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  • Kayla Hartman

Pretty Tired: Work-Leisure Preferences and Racialized Beauty

This 17th century English portrait may accidentally depict the Black and white beauty patch adorned subjects as equals.

The concept of physical beauty in the US is less about the aesthetic value one finds in another and more about how close a person is to whiteness. The climb for attaining physical beauty for women is far from a vain attempt at attention like how it's often assumed. For many, it's about survival. Not in the genetic sense, but in the economic one. We know that the education made accessible to you, the jobs you are selected for, how much you make, and ultimately the type of life you can afford to have is in some part determined by your race. But the nuances of the facial features, hair textures, skin tones and body types that are closer to whiteness– closer to “beauty”– create more stratification in the question of who gets what. How do non-white women take this into account– consciously or not– when trying to succeed financially?

We can examine this through the lens of preferences. The concept of the marginal rate of substitution in economics takes two different choices a person can make and reveals their preference between the two of them. How is one choice revealed to be preferred over another? Economists look at how much of one thing the person is willing to substitute for just one unit of the other. Say a person is willing to give up a large bag of popcorn for just one jump rope. As expected, they are not willing to give up multiple jump ropes for just one kernel of popcorn. We can say they have a preference for jump ropes over popcorn.

The amount of time people spend working translates to how much of anything produced in the economy they can buy (consume). The more they can consume, the less time they have off work since they must work to cover the cost of consumption assuming that everyone is working for the same wage. Under what circumstances is a woman willing to give up a lot of time away from work in order to consume her desired amount of beauty products and services? What categories of women are giving up more time away from work for this specific type of consumption relative to others?

In the US, white women have the highest wages over all minority groups with the exception of Asian-American women (of which there are ethnic differences in wage). Since white women typically have higher wages than women of other races, they generally have a higher preference for taking time off than non-white women do: they are willing to give up more consumption to gain more leisure. Consider that Black women tend to spend the most on hair care and Hispanic women tend to spend the most on makeup out of other racial groups. If their wages are generally lower but they spend more on beauty, the share of their income going towards beauty is likely higher than that of white women.

This means the work hours of non-white women are more likely to be dedicated to income spent on beauty consumption specifically. Meanwhile, white women are already primed to spend less hours at work and are less inclined to spend more time working to buy beauty products and services compared to everything else they buy. In this case, non-white women are taking less leisure time than white women in exchange for income spent on beauty– on top of already taking less time off because of their lower wages.

This difference is reminiscent of the idea of the “second shift”; the concept that the unequal share of housework and childcare between women and men causes women to work unpaid hours after coming home from their paid jobs. Here, patriarchal and colonialist ideals of beauty put non-white women in the position of being seen as less “beautiful” making them more inclined to consume more “beauty.”

and make it harder for them to attain higher incomes.

This is not to say that all spending on beauty by non-white women is explicitly trying to chase the white ideal. People create their ideals and beauty in more complex ways, but the strongest narrative in the US of the individual’s pursuit of “feeling beautiful” is one centered around conventional (read: white) attractiveness. We can’t ignore the many cosmetic looks created and sustained by racial minority groups without the intent of attaining the white physical beauty standards. This includes the long acrylic nails originating from Black communities that were commonly considered “unsanitary” and “unattractive” by most outside groups until relatively recently. A cost to consuming beauty that can’t be examined through preferences is the disparities in exposure to harmful ingredients between the products white and non-white women consume. Since the white ideal is straight hair and Afro-textured hair is often ruled “unprofessional,” Black women who decide to permanently straighten their hair use perms that contain chemicals that increase their risks of certain cancers.

If we return to the simplification of it using jump ropes and popcorn: for non-white women (relative to white women), they are more willing to give up hours of relaxation for just one kernel of beauty consumption. This leaves them as equally satisfied as white women who would choose to give up less relaxation for one kernel of beauty consumption. At the end of the day, non-white women aren’t working more for beauty because they “prefer” to. They’re doing it, to some degree, because attaining a certain level of “beauty” is providing a sense of wellbeing that is worth more than their time to relax.

Straying away from the beauty ideal as a non-white woman makes your abilities contentious among employers and teachers. Much of the contention goes unspoken, but is critical for how people with more power treat non-white women seeking an education and eventually a stable income– and ultimately decide the resources they can access. For them, it's not unfortunate to be seen as “ugly” –it’s dangerous. The American beauty ideal and structural barriers of the U.S fuse together to give non-white and white women different experiences when they sit in front of a mirror.


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