A study conducted in China indicates that the physical attractiveness of a woman significantly increases her bargaining power within her household. Income, self-esteem, and interpersonal relationships were identified as possible channels through which physical attractiveness affects a woman’s power within her household. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Physical attractiveness or beauty is the degree to which individual’s physical characteristics are considered aesthetically pleasing. It is a combination of physical features that do not change much, such as facial features or body shape, and others that are changeable, such as grooming, dress, makeup, body posture, or facial expression.
Being attractive is of great importance to many people, particularly women. For example, female beauty and skin care products have a leading position in the total value of the online shopping market in China. Many people spend large amounts of money on plastic surgery trying to improve their physical attractiveness.
Physical attractiveness influences social evaluations of other people. Studies have shown that medical doctors have more positive evaluations of patients who are physically attractive. Physically attractive people are favored partners in dating. In the labor market, studies show that attractive job seekers are more likely to be interviewed and hired by companies. Studies have also shown that people tend to assign a lot of positive characteristics to attractive people, a stereotype known as “what is good is beautiful”.
The author of this study wanted to explore the effects that a woman’s beauty has on her bargaining power inside her household. The idea behind the study is that the beauty of women, seen by the author as one of their most important social assets, can be expected to improve their bargaining power inside the household. This could be achieved through higher income, self-esteem, or better interpersonal relationships.
The researcher analyzed data from the China Family Panel Studies, a biennial national survey conducted by the Institute of Social Science at Beijing University in collaboration with the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center. The dataset used in this study contained answers of 6,728 participants that they provided in 2010 and 2012.
Bargaining power of the wife within the household was assessed by questions “Who is the decision maker of major family affairs including household expenditure allocation, household investment and savings, house purchase and construction, high-priced consumer goods?” and “Who is in charge of household finance?”
At the end of the assessments, the interviewers gave their own assessments of the appearance of the respondent using a rating scale ranging from very unattractive to very attractive. This was used as an measure of physical beauty. The study author also examined assessments of income of the respondent (in Chinese Yuan), self-esteem (the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale Survey) and interpersonal relationships (“How is the interpersonal relationship between you and others?”)
Results showed than only 15.68% of the surveyed women made major family decisions. “In line with the reality of Chinese society, husbands are responsible for major family affairs, while wives play the role of supporting their husbands,” the study author explained. Husbands were also, on average, more educated than their wives. Women reported better interpersonal relationships.
When attractiveness was taken into account, results showed that as women’s physical attractiveness scores increase, so does the proportion of wives who are decision-makers in the family.
In the group of women whose attractiveness was rated with 1 (very unattractive), there were no family decision-makers. This percentage was 21.27% in the group of women whose attractiveness was rated as 7 by the interviewers. Similarly, in the group where women’s attractiveness was rated as 1, 82.35% of husbands were sole family decision-makers. This percentage was 58.73% in the group where women’s attractiveness was rated as 7.
Further analyses showed that women who received higher ratings on attractiveness also had higher income, better relationships, and higher self-esteem. These were also associated with her intra-household bargaining power, leading the author to propose that these might be channels through which physical attractiveness translates to better bargaining power.
The study sheds light on the role physical beauty plays in social relations. However, it should be noted that data all come from a single time point and additional study is required to verify whether the same relations would be observed at some other time. All the participants were Chinese, so the results might reflect specificities of the Chinese culture at the time of the study and might not be the same on people from other cultures.
Additionally, it was based on self-reports and it is possible that participants reported family relations in line with adopted social norms, but that the reality of family decision-making is different. It is also possible that interviewers saw wealthier women and those with more self-esteem as more beautiful.
The study, “Physical attractiveness and women’s intra-household bargaining power”, was authored by Zhongwu Li from the Zhejiang University of Technology in Hangzhou, China.