Finding the Sweet Spot of Erotic Capital

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“Erotic capital is incredibly useful, assuming your existing body already lands in the sweet spot between attractive but not intimidating, sexual but not oversexed, feminine but not Jessica Rabbit.”
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Andi Zeisler, co-founder and creative director of Bitch magazine, argues that pop culture has co-opted the feminist movement and transformed it into something unrecognizable in “WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE.”

Feminism has hit the big time. But what should we make of the fact that it has gone mainstream? Such questions are at the heart of WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE(PublicAffairs, 2016), Andi Zeisler’s witty examination of modern feminism. The following excerpt from Chapter 9, “Creeping Beauty,” takes a look at how women have been encouraged to use erotic capital.

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“Looks are the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics.” —Alex Kuczynski, Beauty Junkies

The power of erotic capital has been explicit in culture since culture has existed. How many narratives in literature, theater, film, and contemporary popular culture have featured women undergoing physical, sartorial, and temperamental changes to leverage their looks into a better station in life, even temporarily? (I’ll start: Scheherazade, Cinderella, Pygmalion and its countless updates, The Taming of the Shrew, Little Women’s indelible “Vanity Fair” chapter, Pretty Woman, Miss Congeniality, ZZ Top’s “Legs” video . . . ) And how much tragedy has resulted from cultural messages that some bodies, colors, and sizes are simply worth more than others? The works of Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and many more testify.

Erotic capital was once a matter of coy artifice (“Only her hairdresser knows for sure . . . ”), but these days there are more and more ways to find out just how, and why, to deploy it. A 2011 New York Times article titled, “Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand,” offered evidence that women who wear makeup increase their likability and trustworthiness in the workplace. This finding might seem a likely conclusion to a study funded by Procter & Gamble, manufacturers of both the drugstore staple CoverGirl and the high-end beauty line by Dolce & Gabbana. But the article hurried to assure readers that the authors of the study were unaffiliated with P&G, and thus legit; one of them was Nancy Etcoff, Harvard professor, author of the 1999 book Survival of the Prettiest, and consultant to the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. (We’ll get to that shortly.) Etcoff, responding to a query about whether individuals should be judged on competence rather than appearance, made the case that a “cultural shift” in women’s attitudes about their own appearance must be taken into account. She argued, “Twenty or thirty years ago, if you got dressed up, it was simply to please men, or it was something you were doing because society demand[ed] it. . . . Women and feminists today see this is their own choice, and it may be an effective tool.”

Author and London School of Economics professor Catherine Hakim popularized the name of this effective tool via her 2010 book Erotic Capital. Hakim’s thesis is that where gender inequality persists, women should make better use of their one clear advantage—erotic capital—to level the playing field. Some of Hakim’s pronouncements were deliberately provocative (for instance, the suggestion that erotic capital is, for women, possibly more useful than a college degree), but most of her theory was a case of same rabbit, different hat. The “beauty premium” and its effect on workplace hiring has been a regular subject of study for academics over the years. Results have generally varied: one report found that good-looking male study subjects in Europe and Israel who included a photo when applying for jobs had a significantly higher response rate than both unspectacular men and those whose CV didn’t include a photo at all. The same experiment with female subjects found that women without a photo were, somewhat surprisingly, more likely to be called back than those with one, whatever the level of attractiveness. An earlier study, meanwhile, found that people considered attractive earned at least 5 percent more than their plainer colleagues—and, conversely, that those labeled ugly found their earnings penalized to the tune of 5 percent less (women) and 10 percent less (men) than their more comely coworkers. In other words, there is a beauty premium, but since nobody can say for sure when or how it will come into play, it’s safer to proceed through life with the switch set firmly to “on.”

With Erotic Capital, Hakim brought not only a coinage with an intellectual pedigree—the phrase built on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s identification of multiple forms of capital—but also a use-it-or-lose-it attitude regarding negotiations of sex and power in daily life. Though her book emphasized that erotic capital is not exclusively effective for women, Hakim put special emphasis on the need for them (as well as anyone “with less access to economic and social capital, including young people, ethnic minorities, and working-class groups”) to deploy it. The acknowledgment that white men, for the most part, still disproportionately hold the reins of power translated into the book being shilled as a high-minded, if politically incorrect, how-to for women, a twenty-first century version of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Office.

The argument for prioritizing erotic capital is that most of us are naturally more confident when we look good, so why not look good first, harness that confidence, and then move on to doing the thing you want to do that changes the world/gets you a promotion/increases your opportunities for success. In some parts of the world, this plan has become part of a larger economic strategy. Brazil, until recently the world’s leader in cosmetic surgeries performed (South Korea now surpasses it), is home to dozens of public hospitals that offer free or discounted cosmetic procedures to low-income citizens, with the belief that conforming to the country’s famously stringent beauty standards gives underprivileged people a leg up in the job market (preferably one with no spider veins). And while procedures like facelifts, nose jobs, and butt implants are performed regardless of gender, women are the ones featured in most media coverage of the subsidized surgeries, giving the impression that the management and leverage of erotic capital is primarily a woman’s concern.

Most women don’t need a corporate-funded study to inform them that erotic capital is an uneasy and often thankless negotiation. The Procter & Gamble study profiled in “Up the Career Ladder” noted that while makeup in general may positively affect how a woman’s colleagues and superiors assess her worth, too much makeup, or “high-contrasting” colors—a vampy, dark lip, say—risked making a woman come across as “untrustworthy.” Women’s-magazine guides on dressing appropriately for the workplace have long warned that button-up shirts or pencil skirts that look perfectly chic on A-cup breasts and mini backsides risk looking “tarty” when worn by bustier, bootier women. The message, ultimately, is that erotic capital is incredibly useful, assuming your existing body already lands in the sweet spot between attractive but not intimidating, sexual but not oversexed, feminine but not Jessica Rabbit.

This excerpt was adapted from WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler.  Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.

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