Should Being Beautiful — or Ugly — Pay Off?

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Beauty, or lack thereof, seems to be the topic of the week.

Sunday’s New York Times started it off, with an op-ed arguing that ugly people should be protected under the law like other minority groups. Sociologist Catherine Hakim disagreed, contending (and promoting her new book Erotic Capital) that discrimination is a part of life and that women should use their looks to get ahead. Too bad for those of us who aren’t gorgeous.

Then, controversy erupted over a girls’ T-shirt being sold on J.C. Penney’s website. The T-shirt, which was printed with the message “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me,” was immediately criticized by consumers for being sexist, and the store pulled it from the site.

It appears that the idea that beauty — or ugliness — should pay off doesn’t itself seem to be attractive to many.

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Still, in the Times op-ed, Daniel Hamermesh, a University of Texas, Austin, economics professor and author of the new book Beauty Pays, argues:

Being good-looking is useful in so many ways. In addition to whatever personal pleasure it gives you, being attractive also helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse (and one who looks better, too!) and get better deals on mortgages. Each of these facts has been demonstrated over the past 20 years by many economists and other researchers.

The effects are not small: one study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.

As a result, Hamermesh suggests that legal protection (including monetary payments) should be offered to those who rank amongst the least attractive, to make up for this discriminatory treatment.

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In contrast, Hakim thinks beauties should get paid even more. She claims that while both men and women can capitalize on their good looks, women aren’t using their sex appeal as effectively as men are. In an interview with Slate, she says:

The key point is for women to be aware that there’s a sex differential and a sex gap in returns and rewards, and to be aware that they should therefore not be holding back or feel embarrassed about seeking to get value for their contribution, for their attractiveness. As I see it, patriarchal men, but also to a larger extent, radical feminist women, which women seem to listen to more than men, say that beauty is only skin deep, it’s trivial, it’s superficial, it has no value, and you should be ashamed of yourself for trying to exploit it. And the whole purpose of my book is to say, for men and for women, there is absolutely no reason to feel ashamed of exploiting it and no reason at all for you to be embarrassed at saying this has value.

But the outrage over the J.C. Penney T-shirt suggests that many women — few of whom would likely be categorized as radical feminists — disagree. The problem with life as an American female is not a lack of opportunities to display one’s good looks or to capitalize on them. Nor is it lack of pressure to lose weight or otherwise attain physical perfection.

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It is clear that there is a “beauty premium” and that it does help those so blessed to get ahead. But neither making this inequality worse by urging the beautiful to make more of their looks — nor mitigating it by paying those who lose out for their disadvantage — seems realistic or practical.

What’s wrong with emphasizing inner beauty and qualities like kindness, altruism and courage instead?

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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