) in offspring. This spousal beauty-SES exchange is generally assumed to be gendered—women are supposed to trade beauty for men’s economic and social resources. In popular culture, such women are often referred to as “trophy wives.” But there is in fact little evidence that such a gendered beauty-status exchange is common—and there is substantial evidence that romantic partners possess similar levels of beauty, intelligence, income, education, and other economic and social resources. Thus, the heritability explanation for the individual-level beauty-SES correlation assumes a couple-level exchange that may not occur, or which occurs infrequently.

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A simpler explanation is that beautiful people receive preferential treatment and that wealthy people can better afford to be beautiful. There is substantial evidence that physically attractive individuals are treated preferentially, and as a result they enjoy improved school performance, greater occupational success, and higher earnings. In addition, income may help individuals purchase goods and services that make them more attractive, such as dental care, gym membership, and expensive cosmetic procedures. Indeed, ratings of beauty are associated with health and slimness—and wealthier, highly-educated individuals enjoy better health and are less likely to be overweight. Finally, some of the beauty-status correlation might be explained by rater bias because individuals thought to be of higher-status are rated somewhat more favorably.

This explanation, however, raises two questions. First, why are beautiful people treated preferentially? Second, why is popular culture so quick to endorse the belief that beautiful women leverage their good looks in order to secure successful but physically-unattractive men? 

Beauty as a status characteristic:

Beauty may function as a diffuse status characteristic, similar to race and sex. A diffuse status characteristic is assumed to grant worth and competence (or incompetence) even in the absence of any logical connection between the task and the characteristic. For example, men are often assumed to be more competent than women at a broad array of unrelated tasks. In contrast, a specific status characteristic such as “mechanic” is associated only with competence at a limited range of related tasks (appliance repair and auto maintenance). Importantly, the expectation of competence associated with diffuse status characteristics is self-fulfilling. It generates inequality in interaction and in evaluation that favors those with valued status characteristics; this favoritism results in real differences in outcomes. Thus, beautiful people are treated preferentially because in our culture beauty acts as a diffuse status characteristic.

Given that beauty is itself a form of social status, it is not surprising that beautiful people are socioeconomically-advantaged. But beauty is a status characteristic for men and for women. Why then are we so quick to assume that beautiful women have reached their social position only by marrying a high-SES man? This is especially puzzling given strong empirical evidence that couples match on beauty and on SES—for example, handsome men marry pretty women, and highly-educated men marry highly-educated women. Indeed, the fact that beautiful people are more successful encourages matching on both these dimensions because couples who match on one trait will necessarily tend toward similarity on the related trait.

The “trophy wife” myth:

The individual-level association of beauty and SES might create a spurious between-partner cross-trait correlation of beauty and SES. For example, if college graduates are better-looking than non-graduates, matching on college status facilitates matching on attractiveness. A bias toward observing men’s status and women’s beauty might cause this matching to be misidentified as a gendered beauty-SES exchange—if couples match on both college status and on attractiveness, college-educated men would have more attractive wives than less-educated men (college-educated women would also have handsomer husbands). As long as observers and researchers assume a gendered importance of beauty and status, it is easy to overlook men’s attractiveness and women’s status and thus to misidentify matching as exchange. This selective observation of women’s beauty and men’s SES would generate belief in the common occurrence of gendered beauty-SES exchange.

In other words, because physically attractive men and women are (on average) of higher socioeconomic status, partner matching on SES and/or attractiveness would create a positive correlation between women’s physical attractiveness and men’s socioeconomic status, and between men’s attractiveness and women’s status, even in the absence of any beauty-SES exchange. When observers assume that men value attractiveness and women value status, couples would appear to engage in beauty-status exchange even when they match. For example, a high-earning man married to a pretty wife might appear to be an instance of beauty-status exchange to a researcher who only observes male status and female beauty—but if the man is handsome and his wife commands a similarly high income then the couple is matched on SES and on attractiveness. Thus, the stereotypical assumptions that only beauty matters for women while SES matters for men could erroneously, and unintentionally, perpetuate these very stereotypes.

Elizabeth Aura McClintock, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

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