article

08.25.11

Women Should Flaunt It at Work

In her new book, ‘Erotic Capital,’ Catherine Hakim argues that women should use sex appeal to level the playing field at work. But erotic capital is not as simple as plastic surgery and charm school, says Jessica Bennett.

It’s not the kind of argument you’d expect from a self-described feminist, and particularly not one who’s made a career of studying the lasting inequities of women at work. Use your sexuality to get ahead? Sure, many women already do that—to a degree. But considering sex appeal the great stiletto that will shatter the corporate glass ceiling? It sounds more like a Paris Hilton self-help guide than a serious work of scholarly research.

But Catherine Hakim, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, is far from joking—her new book, Erotic Capital, a 295-page manifesta for why women should use sexual capital to level the playing field at work.

Hakim defines erotic capital as more than just sex: a combination of beauty, style, social skills, and charm that can be learned (or, shall we say, bought). If that means spending a fortune on brand-name clothes, so be it—because erotic capital is as important in today’s workplace, she says, as intelligence or skill. Dieting and exercise? That should be a given, because nobody wants to hire the overweight. Tanning, hair dye—even cosmetic surgery. Those are all necessary evils if you’re really driven to make it to the top, says Hakim. (Perfume and high heels also have been known to do the trick.)

“Anyone, even quite an ugly person, can be attractive if they just have the right kind of hairstyle, clothes, and present themselves to the best effect,” Hakim tells The Daily Beast. “This isn’t a frivolous spending of money. It has real benefits.” As a famous cosmetics creator once put it: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

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Hakim’s theory is precisely the kind of talk that, in 1968, sent women stripping themselves of bras and girdles, to protest the notion that women were “enslaved by ludicrous beauty standards.” But Hakim believes that times have changed—the qualifications and training we once valued at work already overshadowed by the social connections and beauty advantage that get many people in the door. Men have erotic capital too, she says—but women’s sex appeal has always been more prominent. She faults traditional feminists for dismissing its importance: erotic appeal is the one aspect of life, she writes, where women undoubtedly have an advantage over men. “Everybody should use all the assets they’ve got, and this is one asset that women have often been told is inappropriate to use,” she says. “I think women need to stop having a chip on their shoulder, or feel uncomfortable investing in erotic capital. Attractiveness and beauty has real value.”

Her views are controversial, to say the least—and we haven’t even gotten to her thoughts on lesbianism (a “defeatist” response to male domination); botox (she compares it to “keeping fit”); or the idea that we could someday outlaw discrimination based on looks (she’s against it). Yet despite seven chapters on the utilities of erotic capital—or her insistence, no matter the title, that such capital is about much “more than sexuality”—she won’t divulge how, or whether, she uses it herself.

How old is she? “I really don’t want to answer that,” she says.

Has she ever had plastic surgery to increase her own capital? “I don’t think that’s an appropriate question,” she responds.

There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.

In other words, perhaps she knows deep down: yes, women still lag behind in the corporate world. Sure, men may be more susceptible to the allure of a woman’s sexual capital. But erotic capital isn’t quite as simple as plastic surgery and charm school, nor is it as easy to employ as it apparently is to argue.

It’s one thing to make the case that women should use what they’ve got. But women already navigate a culture that holds them to an unattainable beauty ideal—one that eschews aging and advances only those who can afford the latest and greatest artificial products. Buying into the belief that we must keep up with that ever-changing archetype—investing in whatever product will get us there—is not only bonkers, it complicates the problem.

Indeed, attractive women get ahead at work—the beauty premium has been well-documented. But studies show that good-looking women also face a double-bind: punished for being too sexy, both resented by colleagues and viewed as less intelligent or vain. And let’s be honest: who wants to constantly have to wonder, Did I really deserve that raise/promotion/recognition, or did he just like the way my legs look in that skirt?

In the personal sphere, erotic capital has been widely accepted as a piece of currency—i.e., the attractive woman gets the rich guy. And it’s used by the millisecond in advertisements and on TV. Hakim’s argument that today’s uber-sexualized culture gives erotic capital more weight may even hold some truth. But does encouraging women to primp and doll—in the name of equal rights—really foster equality?

Hakim puts it this way: “I think the key point is that particularly in higher occupations, women stand out because they’re the minority. If you’re going to stand out, you might as well stand out and look attractive."

It’s certainly controversial enough to sell some books. But does she really believe it?