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Men Are Using Their Good Looks to Make More Money

An interview with the woman behind the term ‘erotic capital’

The men in my life — especially my work life — are more concerned with being hot than ever. Seriously. And the reasoning behind their preoccupation with their looks extends way beyond Tinder and Grindr. More and more, the men in my office talk about their physical appearance in terms of how they’re perceived at work, believing their physical form not only indicates their youthfulness and charm, but somehow shows people their overall competency and capacity for vigorous labor.

They’re not exactly wrong either. As my colleague Tracy Moore wrote about earlier this week, there is a “beauty premium” that reaps hot guys a lot of rewards:

“NFL quarterbacks blessed with the pretty stick get paid more, regardless of performance (their unattractive peers earn about 12 percent less). Attractive male CEOs have better stock performance. Better-looking dudes have more friends, aren’t as likely to be shunned and get better grades because they’re assumed to be smarter. Hot male lookers earn 3 to 4 percent more income than the homely, or nearly $230,000 more over a lifetime.”

And as I interviewed experts for MEL’s “State of Male Body Image” last month, I heard over and over again that men are becoming increasingly obsessed with their own looks. Dr. Miami, the viral plastic surgeon who posts many of his procedures on Snapchat, told me “social media has had a definite impact” on this feeling. It’s a sentiment that Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, echoed, too: “This idea that a photograph can be taken at any time, any place and posted has made men extremely self-conscious and aware of their looks and bodies.”

With all this in mind, I caught up with the British writer and semi-controversial sociologist Catherine Hakim, the creator of the term “erotic capital,” which essentially means that good looks equals good business — and ultimately, a good life. She coined it in her book Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom. (The controversy around her work mostly centers around her believe that people can be “technically ugly”; still, Dr. Miami, the man who introduced me to Hakim’s work, said her thinking really resonates with him and his practice.) And while Hakim published her book in 2011, she agrees that the value of men’s erotic capital might be more valuable today than ever before.

What has influenced the way you talk about “erotic capital” since you wrote the book?
The workforce is changing, with a shift away from manual jobs in manufacturing to white-collar and service jobs where smooth social interaction is important. Attractive people have the best social interactions, so they’re more successful. Digital photography and the internet also make everyone more visible than before, especially faces. So good looks matter more now — even just six years later. Also, as societies and individuals get richer, they spend more on luxuries and spending time with beautiful people is one of life’s great luxuries.

Do you think the erotic capital someone demonstrates online ever informs their perception offline?
Of course. People tend to remember you by what you look like when you first meet them. But these days, photos often serve as that first meeting. So your photos or dating profiles will anchor your image in the memories of the people you meet, unless the IRL reality is vastly different.

What experiences, observations or research inspired you to create the erotic capital thesis in the first place?
I’m a labor-market specialist, so I knew that something was missing from the well-established trio of personal assets: economic capital (money); human capital (education, qualifications and work experience); and social capital (good contacts, or who you know rather than what you know). Seeing David Beckham earn millions from modeling Armani underpants was the flash of insight that made me think physical and social attractiveness is the fourth personal asset. Beckham has earned more from sponsorship — meaning modeling, etc. — than from his main career as an athlete.

How does erotic capital compare to those other forms of capital in terms of who has it and how they got it?
Intelligence is 50 percent genetic; the rest is due to education and experience. Attractiveness is probably also about 50 percent genetic and 50 percent good grooming, physical exercise, good manners and style of dress. With that in mind, everyone can be attractive, even if they’re technically ugly. This is reflected in the French concept of beau laid. A number of very successful French actors are rather ugly, but still attractive. Guys like Vincent Cassel, who’s married to Monica Bellucci, one of the most beautiful women in Europe.

Is “erotic capital” different from what we usually think of as “sex appeal” or “beauty?” And how does the notion of “erotic capital” account for subjectivity in beauty standards and preferences?
Erotic capital combines sex appeal and beauty, but also includes physical fitness, good manners and charm, good dress sense and sexual competence (in private). As for the second question, studies show that we can agree on who’s attractive — e.g., George Clooney — even if that person doesn’t represent our personal taste.

In the past, some of your critics have argued that erotic capital shouldn’t be labeled as such because erotic assets “depreciate.” How do you counter that argument?
We measure any asset relative to the average for your age group. So you expect a 50-year-old to have more money, education and social contacts than a 20-year-old. At 74, the French actress Catherine Deneuve is still startlingly attractive for her age — and even in comparison with women decades younger. Similarly, George Clooney looks better in his 50s than many men in their 20s. Of course young men and women are at their physical peak at age 20, but they haven’t yet developed the social skills, charm, ability to dress well, etc. that are important elements of attractiveness, too.

To that end, some young people who look good become ugly as soon as they open their mouth. Social attractiveness (or charisma) is just as important as facial beauty.

Also, human capital depreciates, if your skills become redundant due to technological change, money can be lost overnight. So erotic capital isn’t that different from the other personal assets. It’s men who like to argue that money has more power than good looks and that good looks fade. But these men are typically unattractive; therefore, they devalue good looks.

Is erotic capital beneficial in all occupations? What jobs besides modeling or acting are strengthened by erotic capital more than we realize?
Erotic capital is beneficial everywhere, in daily life as well as at work, and in all occupations. Although, erotic capital is increasingly important the more a job requires social interaction with colleagues, clients and customers.

It’s most obviously valuable in white-collar, professional and service occupations. Waiters get much higher tips if they’re good-looking and have a pleasant manner. Lawyers attract more clients, win more cases and earn more money when they’re attractive. People are more likely to be promoted if they have good looks and dress appropriately. Good-looking managers are more successful because they attract more cooperation and support and are seen as more intelligent and competent. Salesmen sell more of everything, too, including goods, services, policies, ideas and ideologies. Politicians attract more votes if they’re good looking, especially if little else is known about them.

In other words, investing in a good haircut and good clothes isn’t vanity, it’s investing in your career and social life!

So erotic capital might get us all richer?
Yes, this is the key message. People who are physically and socially attractive earn between 10 percent and 20 percent more than unattractive people on average.

Is it incorrect to assume, as culture traditionally does, that women invest more into cultivating their beauty and erotic capital than men do?
In the past, women’s main route to upward social mobility was good looks, so obviously women were encouraged to invest in their appearance so they could be attractive beauties and marry the wealthiest men.

Today, women can earn their own living, and they seek husbands who are good-looking as well as good earners. This is very obvious and reinforced by the emphasis dating websites place on photos, especially Tinder and Grindr. As women gain more social and economic status and can compete with men at work, men are realizing that having money alone doesn’t make them winners. Now, men have to invest in good grooming and social skills as well.

That said, men have always exploited good looks more intensively than women and have less shame in doing so. The surprising thing is that the economic benefits of erotic capital are higher for men than for women, in America at least. In Europe, it’s the opposite: The economic benefits of erotic capital are higher for women.

Why do you think that is?
Men bargain harder than women do. Men ask for more of everything, everywhere, than women do. Men learn that asking means getting what you want.

The U.S.-Europe comparison is interesting. Overall, does America value erotic capital more or less than other countries?
The Puritan ethic treated beauty and luxury as temptations into sin, so my guess is that America (and other Puritan Anglo-Saxon countries in general) value good looks the least.