Wednesday, May 1, 2019

How does appearance affect our success? (Reposted from

Hi Everyone,
UNR asked me to participate in their "Ask The Professor" series, asking me to explain how appearance impacts our success. The original is posted HERE, and I've also included the text below!

Social science research shows that a person’s physical appearance has a meaningful impact on their life experiences and opportunities, but the story is more complicated than people might expect.

For the most part, attractive people enjoy a lot of perks. For example, a psychological concept called “the halo effect” that has strong ties to beauty; upon a first impression, highly attractive people are presumed by others to have a variety of positive personality traits, such as altruism, stability, and intelligence, compared to less attractive people, as though an invisible “halo” were shining down upon the beautiful. This helps to explain rampant appearance discrimination in the workplace, dating market, and even in our court system. In his book Beauty Pays, economist David Hamermesh shows that attractive people are more likely to be employed, are paid higher wages, are more likely to be approved for a loan, negotiate loans with better terms, and have better looking and higher-status spouses. Attractive criminals even receive lighter sentences for their crimes (and occasionally their mugshots go viral and they end up with fan-clubs and modeling contracts – Google “Hot Convict” for that story!).
The research I described above paints a picture in which beauty predicts having a good life, but the story is more complicated that. In fact, I strongly caution anyone from investing too heavily in their own appearance. There are two reasons I say this. The first is a critique of the research and its implications, and the second is a more holistic way of understanding “success.”

Okay, so what does this research really mean for individuals?

Most of the research on appearance and inequality relies on highly subjective ratings of beauty. In most cases, a research team ranks photographic images of people on a 1-5 scale, with 1 = strikingly unattractive or homely, 2 = below average appearance for age and sex, 3 = average appearance for age and sex, 4 = above average appearance for age and sex, and 5 = strikingly handsome or beautiful.
It may not be surprising to learn that the greatest differences in life experiences are found when comparing the “1s” to the “5s.” However, differences in life experiences between, say, a “3” and a “4” (one level of difference) or even between a “1” and a “3” (two levels of difference) were generally miniscule. In statistical terms, they were frequently “insignificant,” suggesting that even if a person were able to improve their appearance, they would have to change from being “exceptionally unattractive” to “strikingly beautiful” in order to experience meaningful benefits along the lines I described above. This is simply impossible, even with modern day technology. As David Hamermesh explained “While looks can be altered by clothing, cosmetics, and other short-term investments, the effects of these improvements are minor. Even plastic surgery doesn’t make a huge difference.” In other words, spending excessive amounts of time or money, or putting oneself through miserable weight-loss diets and/or painful or risky medical procedures is NOT a logical investment of one’s resources, time or health. Also, in one of the largest studies of this kind – with 2,774 participants – over 95% of people were rated as 2s, 3s, or 4s, so at the end of the day we’re all pretty much average, and I, personally, find some comfort in that.

What do we really mean by “success”?

My argument that people should not invest too much into their appearance because there won’t be much payoff may leave some people feeling quite discouraged about their ability to become more attractive and therefore more successful. It seems unfair. And yet…. this only matters if our definition of “success” is entangled with money and status. The good news (I think) is that, despite its other perks,BEAUTY IS NOT A STRONG PREDICTOR OF OVERALL HAPPINESS OR LIFE SATISFACTION. Gorgeous people are not happier than homely folks. Rather, decades of social-psychological research tells us that the single biggest predictor of human happiness in the quality of a person’s social relationships. In other words, if you want to be happier and more satisfied with your life, you should work on improving the health of your relationships, not the appearance of your body.

Wait - Does this mean that appearance discrimination doesn’t matter?

No. Absolutely not. In fact, my own research focuses on appearance discrimination in both the workplace and in cultural markets, such as the fashion industry. Happiness is more important than money, but income inequality and social stigma and bullying are both serious issues that need to be addressed. We need to change our culture at all levels to accept and celebrate bodily diversity, and our legal system needs to recognize appearance discrimination as an issue of civil rights. I tell my students to stop wasting their time and energy on the latest fad diet, and to instead channel those resources towards more reliable self-care projects and especially towards activism. In particular, I’m very critical of media messages that (1) tell us that our looks are the most important aspect of who we are (which simply isn’t true), and then (2) present images of beauty that are extremely photoshopped and therefore physiologically impossible to achieve in real life. These images and messages contribute to poor body image and eating disorders, and we need to hold advertisers and social media influencers accountable for the damage they cause.

Okay. Then does this mean that caring about beauty and fashion and makeup is always bad?

Absolutely not, again! I personally love playing around with fashion and makeup. As a feminist and sociologist of culture I value people’s enjoyment of creative self-expression and I recognize that indulging in beauty practices can be an element of self-care and pride for many people. Self-expression matters. Identity matters. Creativity matters. Pleasure matters. That said, for every person there is a point of diminishing returns on investing in appearance. I encourage people to thoughtfully find their point of diminishing returns, so they can more consciously decide how to spend their time and resources.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dear KJ: How I can I talk to my trainer about body-shaming comments?

Dear KJ: Are there any ways I can talk to my trainer at the gym who makes body-shaming comments? (Posted HERE first, w/ expert advice from Dr. David Hutson)

This is a really important issue that hasn’t received enough attention. How can gym cultures be more body positive, and how can personal trainers, in particular, promote healthy body image in their clients? Far too many gyms and trainers seem to think that the only reason people go to the gym is to lose weight or otherwise change the way their bodies look. A more body-positive approach would instead emphasize helping gym-goers set goals tied to health and well-being, regardless of weight-loss or changes in body shape or composition. 
Unfortunately, so much of our culture is obsessed with thinness that a lot of gyms and trainers similarly think that this is what clients want, or should want. But people truly can be healthy at every size. In fact, there’s a fantastic science-based movement called Heath at Every Size (HAES) that emphasizes the fact that body size and shape are NOT the best predictors of health and well-being, and that each person has a unique body with its own needs for optimal health. More importantly, there is ample research that people who experience body-shaming have significantly worse health outcomes than those who do not. In other words, if a trainer takes part in body-shaming, they are not only being rude, but are also harming the long-term health of their clients.

But back to your specific question about how to talk to a trainer who has done this. I had a similar experience several years ago when my yoga instructor tried to motivate the class by telling us to “think of how many calories you’re burning right now!” I was really upset when I heard this. Then, instead of focusing on my movements and breathing, I spent the rest of the yoga class stressing about (1) whether I should say something and (2) what I should say. I worked up the courage to approach the instructor after class and said, “I really enjoyed your class, but I’m wondering if I could give you some feedback on something that bothered me today.”

The instructor seemed very open to this and said, “Of course!” I took a deep breath and said, “One of the things I love about yoga is that it makes me feel strong and connected to my body. I’m in recovery from an eating disorder and yoga has been healing for me. But it didn’t feel healing today when you talked about burning calories. Would you consider using different language going forward?” My heart was racing, but it went fine. The instructor seemed more embarrassed than me! She apologized, and said, “I don’t even know why I said that! I want yoga to be body-positive. Thank you for telling me.” And it never happened again.

You might try using similar language to speak with your trainer. Also, since I don’t have specific experience having this kind of conversation with a personal trainer, I forwarded your question to one of my colleagues, Dr. David Hutson, a Sociology professor at Penn State, Abington who has published research on gym culture and personal trainers. Here's what Dr. Hutson suggested:

Dr. David Hudson
“Talk to your trainer directly about the comments. The trainer-client relationship may often feel like a friendship but, it is ultimately a business relationship. Your trainer’s body shaming comments might work to motivate other clients, and that may be why they’re using them with you. However, you are the expert on what best motivates you during a workout, and a conversation with your trainer about this is completely reasonable. It may also be helpful for your trainer to realize that not all clients are motivated by the same language or tone of voice. The majority of trainers are both fitness experts and salespeople—they need to keep their clients happy and buying training packages, so they have an interest in providing you with the best service possible. If, however, your trainer doesn’t stop their body-shaming comments after a conversation, then it’s likely time to find a new trainer, as that is a relatively clear sign they don’t have your best interests at heart.”

I wish you luck in having this conversation with your trainer. That said, if your interactions with this trainer have left you feeling uncomfortable, you don’t have to speak with them at all. You might instead speak with the gym manager about working with a different trainer. It is NOT your responsibility to teach your trainer to be body positive. Your only responsibility is to yourself and your mental and physical health!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Analyzing the Aesthetic Labor of High Maintenance Hair

Blog post originally published HERE
A few months ago the website featured the essay "Why Women Who Want to Be Leaders Should Dye Their Hair Blonde, According to Science" as it's lead article. As a (blonde) sociologist studying how appearance shapes women's labor market opportunities I read the article with great interest. The research itself seems fascinating and important, but the coverage of it by writer @MindaZetlin is deeply concerning.

Zetlin over-extrapolates from the research findings presented by Dr. Jennifer Berdahl and Dr. Natalya Alonso, professors at the University of Columbia's Saunder School of Business, at the Academy of Management's annual meeting. Observing what seemed like an odd overabundance of blonde women in leadership positions, Berdahl and Alonso conducted a study with 100 men, to gauge their reactions to hair color. As summarized by Zetlin,

Asked to rate photos of blonde and brunette women on attractiveness, competence, and independence, the men thought all the women were equally attractive, but that the brunettes were more competent and independent. Then they were given photos of blonde and brunette women paired with a quote, such as "My staff knows who's boss" or "I don't want there to be any ambiguity about who's in charge." Suddenly there were big differences, with the brunettes coming in for harsh criticism, while the blondes were rated much higher on warmth and attractiveness. 
In a Huffington Post interview, Berdahl is quoted as saying "If the package is feminine, disarming, and childlike, you can get away with more assertive, independent, and masculine behavior." In other words, having blonde hair appears to help women more easily navigate the double-bind of being seen as either likable or competent. In my undergraduate Gender & Society course we discuss how overtly feminine appearance work – or “aesthetic labor,” when that work is tied to the labor market – might be understood as a form of “female apologetic,” a gender strategy commonly associated with female athletes who strategically embody traditional femininity as a way to symbolically make up for their participation in stereotypically masculine sports.

I can relate to this. My hair own is naturally blonde, and I've long had a gut sense that I get away with more in terms of non-conforming gender behaviors because of my conforming fair skin and light hair. Looking “girly” (a concept which, of course, is not just about gender presentation but also race, class, sexuality and age), can serve as a social buffer when behaving, well, manly.

Berdahl and Alonso's research suggests this gut sense isn’t completely in my (tow)head. I've had (usually female) students come up to me at the end of a course to share that they wouldn't have taken my class – much less feminism – seriously if I hadn’t been "cute" and "fun." I love hearing that my classes are fun and engaging, but I HATE being called "cute." Cute is for puppies, not professors.

Indeed, one downside to being "a blonde" is not being taken as seriously. I feel like I have to be consistently articulate and "sound smart" in my professional life to keep colleagues and students from seeing me as I'm dumb or shallow. In fact, during my first semester of graduate school I darkened my hair to brown because I thought I would be taken more seriously. I’m not sure it helped. Maybe it did, but it came at the cost of feeling like myself.  These days I instead lighten my hair to a purplish platinum (and I always wear "statement" glasses) because I think it helps me look a little more edgy and LESS "cute." I feel like myself, but it took a lot of overanalyzing to get here.

Despite my annoyance with the "dumb blonde" stereotype, having straight blonde hair is a privilege that has helped me navigate many social and professional relationships more fluidly than other women, especially women of color. That said - I abhor Zetlin's suggestion that all ambitious women should lighten their hair. For one thing, the science supporting this contention is incomplete. Berdahl and Alonso's fascinating research has only examined men's perspectives on women's hair color. Given the gender diversity of today's workplaces - as well as evidence that women may make appearance-related attributions differently than men - it is a mistake to believe that only men's perspectives matter. Further, understandings of "good hair" are not merely determined along gender lines, but are matters of race, class, gender, age, and other intersecting privileges.

Image found here.
For example, after presenting at an ASA panel on "Embodied Labor & Intersectional Inequalities" last summer, fellow presenter UVA grad student Allister Pilar Plater, and I discussed the observation that some professional Black women maintain chemically “relaxed” hair while climbing the corporate ladder, but transition back to their natural hair texture once reaching positions with greater power. What meanings and consequences come with natural hair for those Black women who choose it, and how are those meanings and consequences shaped by class status? The term “nappy” has often held shameful racist and classist connotations, but today the term has been reclaimed and embraced by some black women, from bell hooks who wrote the children’s boofk Happy to Be Nappy to the trending hashtag #NappyAndHappy. But can poor Black women claim #nappyandhappy in the same way as more privileged Black women?  More intersectional research is needed before we can make confident claims about the multiple meanings and consequences of women's hair strategies (much less give proscriptive advice on what women should do).

The decision to "go blonde" or chemically “relax” hair incurs real risk alongside any potential upside. The expense, time commitment, and unknown risks of chemical exposure involved in high-maintenance hair color and/or texture might very well outweigh the social benefits any individual woman might hope to enjoy. Time, money and health are not minor sacrifices.

The upkeep of my own purplish platinum hair, for example, demands 2-3 hours of idle time every 6 weeks and costs more than my monthly gym membership. I justify it as an aspect of my "don't call me cute!" personal style, because time in the salon feels like self-care, and because it turns out that extremely damaged hair doesn't have to be washed as often as my natural hair texture (so I can make up for some of that time lost in the hair salon). I also believe – perhaps idealistically – that having purple-toned platinum hair is an expression of diversity rather than conformity (at least in the academy!), and that my visible non-conformity might have little consequence for me, while helping to make space for others. These are the things I consider in my most innocent personal calculations, but, of course, it is ultimately my class and race privilege that allow me to indulge in the considerable expense of "having fun with my hair" and "playing with color," while less privileged women – especially those whose natural hair color and texture are the opposite of mine – can neither afford such indulgences, nor are likely to find them quite so "fun" if they are pushed by the pressures of discrimination rather than pulled by the pleasures of aesthetic experimentation.

And here is where Zetlin is so wrong to say that, "women who want to be leaders should dye their hair blonde." Sure, there may be some sound personal "strategy" in doing so (alongside, of course, the risks), but viewing appearance discrimination as an individual problem that individual women should solve by changing their bodies is dangerously short-sighted. It's just one more  "patriarchal bargain" that privileges some women (usually those already privileged) while perpetuating a fundamentally unequal system. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

You Can Call Me ... PROFESSOR Gruys!

Hello Everyone and Happy New Year!

I have an exciting announcement to share: I've joined the Wolf Pack! As of January 1st, 2017 I've OFFICIALLY begun my new position as Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Yes, it's really happened! My graduate years (thanks UCLA!) and my post-doc years (thanks Stanford!) are behind me, and from this point forward you can call me ... PROFESSOR Gruys!

Over the next few weeks I'll be moving into my office at UNR and on January 24th I'll start teaching "Introduction to Sociology" and "Sociology of Gender." Next semester (Fall 2017) I'll teach a brand new graduate course on "Qualitative Research Methods." In this tough academic market I feel so blessed to have been hired to teach courses on topics I'm passionate about. And did I mention that my colleagues at UNR are some of the nicest (and smartest) folks I could have hoped to work with? Yes, indeed, life is good.

Come find me in my new OFFICE (not cubicle!) in Lincoln Hall.

So, yes, Michael and I have up and moved to Reno. It was hard to leave San Francisco, but we're close enough to visit when we want to, and we're enjoying settling into our new home here (twice as big as our SF place and half the price!).  The snowy winter weather is taking a little getting used to, but the ski slopes are helping with that adjustment.

As for the boring practical stuff, my new work email is, though you can still reach me at as well. My Stanford and UCLA email addresses, however, are no longer in service. If you want to snail mail anything to me (congratulatory chocolate bars, etc.), here's my work address:

Dr. Kjerstin Gruys
Department of Sociology
Mail Stop 300
University of Nevada, Reno
Reno, NV 89557

And with that, I've got to get back to writing the manuscript proposal for my next book (more details forthcoming). I am, after all, officially on the "tenure track" so there's no time to waste.  In the meantime.... Go Pack!!