Beauty Work: Individual and Institutional Rewards, the Reproduction of Gender, and Questions of Agency



Physical attractiveness is associated with a number of positive outcomes, including employment benefits such as hiring, wages, and promotion, and is correlated with social and personal rewards such as work satisfaction, positive perceptions of others, and higher self-esteem. As a result, individuals perform various forms of beauty work, thus reproducing and strengthening a social system that privileges youth and attractiveness. In this article, we explore the beauty work practices that people perform. We begin with an examination of the cultural context in which beauty work occurs, including the individual, social, and institutional rewards accompanying physical attractiveness, and then review the practices themselves. Because these rewards and practices contribute in part to the reproduction of social relations and norms, we then turn to the gender dimensions of beauty work, along with its unique racial embodiment. Throughout, we raise the issue of individual agency in beauty work. Finally, we conclude with suggestions for future research.