Monday, September 19, 2011

Grooming, Earning, and Why You Can Skip the Eyeshadow

Guess who earns the least?

If any study could put a nice crack in Catherine Hakim’s theory of “erotic capital,” it’s this one. Based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, researchers at Elon University have shown some interesting correlations between time spent on personal grooming and income. (Note that "grooming" here is everything from getting dressed to brushing your teeth to getting your legs waxed.) The three points of interest here are:

• White women who spent 90 minutes on personal grooming each day made 3.4% less than women who spent 45 minutes on the same tasks. The study didn’t give an exact percentage for minority women but said it’s “not dissimilar” to that of white women.

• Earning of minority men (50% Hispanic) increased along with time spent on grooming.

• White men’s earnings were unaffected by time spent on grooming.

This data is distinctly labor-oriented: It came from the American Time Use Survey, and this study is hardly the first to compare how time spent away from the job and other market activities affect earnings. Unsurprisingly, the more “non-market time” people seize, the greater the negative effect. But the grooming effect is greater than other non-job-related activities (like housework and time spent with family). It could be that the visibility of grooming contributes to the notion that someone isn’t dedicated to their work (I’d be interested to see if there was a “sunburn effect” on earnings—”Jed’s mind is always on waterskiing; did you see that burn?”), but I’m guessing that because it was women who were negatively affected, that it’s ideas about women and appearance, not just labor and leisure, that’s at play here.

The takeaway here seems pretty clear: Ladies, you’ve gotta look good, but you can’t spend too-too much time on it. I’m guessing that women who were spending more time on grooming suffer in the workplace from preconceived notions of women who pay great attention to such things. The grand prize of beauty is usually the person who supposedly rolled out of bed looking amazing. Spend too much time on your appearance and you seem vain, self-absorbed, insecure, artificial—and, more to the point of this study, not serious about your work. (I'd suspected there's a class component as well—that lower-income women might engage in a sort of personalized, feminized conspicuous consumption by telegraphing their femininity with more makeup and hairstyling. The study controlled for occupation and industry, however, so even if this is the case, it's not reflected in this study.)

The data on men is equally telling. The study authors theorized that minority men spent more time on grooming to positive effect in order to counteract negative stereotypes; put visible effort into your appearance, the thinking goes, and you show you're willing to not only play by the rules, you'll help make them too. (And if you look more like the management—statistically likely to be white men—your chances of promotion would probably increase.) Indeed, Latino men self-report an emphasis on the importance of grooming.

Then, of course, there’s white men, whose earnings were unaffected by their time spent on grooming. White men are still the image of The Man (and indeed are still the overwhelming majority of upper management in virtually every industry), so they’ve already sort of proved their right to the workplace just by being born. But let's not let them off the hook yet—after all, controlling for education, men are more affected than women by the long-documented “height premium,” with which tall people make more money. I haven’t been able to find information about whether the height premium for minority men is exaggerated from or similar to the height premium for white men—and that’s something I’m greatly curious to know.

Now, there are a good number of problems with the study itself, as even the authors note (“There is strong evidence that measurement error exists in the grooming variable”). But there's something I like about this study: It delineates grooming from beauty, treating the labor of beauty as separate from its outcome, and indeed as labor. Most studies on appearance tend to rate people's "beauty" as though it were a yes/no question instead of looking at the variety of factors that actually go into the appearance of beauty. I've always felt iffy about studies on attractiveness; when I saw this study about grooming, not beauty, I identified one reason—but there are more.

Tomorrow I'll be looking at the urge within the research community to pin down beauty in a quantifiable way. Today, however, I'm going to skip shaving my legs, because then maybe I'll get a raise!


  1. Interesting study! I agree with your thought that women who spend a longer about of time on personal grooming can be perceived as vain, self-absorbed, and/or insecure - however I think they are not necessarily perceived that way because they spend so much time on grooming, but rather they spend more time on grooming because they actually ARE vain, self-absorbed, and/or insecure. So, they are perceived that way because the have those characteristics. Also, it speaks to priorities. If one is overly concerned with appearance to the extent that she spends a great deal of time getting ready, it may cause other areas to suffer such as being on time, focus on job tasks, willingness to work as a team, etc.

  2. This is a really interesting study, but you've made a pretty major error in interpreting it: this is a correlative study, not a causative one. It gives no evidence that spending more time on grooming CAUSES lower salaries. Instead, lower salaries may cause woman to spend more time on grooming in the attempt to look better for their bosses, OR perhaps there's an unknown third variable responsible for this correlation.

  3. JulesTx, I'm not so sure about that interpretation. It speaks to the double bind we put women in: You must spend time depilating, styling your hair, plucking your eyebrows, and applying moisturizers and makeup, but then we'll call you vain if you do too much of it? Are those women vain or just trying to play the beauty game, not understanding the ways in which it might be hurting them--or not caring? I spend about 60 minutes a day on grooming when I'm working outside the home and while I'm not immune to vanity (or self-absorption, or insecurity), I'd hate to think that my self-care means that I AM those things, you know? (As for the priorities factor: Time spent grooming had a more negative impact on earnings than other activities, like housework. So it's not just that time spent not focusing on work hurts income; it's that time spent *on one's appearance* hurts income.)

    Miriam, thank you for pointing that out. The study authors attempted to control for endogenic factors (like industry and occupation) but I can't believe they were successful in controlling for all of them. I think I picked up on the language used here ("If a non-minority woman doubles her grooming time, her earnings decrase an average of 3.4 percent") and didn't examine it closely enough, and I should have. I do think that there are likely causative factors here, given the disproportionate weight placed upon women's appearance, but the study doesn't necessarily indicate that.

  4. First thought that occurred to me upon reading this, *admit I have not read the links..but I will, is that possibly an unexplored variable is simple time-management. Perhaps these women get the same results in less time because they are super skilled at being efficient which is a characteristic of a successful person.

  5. Interesting! Of course, now I'm rather curious to tally up how much daily time I spend on beauty labor. I think I will try to keep track of this for the rest of the work week and take an average, just for my own amusement.

  6. Cameo, that's an excellent point--without realizing it, a highly efficient person would probably have found ways to streamline a getting-ready routine. (And this is a nice flipside to the "lazy girl" thing I wrote about--maybe people are just omitting certain acts because they don't maximize effect?)

    Tori, that would be awesome! You know, I should really do the same. This study included everything grooming-related--showering, brushing one's teeth, getting dressed, in addition to things like hairstyling. Hmmm, I sense a post coming on!

  7. Can I first ask 'How old was the study' i.e. WHEN? Women who take the time to look good in the work place, get the greater attention not because they take a lot of time to look good BUT because they simply look good. Young women at work are either ruled out because 1, they are young, 2, they don't take the time to groom because they are not interested in maintaining a persona at work and lastly they don't have the experience and knowledge, whereas older women do have the experience and knowledge but need more time to maintain themselves. I have always said "Youth is wasted on the young." ha ha ha I am 52 year old male and anyone who says men do not have to waste time grooming is a fat liar because we do 'nose hair' + 'ear hair' facial hair, tummy and skin to name a few. Unless you own your own company OR don't need to work, The older you get the more grooming to need to take time doing!! Simple but true.

  8. Dr. Jenkins, the study data was collected between 2003 and 2007. I'm also not sure if we're understanding one another correctly here--the study showed that the more time spent grooming, the LESS one makes, whereas there's a good deal of evidence showing that the more a woman adheres to the standards of conventional beauty, the more her earnings increase. So there's a dichotomy here that's interesting. But, heh, interesting point about age and grooming! Tweezing nose hairs certainly would add on to grooming time!

  9. Very interesting study. One major, major flaw in the study is that the 24 hr surveys were collected over the weekend or traditional non working days. This is a HUGE flaw for sample stratification, because the sample analyzed would be profusely misrepresentative! i.e. most lower income individuals / minorities work random hours and random days. So if I am working on a saturday, then obviously I am spending MORE time on getting ready. On the other hand higher paying individuals don't necessarily work on the traditional days off, therefore totally tilting the number of hours spent on grooming for those with lower salaries. In order to lower this biased effects the authors of the paper stated that they expanded the definition of grooming, but that still would effect the data analysis and would result in claims that they are making (and they did.)

    Nevertheless it is a good start for economists to look at more micro-level economics and I wonder if data was more evenly stratified, then would the results be effected by women with higher salary having more salon maintenance appointments to allow them lesser time in daily grooming, versus women with lower salary having to do most of the grooming themselves, hence requiring them to spend more time on grooming. For example a highly paid executive woman who spends once a month in salon getting gel nail polish, hair cuts, eye brows, etc done. On the other hand another woman would spend all that time at home but breakdown those tasks, therefore adding up her daily grooming time.

    I think this is probably what is driving the effects in study results, therefore making the finding pretty flawed to be used as a reference. (Personally I even find the title of the paper misleading, "The Effect of Time Spent Grooming on Earnings," Say whaaat ? This is correlation based on self reported data, hence not to be used as causation!)

    Sorry to be critical, but I feel as women we tend to be more critical of anything we do, whether if its more self maintenance, or low self maintenance.

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