Accounting for Beauty

Before I actually read Erotic Capital, sociologist Catherine Hakim’s treatise on how women should flex their powers of sexual allure in the workplace, I wanted to like it. As Hakim presents it, erotic capital is a combination of physical assets (beauty, style) and know-how (liveliness, charisma, social skills) that can make those around you want to help you succeed.

Who can argue with that? I cheer a vivacious, charming acquaintance who thrives in her career because she strives to make her workplace convivial; I recall repeatedly going out of my way to help out a strikingly handsome colleague who always smiled at me in the hallways, even though I wasn’t particularly attracted to him. Even as a “radical feminist” — the sort of person Hakim blames for limiting women’s sexual power in the workplace — I’ve used erotic capital. When I was teaching English as a second language, I suspected that being a well-groomed, friendly, lively American woman helped me keep students’ attention.

In fact, it was because of my feminism that I wanted to like Erotic Capital: Whether from nature or nurture, women have traditionally excelled at “soft skills” like taking the emotional temperature of others, listening, adjusting one’s behavior to any given situation, and cooperating. These all happen to be skills that, until fairly recently, have been undercompensated in the workplace. In Hakim’s book I anticipated a deftly written argument that would reclaim the value of women’s work so that maybe we’d eventually start paying people in the professions that make use of those skills — say, teaching and nursing — their true value. 

That’s the book I wanted to read. The book I actually read was more like this: Men supposedly have higher sex drives than women, creating a “male sex deficit,” which means men are always in a state of wanting more of what women supply. (Hakim has some convoluted theories about gay men and lesbians, but the book assumes people with actual power are heterosexual.) So women who are willing to address that deficit, by either having actual sex with men suffering from it or presenting themselves in an enchanting manner to exploit it, have erotic capital that can be traded for other forms of capital.

Erotic capital has many guises: from “trophy wives” whose skilled self-presentation becomes a part of a man’s public persona, to men or women who style themselves in such a way as to garner attention at their workplace, to women with otherwise limited means who sell their erotic capacity (whether forthrightly, as with sex workers and performers, or more covertly, as with sales jobs) to establish themselves. It’s “sell yourself” meets “sex sells.” What’s most surprising about all this is that Hakim seems to think she’s saying something new.

Few would deny that skilled self-presentation and charisma are economic assets. But Hakim claims that radical feminism has given style and charisma a dirty name. Feminism has made plenty of missteps over the years, but Hakim seems to hinge her entire thesis on an apocryphal group of feminists who have had next to no influence in the culture at large. If radical feminism were a fraction as successful as Hakim claims it is in undermining the value of erotic capital, we wouldn’t have companies firing women for not wearing makeup — or, for that matter, companies firing women for looking too alluring.

That she fails to name a single feminist who has actually come out against presenting oneself well (as opposed to presenting oneself as stereotypically feminine) indicates that she’s attacking a straw feminist, not an actual one. Where are the radical feminists urging women to not use their people skills on the job? Who are these radical feminists who blame women for wearing makeup to work instead of directing their critiques at institutions that demand women do so? Hakim falsely asserts that feminists have been fighting for the eradication of charisma and charm instead of the eradication of coyness and the deployment of sex appeal as woman’s strongest — or only — weapons.

For a polemic ostensibly against radical feminism and its supposed hatred of men, Hakim makes more claims about men’s innate hatred of women than any actual radical feminist text I’ve ever read, short of the SCUM Manifesto. (From Erotic Capital’s conclusion: “The underlying cause of men’s hatred of women is their semi-permanent state of sexual desire and sexual frustration.”) She urges women to sharpen our claws — or at least get a nice manicure — to prepare for battle against men, using sexuality as bait. It’s a grim version of male-female relations — and of sex itself, one in which women over the age of 30 basically have sex only when they think they’ll get something out of it.

And that’s how Hakim inadvertently creates the best counterargument to her own thesis: If women are only having sex with men because we think we’ll get something else out of it, that means what we really want is something else. That something else is real power. (In fact, Hakim even uses terms like “real power” to describe capital other than erotic capital, revealing that she isn’t convinced herself of women’s power-through-beauty.) Using erotic capital in the way Hakim suggests ensures that women will never have access to power on their own terms, but rather only at the benevolent indulgence of men — the ones with the “real power.”

Rather than refashion the alleged status quo that’s been established by radical feminists (only in Hakim’s world has radical feminism become institutionalized), Erotic Capital merely reinforces the actually existing status quo of patriarchy. It assures power holders, particularly men, that they don’t really have to worry; they still have the power, and most women will still only have access to it at their magnanimous whim. If the “real power” balance does ever shift to women, Hakim’s framework would crumble. The minute that women become as economically and culturally powerful as men, the entire balance of the sexual deficit becomes irrelevant to them except in private relationships (where it belongs, if it even exists).


If you believe Hakim’s claim that all she’s trying to do is get people to be their most alluring selves in the workplace, you may well start to wonder what the fuss over her book is all about. The “be your best self” mantra is a trope of plenty of other career guides, from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Principle #3: “Arouse in the other person an eager want”) to 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The difference is that those guides paint “people skills” as something that could draw people nearer to increase the size of one’s network, not a manipulative assertion of power. How to Win Friends and Influence People instructed strivers to make other people feel important, smile, and use indirect communication in order to avoid giving brash criticism — in other words, Carnegie took traditionally female ways of communicating and illustrated their potential for everyone.

Hakim similarly asserts that erotic capital can work for both men and women. But it’s only the aspects of erotic capital specific to women that can wind up backfiring. It’s hard to think of ways in which gender-neutral liveliness and social grace could hurt someone, but when it comes to intricate makeup styling, conscious decisions about revealing more skin in the office — specifically female modes of erotic capital accumulation — we’re suddenly in the realm of shaming the office slut. A man aiming to up his style at an office job can just wear a nicer suit; a woman must navigate a minefield of skirt lengths, lipstick hues, and heel heights.

The intangible aspects of erotic capital have been addressed by Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of embodied cultural capital — the ways in which we present ourselves to best reflect our learned traits and acquired social skills. (You’d think Hakim would have recognized this when she references Simone de Beauvoir’s statement “One is not born a woman; one becomes one,” but alas.) Learning to charm is a form of embodied cultural capital specific to women — the makeup, the never-ending decisions about how much skin to show, walking the tightrope between being alluring and garnering a reputation as the office flirt — that winds up hurting women who use it. And even when these ladies-only tactics are skillfully employed, they still create a “third shift” of labor. Hakim believed she was writing a book about erotic capital. In truth, she was writing a book about erotic labor.

Pricing Beauty, by sociologist Ashley Mears, who, in the tradition of immersive fieldwork, interviewed and studied models while working as one herself, tells the fuller story behind erotic labor. While modeling isn’t a perfect example of how erotic capital might work in other industries — in fashion, a “look” rather than conventional beauty is prized, and the “male sex deficit” doesn’t factor as largely as it might in other industries (many power holders in fashion are women and gay men, though Mears points out it’s still straight men who sign the checks) — it’s a reasonable approximation of how Hakim’s theories would play out if adopted without abandon in the larger world. The result is ingrained power imbalances, institutionalized precariousness, and endless strain on workers as they struggle to maintain their one uncertain asset.

Mears details not only the most widely criticized aspect of modeling labor — the extreme diets used to maintain model measurements — but also the dreary and often unpaid work of maintaining an image. Changing from sneakers to high heels in elevators is one thing; crafting what is literally a model personality is quite another. “Work on the body involves considerable effort of the mind,” writes Mears, “and bodily capital can only be sold in the presence of another soft skill, the personality.” In other words, modeling requires emotional labor directed not only at the clients who need to be charmed, but at the self, which needs to be constantly monitored.

In delving into such questions as these, neither Mears nor Hakim fully cottons to the dominant theory of emotional labor as described by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in The Managed Heart, which drew on her study of flight attendants. Both Hakim and Mears stress that emotional labor can be enjoyed, though it’s odd that they both see this as contradicting Hochschild’s work, as The Managed Heart emphasizes that women are often drawn to jobs requiring emotional labor because they enjoy it. Mears points out that even through the intense emotional labor expected from models (“be yourself, but better,” she summarizes), emotional management isn’t necessarily dehumanizing, providing a source of strength in an otherwise precarious market.

Hakim, for her part, dismisses the concept of emotional labor as something peculiar to American women who have been unduly influenced by feminism. Emotional labor is only problematic when it’s recognized as problematic, Hakim suggests, causing otherwise compliant women to suddenly rebel against the smile ordinance in many service professions. Thanks to radical feminism, Americans are ill-suited for emotional work, Hakim says — just look at women in Asia, the land of smiles! Yet Korean workers in jobs demanding higher emotional labor report higher rates of depression than the average citizen, and Japanese nurses cite “suppressed expression” at the top of their list of occupational stressors.

Still, the fashion industry’s glamour, and the promise of a potential major payoff, is enough to sustain a steady supply of qualified model workers in the face of the emotional demands. Models are willing participants, but most of them are under no illusions that they’re the ones in power. That, Mears points out, largely resides with the “tastemakers”: the clients, stylists, photographers, bookers, and agents who take the raw labor of willowy young women and turn it into fashion. They are the ones determining what “look” is popular one season to the next; they are the ones who keep a careful balance among “types” they choose to represent their brands and agencies; they are the ones who set the standard of paying little to nothing for high-end fashion spreads. For all the careful crafting of their erotic capital, models are relatively powerless in the industry.

It’s this — the placement of actual power — that leaves anyone turning to erotic capital as a career tactic vulnerable. The numbers, at first glance, support Hakim’s theory that women are shortchanging themselves by not exploiting their erotic capital: Modeling, like sex work, is one of the few occupations in which women easily and routinely outearn men; male models earn roughly half of what their female counterparts earn for the exact same work. It works just as Hakim says.

The question is, do we want it to? Mears effectively demonstrates the ways in which models’ labor is more readily exploited because it is bodily and emotional labor — that is, the labor behind erotic capital. The stories Mears relates aren’t as baldly exploitative as those about the casting couch or even about agencies cruelly instructing models to lose weight. Model bookers “don’t enforce body projects, they suggest them, and with a smile,” Mears writes after telling of an interaction in which an agent instructed her to stand up straight so that the photographer “is not gonna say you are fat.” Models have to hide hunger, blisters, private distress, and reactions to comments that would be considered sexual harassment in virtually any other industry. Yet because modeling is a winner-take-all market in which a minority of models rake in the big bucks while many exit the industry in debt to their agencies — and all models are freelancers who are only as good as their last gig — it’s highly precarious, with little agency for the women whose looks entire ad campaigns hinge upon.

Part of precarity in modeling is the suddenness with which a “look” can change. One minute everyone’s about the Brazilian goddess look; the next it’s all Agyness Deyn and asymmetrical haircuts. Models deal with this through a combination of guesswork and constant change; Mears writes of some frequently dyeing and cutting their hair to try to match the look of the moment. Erotic labor in the general workforce doesn’t work quite the same way; the standards of general attractiveness shift with time, but from year to year they hold generally steady. A woman who was attractive in 2009 will look attractive in 2012; her “capital” isn’t dependent upon, say, an elfin/“ethnic”/Turlington-ian look being hot that season. Instead, the precarity of erotic capital in the general workplace stems from the fact that it can become meaningless at the whim of a man.

It’s this point that, above all else, stands out to me as the deepest, and most dangerous, flaw in Hakim’s theories. Modeling is precarious, but most models enter the industry knowing its pitfalls. They know they’ll age out of it by their late 20s; they know the chances of ever landing the big campaign are slim. Glamorous hopes (and desperate families back home, in the cases of women plucked from economically unstable nations) may cloud their decision-making, but models appear to understand the inherent risks.

Hakim’s vision of erotic capital leaves little room for glamour, but the painfully high stakes remain: The minute the people with the real power decide you’re out, you’re out, and if erotic labor was the whole of your career strategy, there’s little hope of finding a substitute source of leverage. The feminism that Hakim claims has robbed women of the choice to deploy erotic capital has instituted protections against sexual labor being women’s only route to power: Laws against sexual harassment and discriminatory hiring practices have ensured that women who don’t use their erotic capital in the workplace still have a fair shake. Hakim would have us believe that feminism has made women’s work more precarious, not less, dependent as it is upon a meritocracy that gives an unfair advantage to the well-educated and financially blessed. In Hakim’s world, women’s true liberation relies upon encoding erotic capital — that is, an indirect route to second-tier power with no exit strategy at hand. Pricing Beauty shows how the fashion industry’s packaging of erotic capital keeps models in a precarious state. Reading Erotic Capital makes it clear that if Hakim’s worldview took hold, the rest of us would be corralled there with them.