An academic who identified the key professional attribute to success tells Celia Walden why appearances are so important.
We think of “capital” as something you save up for a rainy day; something inert and intangible, which, invested in the right way, can wield enormous power. There is nothing erotic about “capital” – or rather, there wasn’t until this month, when a doctor of sociology at the London School of Economics identified “erotic capital” as being the key professional attribute of our times.
According to Dr Catherine Hakim’s controversial article in the European Sociological Review, this “beauty premium” can have as big an impact on your career as your educational qualifications or background – particularly in the private sector and service industries. Those possessing “erotic capital” can expect to earn 10-15 per cent more than those without it.
Obvious? Not necessarily. It is an elusive commodity, ownership of which is not defined by gender, age or conventional physical beauty. And the best news? If you’re not born with it, you can learn to have the EC factor.
“Nowhere except in our puritanical, Anglo-Saxon culture do people see looking good as superficial,” says the well-turned-out professor. “In Britain, beauty is deemed naturally worthless, and therefore one can denigrate it, but elsewhere people are open about enjoying looking at attractive men and women.” Christianity, she explains, which has traditionally always been anti-sexuality, anti-beauty and anti-pleasure, is only partly responsible.
“We have this idea that you can’t be beautiful and clever. But what’s superficial about beauty? The Greeks and the Romans thought it was incredibly important. Cleopatra exploited her erotic capital and nobody thought the worse of her for it. Europeans feel the same today. When that semi-naked picture of Carla Bruni was released recently, they didn’t see it as doing her credibility any damage – they just thought she looked fabulous.”
When Dr Hakim started writing her paper and included the (then) anonymous high-class call girl Belle de Jour as an example, her colleagues were up in arms. “Then it emerged that she was Dr Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist, and they were all fine. As long as someone is intelligent as well as being sexual and attractive, then it’s OK.”
In this respect, feminism has done little to help the advancement of women, claims Dr Hakim. “The idea that women were making themselves look good for men and therefore should stop, was a false one. Women want to look good for all sorts of reasons.” As Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, pointed out, sexuality is in large part a performance. “One is not born knowing how to be a woman or a man,” Dr Hakim writes in her piece, “one has to learn how to perform the role, as prescribed by the society you live in.”
Although appearance may be a central element of erotic capital, good social skills and presentation, sexual competence and “liveliness” are also contributing factors. “Increasingly, in the affluent, service-based society we live in, people are becoming aware that those things do matter. Attractive salespeople are going to sell much more. It’s not that ugly people never get roles,” she cautions, “but that attractive people tend to have a bigger choice of roles to play.”
All of which is now true for males too, she maintains – an argument supported by new research indicating that British men spend an average of pounds 25.22 a month on grooming products. “When the credit crunch hit, and people began to lose their jobs, newspapers were full of stories about men having plastic surgery and buying new ties in order to look their best in a competitive job market. It’s not enough for men to be the bread-winners any more – they are expected to be attractive and well-groomed, too.”
Topping Dr Hakim’s “erotic capital” power list in Britain are David Beckham and Kate Moss, while across the pond the Obamas best epitomise the phenomenon. Other obvious erotic capitalists are music mogul Simon Cowell (whose shtick – teeth included – has netted him pounds 123 million), top TV executive Elisabeth Murdoch (who, with her husband Matthew Freud, is said to be worth pounds 148 million), Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet (who has made an estimated fortune of pounds 53 million selling the designer garments she models so well), Nick and Christian Candy (the property barons behind pretty much every high-end London deal made over the past decade), George Clooney (“who looks good but is a very clever man, too,” and the millionaire philanthropist Arpad Busson (“Have you ever heard of any other hedge-fund manager?”). Gordon Ramsay, whose personality – perhaps more than his culinary skills – has made him pounds 67 million, is another obvious example.
“The point about erotic capital is that both sexes immediately warm to people who have it.” Isn’t that simply charisma? “No,” contends Dr Hakim. “Kate Moss, who avoids speaking in public, has erotic capital purely from a visual/behavioural perspective, yet I wouldn’t say she has charisma. To have erotic capital, you have to have substance.”
Yet substance alone is not enough to give you the sought-after quality – as politicians so ably demonstrate. “Gordon Brown may be very confident as a politician but the public perception is that he is dour, unapproachable and lacking in exactly what Tony Blair had. Yet we were persuaded by Blair and he left us feeling cheated, so in this election we may find ourselves suspicious of politicians possessing erotic capital.”
In America, where they have long been natural believers in Dr Hakim’s term, the Obamas gave off enough erotic capital to float a multi-national corporation. “From his presentation to the way he looks and speaks, Obama’s got it. Even during the campaign, he and his wife were said to work out on Air Force One, and their physical fitness plays a large part in that allure. Michelle didn’t want to be wheeled out as ‘the wife’ in the beginning, but in the end she made a tremendous effort and showed that she had this ability to connect with people. Remember all those British schoolgirls lining up for a hug from Michelle? That’s erotic capital. Because of them [the Obamas] it has become more acceptable for politicians’ wives to be wheeled out here, too.”
Should the leaders’ wives – each deploying their own kind of erotic capital – guard against unleashing a surfeit of it? Isn’t that what dashed Sarah Palin’s dreams of presidency? “No,” snaps Dr Hakim. “I think that was her being a bit dim.”
For many the EC factor can increase over time. “Both Tina Turner and Catherine Deneuve have it – it isn’t as narrow or fleeting as facial beauty, so it won’t automatically vanish once you reach a certain age. A lot of men and women are unpolished when younger and acquire better dress sense and social skills as they get older.”
So, if you’re not born with it, you can develop it. “Of course: just look at Coleen Rooney,” grins Dr Hakim. It’s true that books have been written about Hillary Clinton’s miraculous “extreme makeover”, while the Tory leader, David Cameron, is said to be seeking the help of political consultant Anita Dunn, responsible for enhancing Obama’s appeal to middle and working-class women.
“As a country, I think we will all get better at it naturally,” says Dr Hakim. “We’ll pick up European values and learn that looking smarter and being more presentable is an essential part of life – one it’ll become increasingly difficult to do without.”
The London Daily Telegraph