In nearly all occupations, women are paid less than men for equivalent work—on average, about 80% as much as men. In most other predominately-female jobs, men are favored over women in both pay and promotions. But in fashion modeling women are paid a 25-75% premium over men’s wages (Mears 2011). This gap is even larger at the top—for a high-end fragrance or fashion campaign, a man may earn as little as one-tenth as the women next to him in the ad (Mears 2011). Why is it that in certain contexts, being female pays?

While it might at first seem encouraging that there are at least some jobs in which women are paid more—modeling and sex work—Mears (2011) argues that this simply highlights women’s cultural subordination as objects. For women, working as an ornamental object is a natural extension of feminine expectations, but for men it creates a cultural contradiction. Male models are supposed to embody the masculine ideal, but subordination as a display object is inherently un-masculine.

Does beauty always pay more for women?

Good-looking men and women earn more than their averagely-attractive peers, and the beauty bonus is at least as large for men as for women, as is the penalty for being plain (Borland and Leigh 2014; Hamermesh and Biddle 1994). In fact, in the general population the link between physical attractiveness and earnings is, on several measures, more consistent for men than for women (Borland and Leigh 2014). Thus, it is primarily in modeling that beauty pays greater returns for women that for men—yet it is also in modeling that standards of beauty are most arbitrary, unpredictable, and socially-constructed (Mears 2011).

Beauty does not generally pay better for women than for men in the labor market, but what about the marriage market? Both women and men benefit romantically from being beautiful in that they are less likely to be single or celibate, but neither gender is likely to leverage good looks in exchange for socioeconomic mobility (McClintock 2014). Pretty women marry highly-paid men (and handsome men marry highly-paid women) for the simple reason that couples match on beauty and beautiful people earn more, on average. In fact, counter to the stereotype of the idle “trophy wife,” good-looking women are more likely to be employed than their plainer counterparts (Borland and Leigh 2014).

Women’s beauty fades faster

Although female models are paid more, they also have earlier “expiration dates” (Mears 2011). Female editorial models retire mid-twenties; men can work into their forties. Women also have an earlier expiration date in the marriage market. The older men are when they marry, the larger the age gap between the men and their younger brides (England and McClintock 2009) and the odds that a single person marries decline with age at a faster rate for women than for men (Smith 1991; Veevers 1988). Arguably, age is more closely-linked with beauty for women than for men. Good-looking men reap the benefits of beauty for a longer time than good-looking women. Thus, although women may devote more time to their looks, on average, men’s vanity may provide higher returns.


Borland, Jeff and Andrew Leigh. 2014. "Unpacking the Beauty Premium: What Channels Does It Operate Through, and Has It Changed Over Time?" Economic Record 90:17-32.

England, Paula and Elizabeth Aura McClintock. 2009. "The Gendered Double Standard of Aging in US Marriage Markets." Population and Development Review 35:797-816.

Hamermesh, Daniel S. and Jeff E. Biddle. 1994. "Beauty and the Labor Market." The American Economic Review 84:1174-1194.

McClintock, Elizabeth Aura. 2014. "Beauty and Status: The Illusion of Exchange in Partner Selection." American Sociological Review 79:575-604.

Mears, Ashley. 2011. Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. Berkely and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Smith, Ken R., Cathleen D. Zick, Greg J. Duncan. 1991. "Remarriage Patterns Among Recent Widows and Widowers." Demography 28:361-374.

Veevers, Jean E. 1988. "The "Real" Marriage Squeeze: Mate Selection, Mortality, and the Mating Gradient." Sociological Perspectives 31:169-189.

You are reading

It’s a Man’s, and a Woman’s, World

Choosing Children’s Surnames

When parents do not share a surname, how do they pick children’s surnames?

What Sexism Research Says About the Rebuke of Senator Warren

The silencing of Elizabeth Warren reflected sexism still pervasive in politics.

Is There a "Right" Way to Birth a Child?

Both sides of the debate—natural or medical—may undermine women's agency.