The “Beauty Penalty” in Academia

Kevin Bertolin, the 7th hottest college instructor, according to that oh-so-reliable social barometer, Bertolin, who looks more crunchy than crusty to me, may be smiling in this photo but is he crying on the inside due to academia's "beauty penalty"?

About a year ago, I wrote a post called, “Mind over Malls, or Does Academia Hate Fashion?”. There’s a lot I would revise about this blog post – it’s been more than a year since I wrote it, after all! – but it seems that the central point of the post is still relevant: “[D]espite the breadth of fashion scholarship and the emergence of academic fashion and style blogs, I’m not so sure that academia has reformed its surly attitude towards the sartorial arts.”

According to a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, “Sexy profs suffer career setbacks.” Some interesting quotes from the article follow:

Professors who are considered too good-looking can be cast by their peers as lightweights, known less for their productivity than for their pulchritude.


It’s almost better to be a little crusty-looking so people will trust you and give you more respect.

I don’t doubt – as I note in the earlier blog post – that these attitudes exist and persist. But my problem with these kinds of articles and the studies on which they’re based is how such attention to the curse of beauty (or the “beauty penalty,” as its described in the article) occludes fat phobia and of course the dimensions of race, age, and class that frame socially constructed definitions of “beauty”. The article does mention that the effects of the beauty curse are different for women and men, though.

Ultimately, the takeaway message here seems to be a cautionary one that leaves intact uncritical ideas about the disciplinary and institutional role of corporeal aesthetic evaluations.

Still, with regard to the above photo: Duuuude . . .



Filed under ON BEAUTY

7 responses to “The “Beauty Penalty” in Academia

  1. Did you see the Chronicle of Higher Ed article “Professors: Hot at Their Own Risk” a couple of weeks ago?

  2. Perhaps this comment is better left on your post “Mind over Malls, or Does Academia Hate Fashion,” but I wanted to call your attention to a pretty groundbreaking article (at the time) that Valerie Steele wrote for Lingua France in 1991, nearly 20 years ago called “The F-Word”. In it, she talks about academics who eschew anything remotely fashionable since it seems frivolous in an academic environment.

  3. Reading the comments on the article in the Chronicle has made me all the more glad that I use a moniker. It really doesn’t take me any longer than it does most of my peers to get dressed in the morning. I suppose it does take me a bit of time to reflect on what I wore and my professartorial choices, but I doubt it takes up more time than the hobbies of my colleagues. Yet, a lot of the comments made me realize that a lot of disciplines are still fashion-phobic and any interest in clothing can make you look like a lightweight even if you’re published, actively engaged in research and teaching, and serving on committees.

    That said, I would have liked a more in-depth exploration of issues of race, gender, socio-economic background of both students and hawt profs.

  4. TZ

    This reminds me of the Hamermesh and Parker study, which was a variation on this theme. See:

    Too bad the “hot” professors are suffering career setbacks, considering students are more likely to listen intently to their lectures and thus, we presume, yield greater learning productivity.

    The question that intrigues me the most is, of course, the question unanswered. According to the Hamermesh study, students at were more likely to give positive reviews on teaching quality to good-looking male professors, but this trend did not transfer over to good-looking female professors. Hmm.

    Great post! I always enjoy reading your blog!

  5. Agreed; the perception of steretypical beauty is also more likely to get those professors hired. It’s also rather frustrating to see the world of Academia taking sites like “Rate My Professor” seriously…since when is chatter something to be given attention? Most find fashion frivolous (which they had to put on their backs to be decent), but find the time to read and care about ranks on Ratemyprofessor???