Why erotic capital still matters

[This is the second half of a piece Saving Erotic Capital From Itself that I began last week]

“Good looks don’t matter”

“Nonsense, that’s just something ugly people tell their children”

So says The Simpsons, as ever capturing the way of the world (h/tWill Self). Given the problems I identified in the first part of the post, though, it’s perhaps better to keep the spirit but junk the terminology of ‘erotic capital’, and instead think about the broader and undeniably valuable group of ‘personal capitals’ that include personality as well as looks.

For me, there are two key questions that come from this:

1. How far can different forms of capital be converted between each other?

If personal capital is randomly distributed and can’t be bought through economic, cultural or social capital, then it’s a counterweight to other inequalities.  But if it’s a manifestation of other capitals – if it is a way of concealing other advantages within the concept of the ‘natural’ – then it may have a role in the reproduction of inequality. This was the topic of my original post on Hakim, where I called it the ‘alchemy of advantage’ (the transmutation of elements seeming to capture something about these mystical transmutations, at least to me).

Hakim claims that erotic capital is separate to other inequalities – “one reason why erotic capital has been overlooked is that the elite cannot monopolise it” (to Zoe Williams), or “one of the reasons Bourdieu missed erotic capital was because erotic capital isn’t completely inherited and can’t be controlled by the wealthy” (a talk reported by MadameJ-Mo). But at least in Hakim’s work that I’ve read, there’s not been a single piece of evidence for this assertion, other than her own experience of getting makeup lessons and claiming“where there is a will there is always a way”.

It seems far more likely to me that other forms of capital are critically important in personal capital – be it your friends help and guidance on how to look/behave (social capital), your aesthetic taste, knowledge and distinction (cultural capital), or your material wealth (economic capital). Indeed, middle-class parents seem to invest large amounts in creating the personal capital of their children, generating personality rather than prettiness. Which is why personal capital is such a fascinating area of study.

2. What do we do (if anything) about inequalities in personal capital?

The 2nd question partly stems from the 1st. In one talk, Hakim argued that “We’re happy to reward intelligence achieved through hard work, even though that discriminates against those who are less intelligent. Therefore, we should reward those who are above average in attractiveness through the hard work they put into looking good.”

As the young British feminist Laurie Penny ripostes, Hakim argues that “discouraging [women] from [using erotic capital] is an evil feminist plot to deny women the only real advantage they have in the “gender war” – their physical charms – although Hakim does not enlighten us as to where this leaves unattractive women, older women, women who can’t afford the strict beauty and grooming regimes she recommends, or those of us who forget to wash because we’ve been up all night watching Buffy, eating cheese and scratching ourselves.”

Brendan has spoken about these issues on the blog recently. Picking up from the end of that discussion, one of the key questions is whether we regard low personal capital (personality+looks) as a matter of luck or of choice. ‘Luck egalitarianism’ holds that people should be compensated for bad luck, but not for bad choices. But what do we about being unlucky enough to be the sort of person that makes bad choices?

As a thought experiment, imagine that ‘science’ had given us the ability to completely choose our personalities. Most likely we would not all end up with the same personality, because we would start with different original personalities, and these affect our choice of which personality to have next. Thus starts an endless cascade of blaming your previous personality for your current personality, and tracing this all the way back to where you started from. (This would incidentally make a great sci-fi novel, for anyone with a book inside of them).

The forms of capital

So if I don’t agree with Hakim much on the specifics, I agree wholeheartedly on the value of extending our conceptualisations of the forms of capital. Looks, charms, smiles, charisma – they all matter, but the answer is not to extol their virtues, but to systematically investigate their role in the inequalities we see around us.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at http://www.benbgeiger.co.uk
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8 Responses to Why erotic capital still matters

  1. My subjective impression is that rich men often have beautiful wives, and that beautiful parents often have beautiful children. I’d love to know whether any studies have been done on this. If these impressions are correct, then even “purely biological” beauty might well have at least some probability of being a manifestation of other capitals, without even taking into account the factors you mention (taste, etc.). We could then ask which effect is greater: the upward mobility of women who “marry up” thanks to their beauty, or the inequalities reproduced partly by conversion of economic capital into personal capital?

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Great point, this takes onto another level of complexity! The two points being:
      – The intergenerational transmission of even ‘natural’ (i.e. irrespective of other levels of capita) beauty – on the assumption that beautiful people gain capitals, and that beauty is partly heritable.
      – Lifecourse differences (which I think is your main point) – that beautiful women are more likely to marry wealthy men within their lifetime. This reminds me of the whole literature on homogamy and class/status, which seems to be vast. From the small amount I’ve read, I think that marital homogamy has gone up; it used to be the case that men would marry poor, beautiful women, but for a variety of reasons people increasingly meet their partners at work/university.

      As a counterpart to some of Hakim’s odder arguments, this would seem to suggest wealthy men are actually doing the world a service in marrying beautiful, less educated, poorer women…

  2. Lots of men have high levels of ‘violence capital’. Should it be a good thing to let them use this capital – for which they might have worked (out) hard, and which the elite doesn’t monopolise – in order to enable them to overcome other disadvantages they may have?

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      I would love to see you ask Catherine Hakim this question… As it stands, all I can say is that this is another great point, which illustrates the gap between descriptive and normative questions (as in, rewarding violence capital may lead to lower inequalities, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing).

  3. Ben – Wow, I really would like to hear your responses to Benjamin and Stephen. These are some interesting issues!

    I like your sci-fi experiment, although I think you’re pessimistic to think that each personality would resent its predecessor… perhaps with wisdom we will wish for a future self that is less concerned with gaining a competitive advantage and more at ease with the present reality. Call it the therapeutic or the zen alternative.

    I’m not sure it’s a good idea to bundle personality and looks together, because the social, genetic, and economic forces that produce each one diverge substantially. Personality is largely what labor economists would consider “soft skills” or “non cognitive” skills, which allow people to be more productive in their chosen professions independent of their intelligence. There’s a lot of experiments on looks going on in economics now — Daniel Hamermesh is at the forefront of this, and maybe we can profile some of this work some time.

    Interesting stuff!

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      I was wondering about this question of bundling together personality and looks. I see your point, but the trouble is that (i) looks are valued in the labour market, cf. Hamermesh; and (ii) personality is valued in the ‘market’ for partners. Moreover, it’s clear that that the other forms of capital are heterogeneous – the forces that produce the ability to make close friends are different from those that enable you to network prolifically at the workplace. And even ‘soft skills’ are a bundle of diverse traits (perserverance at a particular task vs. the ability to work well in teams, for example).

      To some degree the answer seems to be to conceptualise a number of domains, which in the context of specific fields (in the Bourdiesian sense of ‘field’) are turned into a type ‘capital’ – so personality is a domain, which can become capital in different senses in the fields of the labour market and sexual relationships.

      The trouble is, what is the best balance between having dozens of different domains, vs. having a few parsimonious, heterogeneous labels for the myriad of different resources that are useful in one field or another? Any thoughts would be useful here, as I haven’t been able to think through this one yet…

  4. Hi, We’ve published a paper on this recently, following teenagers who’d been rated on attractiveness at age 15 for 20 years in a cohort study and seeing how they’re doing in middle-age. Even after various adjustments more attractive teenagers were doing better socioeconomically than others:


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