Emotional Work and Cultural Capital à Deux

Years ago, I dated a bona fide good dresser. Actually, it wasn’t so much that he was a good dresser as it was that he knew what look he wanted to embody: a 1950s career man, one who wears a suit to the office and definitive leisurewear on the weekends. (He may actually have worn a non-ironic fedora, though it’s also possible I’ve mentally superimposed it onto him postbreakup.) He had rules that seemed like someone my grandfather’s age might have—shorts were for boys, not men; always wear an undershirt; single-breasted sportscoats were for hoodlums, etc.

His rules gave me something more than a good giggle: a template. I wanted to be seen as a part of a team—his team—and by styling myself to look the part, I was hoping to become a naturalized citizen of his psychic nation. If I looked like I belonged with him, perhaps I might actually belong with him. It wasn’t only that I wanted to look conventionally good for him (though that too); it was that I wanted us to match. I wanted us to be on the same page of the catalogue, so to speak, so I tailored my own presentation in order to allow both of us to better envision a life in which we were on the same page in other ways. (My page, unlike his, did not include maintaining an active online dating profile while we were together. Must I spell out that part of my eagerness to look like we belonged together was because it was so clear we had no business being so?)

To be clear, this was about me, not him. When I dated an artist whose most recent project had been an installation piece juxtaposing nuclear warheads with My Little Pony, I favored a tousled, spiky haircut and artfully ripped ironic T-shirts; coupled with a wordsmith who wore a uniform of pressed slacks and neutral button-downs, I cultivated a more tailored look that sent a broad, nonspecific signal of ladyhood. Even when spending a week with my skater ex, with whom I’ve developed a siblinglike relationship, I gravitated toward the jeans-tees-sneakers triad that composes his entire wardrobe.

On the surface, what I was doing was matching my styling to that of my various partners. But you don’t have to actually dress alike in order to do what I was actually doing: absorbing responsibility for the public image of our “team.” The clothes I wore may or may not have mattered to the men in my life, but my willingness to perform the “women’s work” of emotional work probably did. “Emotional work”—the management of emotions in relationships—can be as simple as choosing your words carefully during an argument, or evoking a sense of importance in others by purposefully asking questions about their hobbies. Wearing certain clothes or adopting a particular hairstyle might not seem like emotional work at first glance: After all, what we wear has been framed in our current culture as a mode of personal expression. To shift our styling to adapt to a partner seems retrograde. But in a world where women have long been seen as creatures of beauty—and, just as importantly, where both women and men are increasingly being surveyed through social media—women’s longstanding expertise in presentation becomes a form of capital for the couple. Just as the stereotypical “trophy wife” boosts her husband’s social capital, the more plebian version—say, me in kitten heels and a pencil skirt to match my beau’s gabardine suit—boosts the social capital of the team. Dressing to look like Mrs. Him might be retrograde, but dressing to strengthen the notion of a modern dual-income couple seems downright savvy. (I'd be curious to know how this might work in same-sex relationships.)

When we discuss the benefits of beauty in practical terms, we often speak of it as a form of currency—a woman’s beauty in exchange for a man’s wealth. That mind-set is still around aplenty, but I wonder if one fallout of women’s increased independence is that instead of beauty coming into play as currency, it’s more like a form of cultural capital that manages to be both embodied and transferable. Under Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital—the non-financial assets we bring into the world at large, including the workforce—the social goods we bring to the table are largely non-transferable. That is, a wife can’t give her husband her Ph.D., and he can’t give her his ability to speak German. But beauty, as individualistic as it may appear, becomes transferable in romantic relationships: “She must see something we don’t,” we might say about a homely man who snags a beautiful woman. He then becomes elevated in our eyes: What are we missing?


At this point I’m wanting to protest that I’m arguing that, like it or not, beauty and style are a form of embodied cultural capital—not the “erotic capital” that serves to keep true power stratified along sex-based lines. That is, not the erotic capital that I’ve argued against before. But I'm now wondering if I’m just better able to acknowledge the role appearance plays in romance than it might in the workplace—where the bulk of the “erotic capital” rhetoric has been focused—because it seems less distasteful to “use” beauty in personal relationships than in professional ones. In the same way, it’s easier for me to look at my own “emotional work” within intimacies as opposed to professionally because even when it’s difficult on me personally, at least I can acknowledge it’s my own choice, to a degree.


And at this point, I’m wondering if I’m defending my personal history of playing matchy-match with terms like “embodied cultural capital” because I'm seeing exactly how powerless it has made me in the past to eagerly take on emotional work within intimate relationships—and how doubly powerless it can feel when that work takes on the form of not only emotional work but beauty work as well. So I’m shutting up with the Bourdieu and asking all of you: Have you found yourself purposefully using your appearance as a tool within intimate relationships? That is, have you used the tools of conventional femininity or masculinity as a way of communicating deeper desires within a relationship—a desire to be closer, perhaps, or a desire to display your unity to the outside world. (On the most basic level it’s impossible to avoid using your looks in the arena of romance—I mean, who wouldn’t primp before a date?—so I’m not necessarily talking about the actual attention you’d pay to looking and feeling alluring.) It’s only in retrospect that I’ve been able to understand the times I’ve done this in the past (and of course if you asked me if I’m deploying my appearance within intimate relationships now, you’d get nothing but doe-eyed innocence), and I know this is sort of an abstract question, but I’d love to hear people’s experiences of how your looks have played out within your relationships, either privately or in your public life as a couple.